Working In Butcher Shops, Self Indulgence About My College Summer Jobs
“Just show up on Thursday… you’re going to show up right?” The first (almost) real job I’ve ever had started with that sentence. Right at the end of my first year at university, green, fresh-faced, and doe-eyed staring at a matronly Portuguese woman behind a meat counter in Kensington Market. Walking into that shop was the best decision I’ve ever made.
I applied for the Ontario Public Service student jobs that summer. Awful, awful application. I wrote about how being accepted to my ‘intensive’ first-year program was a major accomplishment (HA!). So when they never got back to me, and really why would they?, I was left a little bit adrift. Of course this wasn’t a crisis like my current, graduating, “oh dear god what am I supposed to do with my life” moment. Still, at the time, summer loomed, I was moving back to the old suburban wasteland and I had nothing to occupy myself with.
The only half-interesting line on my resume was a six-week stint in a countryside French kitchen where I mostly peeled potatoes, prepped salads, and got in peoples’ way. Too scared to work a kitchen job, I still felt I should put my food-geekery to good use. So, one morning in early May I went down to Kensington with a good friend and dropped off resumes. A few shops in, feeling a little dejected, I walked into Kensington Meats.
The only thing I really knew about this shop was the price of their Beef Shank ($2.49/lbs) and the pig heads and goat balls (yes balls) they kept in the window. The owner, a sweet-sounding woman named Liz, gave me a big smile as I walked in the door. I took out a resume and her smile dropped, snapping “I’ve been waiting for you.” Apparently I’d spoken to her about work a few months back. I, all of 18 and full to the brim with social anxiety, quaked in my boots, made about a dozen apologies, and humbly asked if she had a job. “Just show up on Thursday” was the answer.
I showed up on Thursday, walked down to the basement and got handed a white coat. Liz, all of 5’2” could move quick and easy down in that basement. I had to bend my neck half over and my ear was still scraping the roof. She introduced me to a big, tanned man with Mutton Chops who she just referred to as Elvis. I found out later his name was Manuel, and Liz’s boyfriend. She showed me the sink and the power switches and brought me back upstairs. I don’t remember much of the rest of that week. Needless to say, I struggled with some pretty basic tasks. On Saturday evening, just as we were closing up, Liz handed me a little envelope with my pay in cash and a plastic bag containing a pack of bacon, four sausages, and three steaks. My friends and I ate very well that night.
Summer adopted a rhythm. I commuted down from the suburbs to Kensington, worked about 15 hours over three days (business was slow) and brought gargantuan bags of meat up to my friends’ apartment. I got my first taste of Kensington. I got to know old school 70-something Jamaicans like my friend Kenny and downright crazy gossips like…um…let’s call her Catherine. I learned how to chat about life and chat about meat with the motley crew of characters who bought their proteins from Liz, and I learned to swear in Portugese.
I saw the market change too. European meats had closed and much of its clientele didn’t bother to come down anymore. Liz, who traded on low prices and unheard-of offal cuts, lost much of her customer base. Still she was bright and peppy every day. She plied me with Jamaican and Chinese food, and she taught me some basic butchery. At the end of the day I would be bloodstained, sore-footed, and happy as a pig in mud. Sadly though, summers end and I returned to school. I worked a few more shifts for Liz but business kept drying up and eventually she couldn’t even afford to keep me around.
That could have been the end of it. I might have washed my hands of this weird meat world and gotten a real job. But I’ve always been a little strange. When I got back from a long trip after second year I went to work at the polar opposite of Kensington Meats: the meat department at Mark McEwan’s uptown, upscale grocery store “McEwan.” Suddenly I was selling meat to Toronto’s absurdly rich. Stockbrokers would bet people’s life savings while I wrapped up their chicken breasts and baby back ribs. Middle-aged white mothers came to the counter complaining that their kids “only ever ate tenderloin.”
I had fun there. I was working for a big, old-school Calabrian dude named Frank who was equal parts sweetheart and hardass. I learned to cut a little more and sell a lot more but most importantly I learned to shut the fuck up with my pretentious college shit. Liz had become almost my second mother, she would humour my rants about Hungarian history or EU politics. Frank, and the rest of the guys at McEwan, wouldn’t. God help me if they had.
My next meat job was at Rowefarms. All I’ll say is that no job has ever made me hate a boneless, skinless chicken breast as much.
Then, somehow, I ended up back in Kensington working for the big guy: Sanagan’s Meat Locker. I was out front, they didn’t trust me to pick up a knife. But I’ve never worked with a better crew. Like every other food job I’ve worked it was a bunch of weirdos. Kids who never quite fit in, punks, hipsters, nerds, and the occasional downright madman. I saw people in the throes of their careers doing so much, day in and day out, to learn a little more and get ahead. I got a glimpse into Toronto’s food scene and realized that really, all the tatted-up chefs being profiled in Toronto Life are just geeky kids who found a home in food.
I loved my time at U of T. But if I spent too long there, especially in the circle of academic self-congratulation at Vic, I would’ve lost touch. If Liz hadn’t told me to show up on Thursday I don’t know who I’d be today. My friends call me a butcher shop whore for all the places I’ve worked. But every summer I got a second education, wrist-deep in blood and fat, watching the world from behind a meat counter.