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About Bill McCann

Bill in Paris
Fight it we must, but quite often in life, our jobs have a way of defining who we are. I say that we should fight this generalization, because we are all more that just our professions, but our ability to do meaningful work is such an vital part of the time we spend here on this planet that we must acknowledge its importance in some significant way. This is what I aim to do here.

My family was a large one by today’s standards, with five girls and two boys. The boys were bookends with seventeen years between them, and I was the youngest. My parents were a mix of second and third generation Irish. My dad was a true American boy through and through; whereas my mom was only missing the brogue to distinguish herself from her Irish cousins. Education was seen as the salvation for the lot of us, and it seemed to work for everyone in the family but the two youngest. My sister closest to me in age was gifted in all sorts of ways (she is a natural linguist for one), but she hated school almost as much as me, but with her gift with languages, she managed to muddle through school and become a pretty great High School Spanish teacher. As for myself: I just couldn’t stand anything about school, and couldn’t wait to get away from it. The rest of the brood had a good deal more success with academics and were predictably pretty successful with their professional careers.

My first year out of high school included enough college to constitute full time status, but physical work was what I craved. I had a job in a small cabinet shop, doing production type work, and I was as happy as a pig in a sty with that. When I was working with a power plane, a shaper, table saw, or chop saw; I was focused and pretty happy. For the first time in my life, I was getting honest praise for something that I was doing. In college, I struggled just like I had always done in school, but soon salvation came in the form of a high draft lottery number, and I could stop kidding myself about college and start a real life.

With one dilemma out of the way, I set about the job of being a grownup at twenty-two years of age. I didn’t like school for myself, but I had great respect for people who managed to master that part of life, so I did something really strange, in retrospect. I married someone who was great at school, with the idea that all a good marriage requires is marrying someone who can make up for what you feel that you lack in your own abilities. The plan that I had in mind was that I would continue to work, and my wife would go to school and we could be a half educated couple. As shaky as that plan was; it sort of worked.

At this time jobs were pretty scarce, but I was not choosy when it came to work. I went to work for a large casino hotel complex in Lake Tahoe as a pot washer in the kitchen. I washed pots because I instinctively knew that, if I did that job well, the chef would notice, and I could advance further into the kitchen. The plan worked, and soon I was working in the kitchen that was filled with European trained line cooks and real chefs. My job was to work at the menial stuff and learn what I could. Rich stuff for me. One night when we were running a special involving thin slices of veal for some Continental recipe; we ran out of the key ingredient, and I went down to the basement butcher shop to help the assistant chef in this endeavor.

Grand CanyonHotel kitchens as this time often had pretty complete butcher shops somewhere on their premises. I was vaguely familiar with this butcher operation, but I worked the swing shift, and the butchers weren’t around for much of my shift, as they went home at two or three in the afternoon. Into this dark basement shop I went with a tall imposing German chef. We turned on the lights and there were the knives, cleavers, hand meat saws, grinders, band saw, and meat rails leading into the walk-in. At this point I was already smitten, but it got better. The chef marched into the walk-in and rolled out a hind quarter of veal. He proceeded to saw off the short loin portion, and then deftly went on to remove the bones from the leg and began to make beautiful thin slices of real honest milk fed veal. He then showed me in his ornery old country way, how to platter out these beautiful slices for the cooks upstairs to work their magic on. There you go!

Today we have a slew of great young chefs out there. The food that they produce is much better than what came out of that hotel kitchen all those years ago. Today’s emphasis on fresh local ingredients, along with the influence from cultures coming from all points of the globe, and you can’t help but see that food has a good chance at being pretty great. The rich buttery sauces and emphasis on meat as a centerpiece seems out of place in today’s kitchens, but you can’t discount the skills of those old world chefs. When you went to culinary school in Switzerland you started at the bottom and didn’t finish school until you had learned all that was needed to make a restaurant work as it should. In retrospect, those guys were skilled in ways that should really make us wonder what this speeded up world has brought us to. There you have a bit of an overview of what it means to take a trade or occupation seriously enough to bring some real excellence to it.

From the hotel in Tahoe, I moved with my wife to a small college town in Oregon. My wife started back to school and I went to work for a meat processing facility. The place where I worked was a start to finish sort of place. They bought local livestock, did the slaughter, and the processing all the way from steaks and roasts, to hot dogs and other sausage products. I loved the learning experience, but I longed to work again with someone of the caliber of that German chef, and you just didn’t find people like that in a small town in 1970’s Oregon. After four years and the birth of my son, I was ready for a change and we left for California.lamb chops

Back in California the meat business was going thought some big changes. These changes really amounted to a downward spiral, but I was oblivious to it. When you are so close to something, whether it be a job you like, a painting on a wall, or even a relationship with someone; you just can’t see clearly what is going on there. Boxed beef was starting to come into the stores, the small slaughter facilities were becoming less competitive, and the smart guys in the meat business were starting to leave for other carriers.

