Cleavers and Knives
“You have brains in your head
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself in any direction you choose.
You’re on your own
And you know what you know,
You’re the guy who’ll decide where to go.” — Dr. Seuss
I love a juicy cheeseburger, a tender filet mignon, ribs slathered in a tangy sauce, pork tenderloin, grilled chicken, and hot dogs served Chicago-style. But, I avoid giving any thought to how these tasty meats arrive on my plate. When I’m shopping at our local place, Casey’s Fine Foods, peering through the glass at the tantalizing selection of chops, bratwursts, and kabobs ready to toss on the grill, I don’t consider what’s going on behind those swinging doors to the back, where the meats are in their less-than-appealing state.
Butchering is not for the squeamish. My grandfather Jacob Wolf was the guy behind the door, wearing a blood-splattered apron and wielding knives and cleavers to turn an animal into a steak or a roast or a string of sausages. When he and his wife Lena and their daughter Elizabeth came to Chicago, he applied his skills as a farmer’s son to become a butcher, and eventually owned his own shop.
In Wolf’s Meat Market, nothing went to waste. When no one would buy chicken livers, Grandpa brought them home and Grandma fried them with onions for Sunday dinner. Even the chicken feet came home, tossed in a pot to make the broth for Grandma’s chicken soup.
Grandpa cut up lambs and calves into the roasts and chops that his customers would buy. He was skilled at skinning the calves that hung in the back of the store so he could sell the hides to tanners. Without a freezer in the store, meat had a short shelf life. Often, he’d bring home a piece and announce, “This meat needs a home,” and that would become that night’s dinner.
The shop had a long display case, a big pickle barrel, and a few shelves of canned goods. When Birdseye introduced frozen vegetables, Grandpa was one of the first merchants to carry them in a newly-installed freezer case. Meats were cut on the thick wooden butcher block, and every evening Grandpa used a steel brush to scrape the block clean. So, the floors were coated with sawdust, which also absorbed any drips.
Sometimes Grandma worked as the cashier, stationed in the “cage” near the front door. One day, while Grandma was in the cashier cage, a man came in the store and aimed a gun at Grandpa, ordering him into the back room. In the back was Cousin Joe, a recent immigrant who spoke only German. When the robber marched my grandfather through the stockroom door at gunpoint, Cousin Joe laughed. Surely this was some prank that Jacob had concocted. Joe played along and shook his boning knife at the guy with the gun. “It’s no joke, Joe!” Grandpa said. “He’s robbing us!” Joe dropped his knife, trembling in fear. The man escaped with the store’s cash, but fortunately no bullets were fired. Heaven only knows how he got past my grandmother, but the gun must have scared her into acquiescence. The robber might have been apprehended, because an alert customer was in the store when he entered and ran to the grocer next door to announce that was a robbery in progress in the butcher shop. Instead of calling the police, however, the grocer came out of his store to watch the drama unfold, and the thief was long gone before the police arrived.
Since this was a family business, my mother Mary and her siblings worked in the store when they could. One frigid winter’s day, my mother was in the cashier’s cage, trying to stay warm while she worked the register. Grandpa had given her an almost-floor-length butcher’s frock to wear, and a space heater puffed out some warmth. All at once, Mary felt her legs getting toasty. When she looked down, she realized that the frock she wore was in flames. “Daddy! Help!” she cried. Grandpa rushed from the back of the store and slapped out the flames on the white frock. Catastrophe avoided.
My mother was also responsible for delivering the day’s receipts to the Lakeview Bank, a trip that required a streetcar ride of a mile or two. Mary tried to act nonchalant, but clutched her purse holding the pouch filled with cash. Through the entire ride, she worried. What if she lost her purse? What if somebody snatched it? How could she explain the loss of two or three hundred dollars to her father? Mary hated this errand, but never lost a dime on the way.
Butchering wasn’t an easy business. During the Depression. Mary’s classmates sometimes told her, “You’re lucky! You don’t have to buy your food.” “Yes, we do,” she’d reply. “My father has to buy it.” And sometimes, he ended up buying more than he could sell. Meat was rationed during World War II, and Jacob had to adjust his stock and keep track of the ration stamps that people used in order to buy meat. Jacob was a smart businessman, in spite of his sixth grade education. Over the years, his family ate well and there was even enough money for a pretty city bungalow and a lake house in the country.
I only know what my grandfather looked like from seeing photographs, but it’s easy for me to imagine him, wearing his white butcher’s frock and a hearty grin, standing in the door of his own shop. I wonder if he was surprised at all he accomplished in his adopted homeland, or if this was what he intended to achieve all along.
FDR once said, “We have always held to the hope, the belief, the conviction that there is a better life, a better world, beyond the horizon.” FDR never met my grandfather, but I think Jacob Wolf is just the kind of man that had in mind when he spoke these words.