Dear Readers, our first-ever contest, sponsored by Pride of New York, has concluded and we do have a winner. But first let me say, this was one of the most difficult decisions we’ve made in a long time. We ended up sending the stories out to a select group of our more literate friends, and thankfully they did the choosing for us. Over the next few days we’ll post the three top stories, starting with the winning story by Michael Sweetman. He first sent us the 500-word limited story, the one we sent out for judging, but later contacted us with the longer version. It is so charming, we’re including it here:
How I Became a Butcher
Giving thought to my most memorable food moment, I can’t help thinking about the countless times I have been in the kitchen getting ready to make dinner and having my now five-year-old daughter ask if she can help. Where does the desire come from that makes a child want to learn how to cook? I think in my daughter’s case it comes from wanting to be next to me and be a part of what I am doing. On many occasions I have found myself getting items ready when I hear her run into the kitchen, asking me if she can help, pulling her “Dora chair” up to the counter and standing on it so she can reach the counter top to ask me, “What can I do?”. In most cases I will be cutting something up and she will put it in the pan or the bowl for me. I get a great feeling when she asks me, “How are you doing, Dad?” I love to watch her grind pepper onto a piece of meat and pour kosher salt into the palm of her hand and make her best effort to sprinkle it on the meat in her best “daddy” impression.
It’s at these times that I think back to my younger years in New York when I had to make my own breakfast or dinner because my Mom was at work. I always found cooking to be a time when I did things for myself. I remember a time when I was about twelve years old, and I was at a friend’s meat shop watching him make sausage, thinking to myself, “Wow! I want to do that.” So I asked and asked if he’d let me until one day my dream came true.
Now I’m not sure if anyone knows this, but when you’re making sausage for a co-op in midtown Manhattan it takes a massive amount of pork. In this case it was the almighty pork butt. So I was going to get to be a part of this great sausage-making moment and, like every new guy, I had to “make my bones” by prepping the pork butts.
Here I was, twelve years old, maybe a hundred pounds, a big kid with a boning knife in one hand, wearing a butcher apron and standing at the block ready to make sausage. It was cold, but I tried not to let on that I was freezing. I turned around and sitting there on a wooden pallet was a four-foot by four-foot gaylord filled to the top with pork butts, three thousand pounds, to be more exact. The butcher shop foreman came up to me and pulled a pork butt out, slammed it down on the block and, in one swoop, boned the thing out, cut out the gland, sliced it in half and threw it into a hopper. Me being a kid, I asked, “How many do I have to do?” He smiled at me and said, “All of them. When you’re done with that, then I will teach you how to make sausage.”
Now, it was a Saturday morning and I was thinking, “Man, this is crazy! What have I gotten myself into?” But I started in on it anyway and it took me, like, five minutes to bone out one pork butt and I was thinking that was good. The foreman came over about twenty minutes later to check on me and I had only gotten about six butts done.
At that moment I thought for sure he was going to get mad at me and throw me out of the place. I was wrong. He went over to the wall, pulled a knife from the holder and scooted me over a bit and got next to me. He pulled two pork butts from the massive container, put one in front of me and one in front of him and at that moment I became a butcher.
He stood with me, held my hand, walked me through the best way to hold the knife, showed me how to start and cut around the bone and, within a matter of ten minutes, it took me thirty-five seconds to cut out the bone, remove the gland and get it to the next stage.
I came back the next morning to learn the rest of the process. It took him and me the whole day to get through the three thousand pounds of pork. I remember the feeling of satisfaction I got from him showing me how to chop and season the pork, how to get the casing ready to stuff the sausage, how to link and package it. The same feeling I’m sure my daughter gets when we present our hard work to Mommy at the table. Just hearing her tell her mom what she did, what Daddy taught her, going through what she did and how she did it, and telling her mom she’s Daddy’s little chef – it’s these times that I am so grateful to have my family, to know that I am a hero to one little girl who has the passion and the willingness to step up to the counter and learn, the same way I stepped up to the butcher block, to learn.
Chef & Artisan Butcher