My hard headed nature just wouldn’t accept these changes going on around me. I had a forty hour a week job in a retail store, but my energy level and interest in the trade pushed me to find work on my days off. The retail grocery store where I worked mainly dealt in boxed beef, and I longed for more experience with real hanging beef, so, on my days off I usually found some work with a wholesale shop. A lot of the older butchers were pretty proficient in what they did, but I was still looking for that someone who really knew the stuff that I wanted to learn. I soon had an answer to my request.

There was an ad placed in the local newspaper that asked for a journeyman jobbing house butcher, and although I really wasn’t sure what it might mean; I applied. What the job title referred to was a butcher who had a skill set as varied as the German chef that I had once worked with. The butcher who ran the shop was that kind of guy. The butcher that had worked with him had recently retired, and for the previous six months they had been looking for a replacement to no avail. They had tried out quite a few people, but the head butcher was unimpressed with all of them. Here I am at the heart of the story.

The man that I refer to as the head butcher was one Tom Merritt and in my mind he was someone from another time who had a grasp of the trade that was just awesome to me. He was a big powerful looking guy who seemed to be built to do just what he was doing. His knife work was just mesmerizing. I watched him work for a bit on beef chuck, and the knife just seemed to flow around the bones as he removed them in one big piece. He didn’t remove the bones and then clean the red meat off of them. There was no meat left on them. They were white when he finished. If you were a dog, you would starve to death trying to get a meal out of a whole barrel of bones from Tom Merritt’s table.

I had my bit of an interview, and they told me to come back in on my next day off and give the job a try. The work that they did at that shop was all familiar to me, but never had I worked with someone of Tom’s caliber, and I didn’t have high hopes for permanent employment, but I agreed to give it my best.

Tom had read my job application (they weren’t called resumes in those days), and assumed that with my varied experience in the meat world, I would be right up there with him. He didn’t say it, but I could tell at the end of the first day working with him, that he was more than a little disappointed with what my five years in the meat business had brought to the table. My only saving grace is that I could read the orders that were written by the sales staff, and get them wrapped and ready for the driver to load on the truck, without any serious mistakes. The other young butcher that was being tried out for the job just ran circles around me with his knife skills. This just added to my humiliation. I wanted so much to please this guy with my abilities and he thought I was some kind of “school boy”, who could read the lesson well, but couldn’t deliver with the real work.

Toward the end of my second morning working there I noticed that although he was frustrated with my shortcomings; Tom was even more bothered by the poor young guy that I was competing with. I can’t remember the guy’s name, but I distinctly remember him staring at the order sheet, and trying to decipher what it meant, while Tom glared at him with unmasked rage. I think that that was the first time in my twenty-seven years of living that I was conscious of any scholastic ability of mine offering any kind of payback. I got the job and the other young guy left the place red faced and teary eyed. Tom had that effect on people. Getting let go by Tom was not a sugar coated experience. Unless you were brain dead; you knew that you had come up very short in the expectations of someone who commanded a lot of respect. The experience might remind you of one of those current TV shows that feature a group of young cooks trying to impress a mean bastard celebrity chef. The big difference was that, with Tom, the experience was totally authentic. That red faced chef on TV looks like he is mad, but you know in your heart that he is not going to kick your ass, with Tom that thought was a real possibility.

Sunny DayWhen I showed up on the scene, Tom was fifty years old in an incredibly physical occupation. Fifty is kind of a magical age in the world of physical labor. By that time, if you have paid attention, you really do know your business and in some ways, you are at the top of your mark. The downside to being fifty is that it is also the time in life when your body really starts to betray you as never before. I am not talking about the aches and pains from strenuous work, but that some things that you could do without even considering their possible effects on your health, are now just nonstarters. Tom did his very best to deny that this was going on with him, but you couldn’t help but see the strain in his eyes. Coupled with this reality, was a new one. The business that we worked for, that had been family owned for sixty years, and always with a union contract in place, was now owned by a couple of young business types with dollar signs in their eyes, who had no interest in keeping it a union shop.

Tom grudgingly helped the new owners get going, but we could both could see the handwriting on the wall. When the new owner brought in some non-union help from one of their other shops for some training with Tom, you could see that the final straw had landed. Tom was not only good with a knife; he was also great with those third grade math skills that are so necessary for finding your way to profitability in any business. We all knew within a few hundred dollars what the shop was doing every week and we also knew what the rough labor costs were, as there were only six of us working in the shop including the salesman (who was one of the former owners). From this bit of info, Tom always had a figure in his head of what the labor costs actually were, and from the salesman we also had a rough idea what the non-union shop, owned by the same by the same two guys who we now worked for, was doing in terms of gross receipts and labor costs.

Under Tom’s leadership, we ran a tight ship with a very low labor cost. The non-union shop was another story. With minimum wage help, they still ran a couple of percentage points higher in terms of labor costs in relation to gross profits. I had no real love for the union, but the ambiguity of the new owners hatred of the union was a bit much for any of us to tolerate.

