I was chatting with one of the guys at the meat and fish counter at our neighborhood supermarket while he was weighing out a pound of Dover sole for me. I asked him if he was more of a meat guy, or a fish guy.
“You have to be both,” he said. “The fish used to come in here whole. We’d gut it over there” — he pointed to the counter where they crack Dungeness crabs for you — “and fillet it. But yeah, I first worked for a butcher.”
“Working with meat must keep you physically fit,” I said. “Having to lift all that weight.”
“No, not really,” he said. “That enough?”
“One more,” I said.
He threw on one more fillet, and wrapped the fish up. “Nah, once you get it on the hook, the cuts just fall off as you work. We don’t get many whole animals in these days, though — but once in a while.” He handed me the package. “Anything else?”
I said no, and thanked him. There was another customer waiting. I moved away, glancing at the door of the cold room in the back, which must have meat hooks on the ceiling, and a band saw, and other butcher tools. I’m seen the butcher work with a knife, and it looks like he’s got good hand skills. I imagined him hauling a carcass up on meat hook, using his knife so that the cuts of meat fell off with little effort, and I couldn’t help but remember Cook Ting in the Chuang-tzu, who tells Lord Wen-hui how he cuts up an ox:
“…Whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I’m doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety, until — flop! the whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground. I stand there holding the knife and look all around me, completely satisfied and reluctant to move on, and then I wipe off the knife and put it away.” [Chuang-tzu, ch. 3, Burton Watson translation]
The difference between the two is that Cook Ting is very articulate and gets very mystical about butchering — “What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill…” — whereas our local butcher is plain-spoken and down-to-earth. I have to admit, I prefer our local butcher.