On the Lamb

The Easter scene at an Arthur Avenue butcher shop

Outside the Arthur Avenue butcher shop, Biancardi's Meats, a man stopped the other day to point out dead animals to the three adorable children he was with. "Look—a bunny!" But they weren't sufficiently grossed out, so he moved down to the far side of the display, where two severed lamb heads rested in a plastic tray, eyeballs bulging, teeth clenched. That did the trick. A round of "ew" put an evil grin on his face and the group moved on.

Throughout the day, similar sounds of juvenile horror would occasionally drift into the shop—after forty meatless days of Lent, Easter is a luxuriously gory time. Sal Biancardi, the fourth generation butcher who runs the shop, estimated that by Sunday, his business will have gone through 4-500 hundred baby lambs and about 300 goats. He buys them from farms in Upstate New York, Vermont, and other rural spots around the East Coast. The animals are hung, spread eagle, by hooks through the legs to be split. The prep work is done by a lower order of butchers, who dwell in the back, driving huge blades down the centers of the cadavers to produce two perfect halves—an anatomical cross section that can include half a head or none at all. The butchers retrieve the meat all day, carrying the lambs and goat over their shoulders like giant stiff babies to replenish the window display.

Sal has big eyes and a bigger smile and wears his hair parted and combed like a schoolboy on picture day. All the butchers sport white coats with their first names embroidered on the chest in red script—Alfredo, Tony, Frank, John—but Sal's is scrawled with hundreds of thin lines, from pushing his ball point pen into the pocket while fielding orders, answering the phone, or weighing calf's livers. The large space is frenetic during the holidays, but not chaotic. Against a background of village chatter, a whirring electric saw, a constantly ringing phone, the thumping of cleavers between ribs, and the pounding of veal cutlets, the butchers move with alarming grace, working their knives with surgical precision to free the bone from a lamb leg and trim fat without sacrificing any flesh.

Can your best friend do this?
photo: Nina Lalli
Can your best friend do this?

Customers tend to leave the shop smiling, lugging shopping bags with the Biancardi motto: "Your Butcher is Still Your Best Friend." Did you know he was supposed to be your best friend? Is there even a man in your life who deserves to be called your butcher? Your butcher is probably whoever is on duty at Whole Foods' meat counter, or worse, has been replaced by a case from which you pull pre-cut meat wrapped in plastic. Your best friend has practically been annihilated.

If you had a butcher like Sal, he might greet you saying things like "Signora! I've been waiting for you all week!" Sal keeps this up all day long, even after his eyes begin to droop a little between smiles. He'll even hoist himself up over the counter to kiss your cheeks. He'll tell you whether your daughter has been in yet, and more importantly, he'll discuss your meat with you. Whether you're a master chef or a bumbling amateur, a real butcher can not only break down animal carcasses to pristine steaks, he can instruct you on how to not ruin a gorgeous piece of lamb. It's something he just can't bear to think about.

 
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