The little bell on the glass door jingled and I became breathless with anticipation. He looked up just for a second and then turned back, took a large knife off the rack, and started slicing into the beef tenderloin
“Lady, how much you want?” he asked the woman standing in front of him. Her ruby red lips pursed as she held up her thumb and forefinger with three inches between them.
“Here?” He held the knife two inches in and the woman started to scream.
“THIS much!!!” she said, slapping her palm on the counter and shaking her measurement fingers at him again.
He smirked, cut accordingly, tore off a piece of thick, shiny paper, and wrapped the beef tightly. I could watch him tear butcher paper all day.
“Thank you ma’m. Next! Number 68.”
I walked down the display counter, sliding my finger along the cold glass. So many cuts, so many choices. What would it be today? Prime Rib? Oxtail? Duck Breasts? I feel no limitations exist for my fantasies within these walls.
I sauntered over to the machine in the corner and pushed ever so hard on the button. My little yellow ticket said number 74. The waiting is the hardest part, but wait I must.
He left the counter to grab something from the walk-in fridge and another butcher appeared. I know this one too. I know them all. He looked up and smiled “How are you today, ma’am?”
I blushed and replied, “Oh, you’re both here. I’m, um, just here to pick up a few things.”
“More pork?” he was mocking me now, but I know he loves this game as much as I do. They all do. There was the one in California, the one in Italy, so many here in the city.
“I’m here for something big and juicy.”
An angry balding man pushed in front of me, waving number 69. “Well, you’ll have to wait your fucking turn, lady. I’m next. Gimme two pounds of ground chuck. And gimme some chicken thighs too!”
The second butcher winked and I felt a rush of warmth surge through my body.
The appeal of a butcher for me goes far beyond any physical attraction. Frankly, the butchers I’ve known haven’t been exactly handsome per se. They’ve all had that certain something though, that thing that drives me wild. Is it their strong, rough fingers that instinctively know where the chicken leg bone will easily snap away from the hip socket? Maybe. Is it the way they firmly glide their knife across the steel to make it sharper than I ever can? Maybe. Is it that they make order and beauty out of a job that is so Neolithic and gruesome, few of us could do it for an hour, let alone a lifetime? Most definitely. They guide me and teach me. They’re playfully patronizing in a way that I would never tolerate from anyone else, let alone enjoy. But I do. I love it. Because they’re always right. I battle every day to be recognized as a shrewd, discerning chef and business owner, but I walk into a butcher shop and instantly become the softest, simplest vessel, eager to learn whatever they will teach me. I respect them, and they respect me. It’s the same with every butcher I’ve ever met. It’s the easiest relationship I’ve ever had.
“That’s me!” I uncontrollably jumped up and down for a second, like a little girl waiting at the ice cream counter.
“Yes, missy.” The first butcher had returned. “What are you cooking today?”
“I made some homemade tortillas and pico de gallo this morning. I need a good piece of beef to rub and then grill. I don’t want a thin steak though. No flank or skirt. Something with a nice marble that will stay juicy. Any suggestions?”
“You got my mouth watering, ma’am. I think the best way to go is the boneless rib eye.”
“The Delmonico?” I grinned ear to ear, remembering the name of the cut he had sold me a few weeks prior.
“That’s right.” He looked me right in the eye. “You remembered. Best piece of meat in the building.”
They say that about every cut.
He took the platter of steaks from the cold shelf on display. I pointed to the one I wanted and he whisked it off to wrap and tag.
“Here you go, missy.” And then he whispered, “You let me know how it turns out.” He smiled as if he and I shared a secret we would never tell. A special love… for a special cut of beef.
He turned to click the red digital counter forward. “All right! Who’s next? Number 76!”
I danced all the way home.
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon Mexican oregano
1 teaspoon coriander
1 tablespoon chili powder (That’s CHILI powder, not CHILE powder. Chili powder is a combination of spices used in making chili. Chile powder is straight ground chiles. Please be careful here. If you used a tablespoon of pure chile powder in your rub you would learn to hate me very quickly!)
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
2 teaspoons oil
Mix together in bowl
2 boneless rib eye steaks, approximately 1 pound each
1 teaspoon oil
1 red pepper, sliced thinly
1 yellow pepper, sliced thinly
1/2 red onion, sliced thinly
salt and pepper, to taste
Rub steaks vigorously with spice mix and let sit for at least an hour. Bring to room temperature before cooking.
Heat grill pan or large sauté pan for a few minutes, add oil and let it get hot without smoking. Put the steaks in the pan and grill for approximately 4 minutes each side for medium rare. Take steaks off grill and let sit before cutting. Do not take pan off heat.
Put the peppers, onions and salt and pepper to taste to the pan and sauté occasionally for 12-15 minutes, or until they are soft and caramelized.
Slice the steaks across the grain and serve on flour tortillas with sautéed vegetables and suggested accompaniments below (or whatever floats your fajita boat). And always, always be kind to your butcher.
Pico de gallo or other salsa
Monterey Jack cheese, grated
Alison Wonderland Tucker is a chef and caterer who lives and works in New York City. She writes about her love of food and life as a chef on her blog A Wonderland of Words.