When most of us buy meat, we peruse the prepackaged meat department at our local, major grocery store.
When we want to make brisket, we purchase the large slab of beef. But it doesn't occur to us to ask the people working behind the counter to trim it up.
They will. They'd be happy to, Danny Hatfield says. He's been running the meat department at the Northgate Kroger in Durham for 17 years.
"They've got a service that they just don't quite understand," he says of his customers. When he started, folks were more inclined to ask for his services but not so much recently. "They're in a hurry," he says.
Trimming is just one service about every meat department offers free of charge. Even if the meat has been wrapped in cellophane and labeled, workers are happy to cut, fillet, debone, trim or butterfly, and then neatly repackage the meat and slap the price tag back on.
Major grocery store chains are pushing their meat departments to be better informed to keep customers from heading over to supercenters like Costco, or to more intimate vendors such as Trader Joe's. Mainstream grocers want the meat cutters to be able to talk about the cooking process, and they are aiming for higher quantities of fresh meat.
It might not be like chatting with the neighborhood butcher, who a generation ago also knew your children's names and what cut you like to buy for Sunday dinner, but it's a step toward that dynamic.
Advice on cooking
Hatfield, who left coal mining to work for Kroger nearly 20 years ago, is a meat cutter -- not a butcher. Historically, butchers dealt with the whole animal from the start, selecting the animals from the market and conducting the slaughter themselves. The meat cutter deals in only part of the process but is highly specialized.
At most meat departments, even in niche markets, customers deal with meat cutters. But that doesn't mean you can't ask them how to cook meat you're unfamiliar with, or worse yet, bored with.
"A lot of the problems with meat is that it's overcooked," Hatfield said. He often suggests that customers try dry rubs or marinades, or that they try slow-cooking tougher cuts of meat to optimize the meat's potential.
There do exist some meat markets where all the meat is fresh (most meat found in major grocery stores has been frozen to endure long trucking routes) and customers know they can ask the guy behind the counter to trim or cut their meat of choice.
King's Red & White has been in Durham so long the current meat cutter, Sam Hicks, and his wife, Virginia, could not put an exact age on the place. Cyd Copeland, a frequent shopper, says she's been going there since she got married some 50 years ago.
"What brings me back?" she says when asked. "The chicken."
The quality simply wins out, even though she buys many other items in larger grocery stores. "Just about everyone I know comes here for their steaks," she says.
The Hickses have been working there 15 years, and in that time they've gotten to know quite a few regulars.
They are constantly asked for "favors" by way of cutting, trimming or traying (taking a large cut of meat and creating smaller packages of precut portions, ideal for freezing.) To them, it's normal to have someone hand them a package of hog jowl and ask them to slice it.
Lessie Turrentine did just that one recent afternoon -- she planned to fry the thinly sliced hog jowl with no extra seasoning or batter. She can get it at other stores, but it's fresher at King's.
It's commonplace to stock items like hog jowl, split pig feet, smoked ham hocks, neck bones and country ham -- items one would be hard pressed to find in many mainstream meat departments.
"A lot of people ask how to cook stuff," says Virginia Hicks. She does a lot of the work on meats they sell already prepared. Depending on the day, stuffed pork chops and peppers, kebabs ready for the grill and seasoned fillets are ready to purchase.
Elsewhere in the small grocery store, one can find just about every over-the-counter meat marinade, sauce or seasoning: Think eight-pound jugs of Dillard's Hot Stuff and Sauer's au jus mix.
Hicks was 16 when he started cutting meat, he said, and he has seen a general decline in the number of people buying fresh.
"Everybody's going to prepackaged meat," he lamented. Prices at King's are competitive, but customers take the convenience of all-in-one shopping into consideration when going for frozen meat (the only frozen meats in King's are the oxtails and livers.) You get what you pay for, he reminds, and is hopeful that the move toward local, fresh produce will also swing folks back to local, fresh meat. All the meat in King's is from within a few hours' drive.
Cooks looking for an adventure might try a local ethnic market. Not all carry meat products, but those that do often offer good prices and exotic items like honeycomb beef tripe (intestines) and tongue.
Those are regular goods found in the carnicería at La Superior, a Mexican market in Durham. The chicken feet are great for stock, the chicken fillets are already thinly sliced for the perfect Milanese, and the pork skins are already fried.
The store is owned by Eleazar Flores, who also owns Super Taquería down the street. He prides himself on keeping prices low and never freezing any meat.
His niece, Jacqueline Flores, grew up in the store and says the butchers in the back receive the meat in the morning, and by that afternoon it's out front where the meat cutters can prep it further.
They see non-Latinos in the store -- mainly Africans, she said. Few whites venture into the meat section, but they need not be afraid.
The basic difference between U.S. and Mexican butchering is that in Mexico the meat is cut thinner, she said. Depending on who's working, some of the guys behind the counter can help with recipes. Some speak English. Either way, asking is worth the effort when a customer can walk out with freshly breaded chicken fillets ready for the pan.
In many ways, going to a specialty meat store can be just as practical as buying the prepackaged, frozen goods. Asking your local meat cutter to trim or fillet your steaks or roasts is ultimately more sanitary (and safer - not all of us are samurais) than doing so in your kitchen where meat juices can be hard to contain and dull knives can make handling meat treacherous. Also, it can be cheaper to buy a large cut of meat and have the person behind the counter chop that whole chicken into eight parts, or that pork loin into fillets.
It never hurts to ask.