I enter the butcher shop before the Ninth Street market is fully awake. It’s at the corner of a tiny alley and the entrance, as are so many in old Philadelphia, is perpendicular to the corner. I push through the narrow double doors and step up into the white-tiled shop to find a bent-over Italian man in a white apron scrubbing a two-foot thick butcher block with a stiff brush. The block has been so long used that it is curved in the middle. He doesn’t look up.
I approach him with trepidation, armed only with a recipe from Julia Child I’ve never made before – veal scallops in a mushroom and wine sauce.
“A quarter pound of veal scallops, please,” I say.
“Scalopine” he mumbles to himself, shaking his head and not looking up.
I don’t speak Italian, but I think this is what I want, so I say, “Yes, a quarter pound.”
He turns and brings a blood-red slab of meat from behind the stainless steel door of the refrigerator, heaves it onto the concave block, turns again and comes back with the sharpest knife I have ever seen and begins to hone it on an ancient honing steel. Slowly, back and forth, back and forth, the blade shrieks against the steel, and I feel my right foot beginning to tap out my impatience on the wooden floor.
Finally, slowly, he begins to cut, almost paper thin slices, which he then – thick palm held against cut flesh – slices even thinner, not quite all the way through. After butterflying each one, he tosses it to his right (without looking) onto a piece of brown butcher paper resting on the scale. One by one, they mount up until finally he looks to see if he has enough. Just one more, and he’s got it.
I can’t believe how long this is taking — I have to get to work — and my breath is getting shorter as I wait for him to wrap them up, stiff fingers fumbling with the white string, and he finally hands them over, naming a price that I quickly pay. He still hasn’t looked me in the face, but as I turn to hurry back out the door with my scalopine in my shopping bag, his gruff voice follows me:
“Are you going to cook that stuff?”
© Sandra Shaw Homer, 2015