Feature: Paul Hale
Meat Cutter’s Kitchen. Why am I doing this? I’ve asked myself this question for weeks with my purpose becoming no clearer. I sit at my desk and stare into space any time I try to define my goals in this endeavor. The stray black bobtail cat that catches my eye through the window pulls my focus. The music from the other room steals my words and my train of thought. I guess, really, if I’m being honest, I know why I’m doing this, but I just absolutely cannot vocalize it for some reason. This isn’t just a task I’ve been given. I mean… sure, technically I was given this task. But, the more I think about it, the more I realize my heart is really in this. The profession itself is to be respected, no doubt, but my heart is in it for the individual folks that work in meat cutting. I think that’s really what it’s about for me. A meaningful connection. A raw interaction. Don’t tell me how you do what you do. Tell my why you do what you do. Don’t tell me what you’re best at. Tell me what incites the most passion in you. The rest of the story will fall together when we dive deep to the “meat and bones” (pun intended) of who you are.
I think it all just “clicked” for me when I sat down with meat cutter Paul Hale. Paul is a kind and pleasant looking fella. Actually, he resembles my dad in both looks and mannerisms, so I may have been biased before he even opened his mouth. He seemed a little unsure at first, but that’s okay… I was, too. I tend to be awkward anyway. And, honestly, I was ill prepared. I’m not well versed in the art of meat cutting. I wouldn’t even consider myself decently versed or even poorly versed. I’m just an ol’ gal that appreciates a craftsman (or woman) and believes whole heartedly that they should be recognized and truly appreciated for their trade and skill set.
All of that to say, I’m still a greenhorn at this, and I’m pretty sure that was obvious. Following my awkward introduction, I dive right in, “So, um… I guess, um… can you tell me how you… got started in meat cutting?” (Riveting question, eh? And, yes, there were a lot of “ums” and stumbling over words. And, yes, this is a part of my profession. #Fail)
The first sentence out of Paul’s mouth is to tell me that his uncle owned a butcher shop in Arizona when he was a kid. His second sentence, though, affirmed that I’m gonna like this guy. It’s not necessarily the words he spoke but the manner in which he spoke them that immediately softened up the situation for me. With a little shift in his seat, a twinkle in his crystal blue eyes, and a giggle (if men giggle?), he says, “I used to sit on the meat block and eat Twinkies and drink Hawaiian Punch.”
I can instantly tell this is a fond memory for him. No matter the direction your life takes, no matter your struggles or successes, we all have at least one of these memories that stir up a warmth in our hearts, right? I picture a little Paul – full of piss and vinegar – sitting on the meat block feet just a swingin’ watching his uncle work his magic. I don’t know if that’s how it really happened, but that’s what I’m going with. Y’all, Paul has spoken two sentences to me, and I’ve already created this elaborate scene in my head. But anyway… moving on.
Paul: I went to work at 13 shining bones.
Me: Wait. What does that mean? (Told y’all I’m a greenhorn.)
Paul: You know, getting all the meat off the bones. That was my job.
Me: Oh. (Vigorously writing down the definition of shining bones.)
And then? Then, I hear a good ol’ belly laugh. I look up from my notepad to find Paul with a mischievous grin on his face as another memory floods his mind. “I cut part of my thumb off, but I couldn’t go to the hospital and tell them how I did it because I was too young to be working. So, I told ’em I did it at home or something.” He thrusts his hand forward to show off his battle scars. I admire the remaining evidence of that wound (and possibly a few others).
“My uncle Doug taught my mom how to cut meat, and she taught me and my brother. In high school, I’d fill the meat case then go to school. Back then, they’d deliver a whole half of beef. That’s where I got my full understanding of carcass work. Now, it’s just a production. Each person makes one cut along the line. It’s dangerous work. They’re taken advantage of, you know?”
I can tell his mood has shifted a little, but he doesn’t allow himself to linger there long.
He laughs and continues, “Safeway came in and shut down all the other stores. But not my uncle’s. And, my brother went to work cutting meat at the Safeway. So, I used to say, ‘one way or the other, the Hale’s are dominating the meat industry in Eager, Arizona.”
I’m amused. We move on.
Paul: I left the small town and moved to Missoula, Montana. I got a job as a wild game processor. I can cut a deer up faster than anyone I know without using a saw. I’ve got a video to prove it.
Me: Um, I need to see this!
Paul (whipping out his phone without hesitation): It’s all in knowing the bone and twisting your wrist at certain times.
We sit together in silence for two minutes and forty-five seconds watching the man at work. I’m sure I sat there with my jaw on the floor. It looks incredibly impressive to me. He cracks a smile here or there as he watches it. I can tell that he’s proud of his skills, and I’m proud for him.
