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Monday, 1 July 2013

The dangers of working in a traditional butcher's shop

I was doing an interview in London today with a lady called Katie from the Tesco 'Real Food' magazine and I happened to mention the time, many years ago, when I nearly had my arm chopped off by a rogue band saw back in the days when I worked as a traditional butcher. Such is the adventurous and somewhat perilous life of working in the butchery trade. Prepare to feel faint as a dark vein of humour awaits the unwary in the passages that follow.

The band saw incident came about when I was working for a butchery firm called Edward Ryde and Son in the Cornmarket, Derby. I never trusted the accursed machine in the first place and the fast spinning and shark teeth beast had a reputation of breaking free from its housings at top speed and then shuddering to a violent halt after a terrifying bang and snapping sound of the circular band of jagged steel thrashing around in the close proximity of one's arm or hands or face. One false move and one's juggling days were over. Thankfully my years of Kung Fu training and lightening reflexes meant that my body parts weren't savaged on the dreadful day it decided to kick off with me at the helm. Well that's my story. However, the smell of scorched bone marrow has haunted me ever since!

That's not all folks. One fine day, at the same shop. I narrowly missed being squished by a speeding bus as I pulled out the shop window blind. This involved tugging on a pole with a hook attached to the blind and bouncing backward into the open road in order to secure the blind and thus protect the meat display from the ravages of the midday sun. Alas on this particular day the hook came maladroitly away from the pole and I landed on my scrawny backside in the middle of a busy road junction complete with oncoming traffic. Fortunately the alert bus driver spotted me lying abjectly in the road before reducing me to a screaming tyre print mess in a blood soaked butcher’s coat. Gingerly, I got up, waddled precariously back to the safety of the chewing gum patterned pavement, through the shop entrance, up a flight of stairs and got on with the day's work! Two days later the whole blind got violently smashed from the front of the shop by an errant bus and the window pane undulated as in a mild earthquake but thankfully, failed to shatter. Talk about a drama. The whole of the shocked serving staff hit the deck and a red ring of polony died amongst the temporarily fallen.

Another time, I myself, fell down a full flight of, just mopped, stairs with a full to bursting aluminium bowl of pig's liver in my hands. The liver went skywards and I clattered down the steps in a more earthbound direction. That week I was also playing Puck in Derby Shakespeare's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream and doing less than impressive acrobatics on stage. A poorly limp and a forward roll was all I was up to. The combination of the back jarring accident and the minor acrobatics meant that I was off work for thirteen weeks with a crippling bout of sciatica. Guess who neglected to fill in the accident book? Oui, moi.

Then there were the accidental and often brutal cuts that most butchers give themselves: a deep stab into the thumb from boning a leg of pork and slipping; various nicks on the hands and painful intrusions down one's nails. Let's not forget the purple bruising and callouses that don't want to heal at Christmas time from constantly stringing up the various joints with coarse butcher's string that on each tug dig into the hand even more. Who can neglect to consider the trick of stabbing oneself with the threader, a large sewing needle type tool for threading butcher's string through joints of meat to make the joint compact and pretty or to string up a chicken? What a surprise when it comes through the other side of – your hand. Oh how you giggle as you attempt to find the empty first aid box.

Also, there is always the possibility of dropping a knife or cleaver down onto your foot. Woe betide you if you are foolishly wearing sandals, trainers or tennis shoes to work as I often did in my 'foolish Philip' years circa 1971 -1988.

Butchers shops need to be scrubbed clean in all manner of places to prevent germs and flies laying their eggs in the summer. Nobody wants maggots in a butcher's shop unless they are into fishing. Then, as fishermen say, “sanitary neglect can be an unexpected boon”. The wooden block would be scrubbed with a block brush; a viscous implement that could easily tip over during the scrubbing motion and lacerate the fingers with its hard metal bristles. Believe me that hurts for weeks afterwards. How much? Like a stinging reprimand but much more direct and involves bandages. Plenty of bandages and deep sobbing in the middle of the night.

Just standing relatively still and bent forward for long periods of time at a butcher's block preparing the various cuts of meat for the shop window could lead to a bad back problem especially if the back door of the shop was open and a nice cold wind was blowing through.

Should you wish, you could also scold yourself badly with sloshing buckets of boiling water or slip on a wet shop floor and hurt yourself in various degrees, pride included. Not interested? Perhaps you'd prefer to simply get acutely incised (cut thee self) quite gravely by being daft enough to recklessly plunge your vulnerable hands into a sink full of soapy bubbles, hot water and cunningly hidden knives.

                                          old fashioned hand cranked bacon slicing machine

I had a manager once who accidentally sliced himself very deeply on his hand whilst cleaning the 14” incredibly sharp circular blade of a bacon slicing machine. Luckily I was there to laugh mockingly – and eventually phone for an ambulance. For me. He was an ex-boxer.

'Breaking down' is a term butchers use to describe taking an animal carcass apart and creating joints or chops and steaks. To 'break down' a whole English lamb we used to cut through the leg end of the lamb through the spine, insert a metal spike for chopping guidance, and spread the legs apart to attach to two hooks within a door frame and then carefully and delicately use a large, long handled. cleaver to chop downwards through the back of the animal to create two sides. This involved a swinging motion with the large cleaver and should the butcher not stand with his own legs apart the cleaver could easily find its way into the butcher's thigh or leg. I can hear the sound of an ambulance as I type. And screaming. Blood curling screaming.

                                                     roller blades in the meat tenderiser

There are many more tales of gore from yesteryears but I finish today with my favourite. This was the steak tenderiser, a machine that had no point but many sharp edges. It was electronically powered and had two roller blades that were supposed to finely cut the steak that was fed through the letterbox top of the machine. Most of the time it would chew up the poor innocent piece of frying steak worse than a man with no teeth. Invariably the expectant customer got given a piece of mush that was once a decent steak. And the danger in this? The danger would come from trying to clean the blades and make them free of mangled beef. Here we are talking of sixty or more sharp blades each keen to dig into delicate fingers. And they did!

                                                  a modern mincing machine in pieces

And then there were the ultra sharp blades on the mincer, the multiple needle points on the bacon machine that grip the bacon joints and just love lacerating unsuspecting knuckles; saw blades that jump up from the meat and into your hands; the life threatening slips as boning knife connects with groin...

Perhaps that's enough for today.

                                                                Happy butchering!


PSFT said...

. . . from reading this I'm amazed you're still around!

As ever an excellent read - nice one Phil . . .

philip lowe said...

Yes Paul, I'm pretty surprised too!! Plus me falling off my bike a lot and having to carry around large parts of dead heifer and pig sides.

Thanks too for the compliment.

Phil x

Christopher Frost said...

You sound like the Frank Spencer of the meat world Phil. Sounds like you had more accidents than anyone I know. Hopefully you work in a safe environment now

Karen said...

I'd be hopeless in a butchers or fishmongers - I cut myself enough dealing with the little bits of meat we eat. I'm amazed good old Health & Safety haven't banned butchery completely. It's those machines which slice meat which make me feel queasy when watching an assistant use them. I imagine bits of thumbs falling onto the sliced ham etc.

philip lowe said...

Frank Spencer of the meat world! Love it Christopher. That's done it now I have the 'Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em' theme tune in my head.

philip lowe said...

Karen, lovely to see a comment from you again. When I worked as a traditional butcher I used to hate using the cooked meats slicing machine. Not really sure why now. Also Rydes introduced ham on the bone which sat precariously in a ceramic rest and the customers expected to get perfect hand cut slices. I was useless at it and got in quite a grumpy mood if any customer asked for ham on the bone. Silly really. x