Yesterday’s Butchers Today

Part of coming to Portugal and visiting my grandparents means taking them to a supermarket. With my help they can pick up all the supplies they need to last them a month or more, that way they don’t have to ask help from friends or neighbors.

Living in a tiny town in what I like to call the middle of nowhere, we tend to go to the nearby bigger town to frequent their supermarkets. In the last decade the amount of supermarkets has mushroomed from 1 to as many as 4 or 5.

As I push the cart down the aisles, and my grandparents struggle to take a good look at the type of meats behind the meat counter, I  take a few minutes to watch the people behind the counter.

Sharpening his blade, I watch a gentleman who must be in his late 60’s, joking with one of the other employees behind the meat counter. His white coat full of blood stains, I noticed the ease and skill with which he does his work. It became clear that this man had been a butcher for most of his adult life. Yet the supermarket has only been there for 6 or 7 years, so where was he a butcher before?

My mind continued to wander, 7 years ago… hell.. 14 years ago.. he was probably a butcher in a local butcher shop, now long since closed down. As I glanced at the back of the store, I watched the fish lady tending to customers ordering fish. Here again was someone who knew her job well, and before the days of the supermarket, had surely done her job in a local fish market, many of which have been scaled down or simply closed.

Both the fish lady and the meat man seemed to be doing ok on the job, here at the big supermarket. I could speculate that their wage is probably pretty small and the amount of rules and regulations they’re subject to, would have to be greater. But the question that kept coming back to be is this: Are they better off? Are we better off as a community and a society, with this brave new world where our local shops and specialties are replaced. From the wages to the working conditions to the human connection of feeling like your job is valued and valuing your work, is this new way sustainable?

As we collected our things and made our way out of the shop, I took one more look at the butcher. He was explaining to a younger kid how to properly chop some kind of meat. I wondered about what his job used to be like… the changes he’s seen.. the life he leads.