When it’s over, he presses on. “Everything has a purpose. Unless it touches the ground, it gets used. Elk, bear, mountain lion, caribou, moose, red deer… I’ve processed it all.” (Yes, you read that right. He’s processed a mountain lion for an ol’ fella that wanted to eat it.) “After that, I moved to Bozeman and went to work for Dan, Dan the Meat Man. Danielson taught me sausage. That’s a whole other art form. He did it all by hand with a small mixer and stuffer.”
And, then, out of left field the tone changes.
“Drinking is really prevalent. My uncle drank way too much and so did Dan. But so did I,” he tells me.
I’m thinking, “whoa! Where did this come from?” I want to dig into it, but I don’t want to be too pushy. I want to ask him more, but I don’t. So, instead I ask, “why do you think that is?”
He sits quietly for a bit obviously searching his mind for the right words. “It’s just the grind. It’s just the working man,” he says with defeat in his voice. I sense that he feels the profession is under appreciated and overlooked. He continues, “these days, you don’t need a knife to be a meat cutter… you just need a box cutter to open the box. They used to age beef. Now, the meat is sloppy. The texture of the meat has changed. A lot of new guys can’t even sharpen knives. Back in the day, they wore a tie, apprenticed for four years, and made $35k – $40k. That’s in the 70s!”
This time, he lingers in the shift of mood. Aside from my awkwardness in the beginning, this is by far the longest bit of silence of the whole interview. My heart breaks a little. Okay… a lot. I can’t tell if he’s discouraged by the changing times and how that has affected his trade or if he actually feels “less than” or even ashamed of what he does. So, I ask him.
“Paul, are you proud of what you do? Are you proud of your skill set?”
He replies, “Oh yeah. Definitely. In Germany, it’s still a respected job. They’re called Metzgermeisters. It’s still respected over there.”
Okay. Well, I’m glad that he has pride in his trade, but I sure wish he felt respected. I still feel a little heart broken. He continues his story.
“I got out of it (meat cutting) because of wages. I tried to go into construction, but then 2008 happened.” he laughs. “So, I went back to what I know. I was a sausage apprentice at [business name omitted], but I felt betrayed and left in 2009 because the plan for me didn’t work out like they told me it would.”
From there, Paul was hired by a well respected grocery chain. “I was really happy to be there. They encouraged meat cutters to try new cuts. I appreciated that they appreciated me. I was gonna take [grocery chain] by storm. I was gonna do awesome things.”
Unfortunately, after a short time there, Paul was let go. I’ll spare all the details out of respect, but essentially, he made a silly mistake. “It was the only job that it hurt me to lose,” he tells me. “And, I haven’t cut meat since. Sad but true.”
I appreciate his candidness and sincerity. He didn’t have to tell me all of that. In the process of recounting his last hurrah in meat cutting, he reveals himself to me. He reveals his integrity. He reveals his heart. He allows me to see vulnerability, and I love that. He continues, “I went into the car industry. It’s alright. I can make money.”
I wonder if he’s trying to convince me or himself that “it’s alright.” I feel sad. I feel like my mama bear is coming out. Y’all, I feel like I want to protect Paul and all the other meat cutters out there from feeling undervalued and dispensable. And, in this very moment, I know exactly why I’m doing this.
No, not every meat cutter has the same story. But, I’m willing to bet that most highly skilled craftsman in this profession have experienced some of these same struggles. Perhaps you’ve never lost a job or felt that your wages were not adequate (I’m talking to you, meat cutters), but haven’t you noticed the shift in times? Have you noticed that it’s a dying art which is most unfortunate? Have you felt undervalued?
This is why I desire to thrust meat cutters into the spotlight. As a child, Paul sat on that damn meat block with his Twinkie and Hawaiian Punch admiring his uncle. Don’t you know he thought the world of him? For most of us, this is what we eat. This is how we fuel and sustain our families. Do we really want it going the way of mass production? Appreciate your meat cutter, y’all. They are some smart, smart, passionate folks.
No Longer In Meat Cutting
The Nitty Gritty
YEARS IN MEAT CUTTING: Went to work in his Uncle Doug’s butcher shop at 13.
FAVORITE TOOL OF THE TRADE: Forschner 6″ Semi Flex Boning Knife
BATTLE SCARS: Cut off part of his thumb as a young teenager; scars all over hands from his early career
FAVORITE CUT OF MEAT: Ribeye
DO YOU LIKE TO COOK? “I love to cook. I cook a lot of meats. I love to bake. I make candies at Christmas.”
EVER HEARD OF DAVID LETTERMAN’S “KNOW YOUR CUTS OF MEAT”? No
WHAT I LOVE MOST ABOUT PAUL: His candidness and sense of humor