This beautiful butcher shop that seemed to be an answer to my prayers for meaningful work became a place of torment for the lot of us. Tom got to be harder to work with, but I still saw a chance that if I could just work a bit more with him, I might finally make it up to his standards. Tom lasted another eight months or so and when he did leave, he finally paid me a compliment. I managed to hang in there for another year, and stepped out into a work environment that had spiraled down a little further. Later in my career, I found out that I was not the only one who valued Tom’s teaching: years later, whenever a head butcher position opened, pretty much anywhere in the Bay Area, I would get a call asking about my availability. I will always be grateful to having had the opportunity to learn the finer aspects of the trade from Tom.

It was 1980, and the retail meat business was suddenly dominated by stores that dealt solely in boxed beef. I couldn’t work wholesale anymore, as the jobs were now just about all non-union and low pay. With the introduction of boxed beef in the stores, there was now way less help needed in the meat departments, so work was scarce. Tom had landed in this environment a year before me, and due to his age and temperament, was less suited to the changes than I was. In one of the stores where he worked, he was actually written up by a manager for not adequately filling the self service deli section before he went home at the end of his shift. In his mind, there was no way that someone with his skills should be putting plastic packages of bologna on pegs in a deli section of a store. He soon quit before they had a chance to fire him.

lamb chopsAfter these events; I kind of lost track of Tom. I worked in retail stores as a meat cutter (butcher was just too scary a word for the corporations, and a euphemism was needed), while more changes were going on in the grocery business. We were undergoing a big transition in the food industry in this country at this time (late 70’s and early 80’s), and most of the transition centered on making food cheaper for everyone. This might have been a noble cause, if it was just about giving folks access to good clean and fair food, but it really wasn’t; it was about profits for large corporations more than anything else Through the fifties and sixties, the grocery clerks and butchers who worked in the grocery stores made good middle class wages, and that concept just didn’t jibe with the needs of these corporate owned grocery stores.

There was something about a grocery clerk making enough money to own a home, buy a new car every three years, take paid vacations, and have retirement, medical and dental care included in their wage package, that was just seen as an evil by the corporations that were just then beginning to dominate the grocery business, and the food business in general. The march to cheap groceries, and big profits for corporations was in full swing.
This sounds like a pretty bleak assessment of things, but there were some valid reasons why the corporate world was moving in the direction that it did. Throughout the 1950’s and 60’s, we did have a real middle class that involved just about all of the tradesmen in this country. The good that this did for the economy of our country was hard to deny, but it was far from black and white. The unions, particularly in the cities, were very strong, and business people had some reason to complain. Apprenticeships were getting to be a real problem for business. In the butcher trade, the apprentices starting wages were within two dollars an hour of a journeyman.

Other trades had similar constraints in place. What this meant to a business was that you couldn’t put a green apprentice next to someone like Tom, and expect to get a return on the wages that you were paying out, because the journeyman was going to be doing three times the work for almost the same money. Like a lot of things in life that look one way; with a closer look, you can see that a lot of forces are at play. In the world of business there were some folks who had an unreasonable bone to pick with the unions, just as there were union members who saw no possibility of agreement with business, and both of these groups were wrong.

Today we are starting to reap the harvest of some of this short sighted thinking from the 1950’s and 60’s. The way things work in this country is that we tend to try to solve our problems by swinging as far as we can away from something that we see as not working that we create a whole new set of problems. This seems to be where we are with the trades in this country at this time. By the time I got involved in the trade that I earn my living from, people of Tom Merritt’s caliber were pretty scarce. Looking around at other trades, you could see a similar pattern. Carpenters were called journeymen when they didn’t really understand a framing square. Plumbers were often called journeymen when they only understood plastic pipe. Masons understood perfect squares of cinderblock, but couldn’t work with rock or marble. There were older tradesmen out there who understood what it meant to really be a craftsman, but in the hurry to get things done, and with the investment involved in training an apprentice, most of these guys retired without passing on but a small fraction of what they knew.

If you take a look at how the food system works in this country, you can see plenty of flaws in the way things are grown, processed and delivered. I don’t think that we can fix those flaws by turning back the clock, and bring back the system that we had in 1960, but you can look around for some of the things that did work, and selectively use them to create something better. We can’t do any of this overnight, but with the help of some smart young folks, we can make some of these things better.

I think this is where I come in with my little You Tube video project. I am sixty-two years old and I regret to say that I really haven’t ever done for anyone what Tom Merritt did for me. Over the years of working in retail grocery stores, I have taught a number of younger guys a few tricks of the trade, such as: how to keep a knife sharp, or tie a roast, but I was always limited by time constraints and the nature of the streamlined products that I was dealing with. With a little luck, and the patience of my fans out there; I hope that I can do the next generation a bit of a favor, and pass on a little of what I know. My trade is kind of a natural for presenting in a video format. It is not rocket science. I resist the urge to call it an artisan trade. It is a sort of a coarse trade, but a necessary one, and with these videos; I intend to pass some of it on to whoever is interested.

lamb chops