Faces from the Past
My introduction to New York's meat district was ten years ago when I filmed a video on butchering starring Jack Ubaldi, the founder of the Florence Meat Market.
At that time, West 14th Street was the center of the universe for meat wholesalers. Walk past the thick plastic flaps at the entrance of any establishment and you were hit with a blast of chilled air and a faint sweet-and-sour undercurrent, not unpleasant but always a reminder of the trade. Forequarters and hindquarters hung on giant hooks gliding on overhead rails, moving into line, waiting for the butchers with narrow, well-honed knives held like daggers. The floor was concrete and almost frozen with a slick layer of water, fat, and bits of meat. On this stage, the butchers moved about with a determined but casual rhythm. The faces of those men were more developed than those you see uptown-- expressive features set hard by time and experience.
I recently returned to 14th Street. Today, the wholesalers are mostly gone, replaced by the same monotonous crates of Kry-O-Vac cuts that you see all over the East Coast, boxed and shipped directly from Omaha. The Eastern Meat Market, one of the few survivors, is still breaking down kosher meat with a small crew. The shell of the loin with the chine bone is now "175"-- a numerical designation that has taken the place of the local vernacular. Say goodbye to club steaks, Newport steaks, Franken, deckel. They will be forgotten over time, just as we can no longer name the different types of horse-drawn carriages-- cabriolets, coupes, phaetons, and surreys.
Our small town in Vermont is also changing. When I walk our property, I find stone walls and cellar holes way up in the woods, put there by nineteenth-century sheep farmers. At the height of the town's population, we had seven schools, two stores, three churches, two sawmills, and an assortment of factories making clothespins, oyster barrels, brush backs, and cheese, plus a gristmill, a flaxmill, and two blacksmith shops. Today, none of these buildings are standing except the Methodist church (we outlasted the Congregationalists) and the number two schoolhouse, which is no longer in use. The population has dropped from 1,187 in 1810 to about 250 full-time residents today.
But I miss the faces most of all. It is said that you can't do anything about the face you're born with, but you make the face you die with. Today, faces are homogenized and soft, the highlights removed. But back in the 1950's there were still faces that looked like coarse woodcuts-- open, expressive faces, some aggressive, others impish, some sly, and others severe. I will never forget the face of old Fred Woodcock, with his empty stare and drooping handlebar mustache, and the shifty, squinty-eyed look of Herbie the hired hand, who showed up in the summers for haying. He died two years ago up in Rutland-- found frozen in the cab of a parked semi.
Each year we lose a bit of our culinary past as well. Who knows the difference between a buckle and a grunt, a fool and a pandowdy, a crisp and a cobbler? If you'd walked across this country a hundred years ago, you probably wouldn't have eaten the same biscuit twice. Some would be beaten, some made with cream, some with butter, and others with buttermilk. Today you can walk into any fancy eatery from San Diego to Maine and get the same plate of grilled swordfish or the same repertoire of fresh pastas. We have come a long way from the ersatz food of the 1960's, but it seems that cooking is no longer a grassroots movement born of necessity. It's a top-down cuisine, invented by food writers, chefs, and restaurateurs, marketed by food magazines and cooking shows.
Last summer I was teaching our six-year-old daughter to ride a bike. After endless unsuccessful outings, she hopped on one last time and took off unexpectedly down the dirt road, hair lifted by the wind, face ablaze with anticipation, quickly rounding the corner by our neighbor's horse barn. For a moment I stood frozen, realizing that something had ended. Part of her childhood was now over, her face already much changed from the early snapshots in the family album. I told myself that it isn't her childhood that needs to be preserved, it's the joyful intimacy that should remain in all things from parents to kids, from cooks to food, from butchers to their trade. I silently wished her Godspeed and good fortune and slowly walked down the road, eyes stinging with tears, hoping I would hear her call out my name one last time as she rode away.