Bill McCann wrote to me out of the blue. The very first email he sent ran to two pages and started with the words “Way back in the day (1971), I was working as what was then called a cooks’ runner.”
It went on to tell this story: one night, during the younger Bill’s term rushing ingredients around a hotel kitchen for a battalion of short-tempered French, Swiss, and German cooks, the kitchen ran out of veal scallops. (It’s an outmoded cut, but used be central in Continental cooking.) The whole place went ballistic until a thick, German assistant to the chef grabbed Bill by the elbow and wrangled him down to the basement butchery room. There, the assistant lifted a veal hindquarter from its rail, and “deftly boned, seamed, and sliced it into beautiful thin scallops,” which Bill scrambled to platter as neatly as the man had butchered them.
From that day on, Bill wrote, he’d wanted to be a butcher. Even as the meat business changed at lightning speed, with hotels and restaurants shutting down their in-house butchery programs, then small butcher shops closing, replaced by packing plants in the Midwest, then the variety of cuts home cooks wanted dwindling to just a few (steaks, ground beef, short ribs) of the dozens that Bill had learned to carve, he hung on.
He worked in wholesale plants until they went non-union and wages dropped to below what he could live on. He went to work in retail, but eventually couldn’t handle being the guy whose responsibility it was to supervise workers taking meat out of plastic bags and arranging it on trays for other people to put in more plastic bags and take home for supper.
Finally, thirteen years ago, he opened his own small shop in Le Grand, CA, where he processes mostly beef and lamb for the people who raised them, or people who bought them alive from people who raised them. He doesn’t sell meat from retail counter, and he doesn’t slaughter. He sells the service of butchering meat.
Bill wrote to me that first night to offer his assistance for a meat CSA I’d been directing for a couple of months. He’d heard about it through a local farmer and wanted to get involved. He apologized for the length of the email, admitted that it probably broke some cardinal rule of electronic correspondence, and then signed off.
I live about two and a half hours northwest of Bill’s shop, and most of the meat I bought for my CSA came from counties even further north, so it never made sense for me to send it all the way to him. Eventually, the CSA was able to hand a lot of its business over to local ranchers who used my model to form their own CSAs, and mine went virtual, becoming a social networking platform where people meet each other online and then cooperate in real life to buy and divide whole animals among themselves.
But Bill went on writing me periodically, starting his emails with sentences like, “We are having some glorious wet weather down this way. The foothills outside of town are white almost to their base,” and “Sometimes life is just so damn much fun.” I usually received them late at night. Bill would let me know how his daughter was doing, and whether his spirits had been up or down, and then tell me a little story about what he’d been working on in his shop.
A lot of the emails were mournful, Bill segueing from observations about the weather to lamentations that he’d never get a chance to pass on everything he’d learned. Over the course of our nearly two years of correspondence, I came to see Bill as an exemplary casualty of our isolating food system. He was proud of his work and felt rejected by a world that didn’t need it.