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A Prophet


teaching the trade

Back in the day, 1973, I was working at a small meat processing plant in a college town in Eastern Oregon.  These were the days before Slow Food, the writings of Michael Polan, or even  the Food Chanel on TV.  The place where I worked bought cattle, hogs, and sheep from farmers in the local area, and in turn sold meat to local stores, restaurants, schools, and other institutions within about a hundred mile radius of the plant.  In the grand picture of history, this was really not that long ago, and at that time a good part of our country purchased their meat from a similar supply chain.

One Friday afternoon, we had finished our work early, and I set to mucking out the pens where the day’s supply of hogs, sheep, and beef had spent their final hours.  The guy helping me with the chore was one Francis Phillips, a really likable sort, about forty-eight to fifty. Francis was a butcher, but he was a lot of other things as well, carpenter, truck driver, well-rounded cowboy with a voice like Jimmy Rogers; most importantly, he was a prophet.  The two of us worked side by side cleaning things up, and with plenty of time left we stopped to take a break.  It was a beautiful Spring afternoon, so we sat in the sun, smoked, and watched the cars and trucks go by on the interstate a few hundred yards away.  As we smoked and talked, a big truck with a Safeway Stores logo on its side came into view and passed us.  Francis glanced at the truck, shook his head, and looked at me and said: “Those bastards! In a few years most folks in this country won’t even know where their food comes from.”

I was a little puzzled by his statement, but it stuck with me. Many people working in the meat business had a low opinion of Safeway because by this time they had stopped using carcass beef in their stores and were instead relying on parts and pieces broken down at a large plant here in the Bay Area.  As butchers, most of us looked down on the Safeway model as an insult to our trade, but Francis saw the real long-term implications for the country as a whole.  Safeway wasn’t evil; it was just reacting to market forces and was a bit ahead of the other chain stores in this aspect.  Even then, it was difficult to find skilled butchers who could get things done in a timely enough manner to ensure that a profit could always be expected.  By taking the really heavy lifting and the more skilled knife work out of the butcher shop and placing them in a controlled industrial environment, some real efficiencies could be achieved.  What Safeway had started was really about. They wanted to create a foolproof system that would guarantee profits every time.  The system would be copied by at least two other grocery chains here in the Bay Area (Lucky Stores, and Alpha Beta), and then with the help of IBP (Iowa Beef Products) in the Midwest, go on to become the national model.

This search for efficiency was a natural model to aspire to in the production of food when management saw labor as a cost that might threaten profit.  With the disdain shown by management with this aspect of the cost of doing business, it is no wonder that workers themselves lost pride in their own work and signed on readily to the model of industrial efficiency.  That is the force of gravity that I speak of, and here I am, forty years later, experiencing a sort of grace that is lifting us up from the prophecy that my friend Francis warned me of.  This grace that I refer to is the local food movement that seems once again to have real legs in this country (and in my own working life at TLBS).

There you have it:  Gravity and Grace.  This new model that we are working on here in Berkeley and in other cities around the country is a work in progress.  It is certainly not the least expensive way of burying meat for your family or yourself, but it is really the most ethical and enriching way.  With the passage of time and a couple of moves away from Eastern Oregon, I lost contact with my friend Francis, but I know that he would approve of what is going on here, although he would also get a chuckle out of the fuss that some of us make about the food that we eat.  I am a butcher not a writer, but in the future, I would love to share some of the other bits of wisdom that Francis and at least one other butcher shared with me back in the day.  When you shop here at TLBS, you are supporting local ranchers and at that same time supporting a good bit of the tradition of people like Francis Phillips.  I doubt that we will ever get enough of the likes of that. 

Bill McCann

Berkeley, CA, April 2013