Sunday, November 18, 2012

The difference between community and business

Let me introduce you to a migrant, who I suppose is dead now, or if not dead, is extremely old. Julius Kulhan, butcher.

When my wife and I knew him as our butcher, he would not reveal to us exactly where he came from: it was somewhere in the Balkans, and when I asked, he responded sadly, “My country is no longer my country, so it has no name.”

He’d been a butcher a long time, when we met him. In our late twenties, he already looked like God’s older brother: small, thin, wrinkled, white-haired, and with the hands of a pre-OHS butcher (the left hand was in a permanent claw from injuries).

He’d left his home either during or directly after World War Two, and after some wandering – which included on-board butcher for Cunard, something I suppose you didn’t get to do if you were hopeless – he and his wife, Maria, settled in Australia.

And his shop, when we lived nearby, was at an insignificant corner in St Peters. It wasn’t even close to the bits of St Peters that today’s hipsters like – it was near where St Peters becomes Sydenham, and has since been turned into something horrible and modernist. So it goes.

In the early nineties, Ms T and I were seriously short of money. Our affordable mortgage had passed eighteen percent, and buying food was so troublesome that while having some friends around for dinner, we padded the salad with dandelion (which, I have to say, worked so well we will still do so from time to time!).

And Ms T was pregnant with our first.

Julius was a very cheap butcher: his life was constrained not by money, but by other circumstances (the health of his family). He didn’t get out much – for example, to check other butchers’ prices. His prices were based on "what I spend, plus enough for myself" - and he'd long since paid his mortgage, and lived above the shop.

Some of his specialties were first-rate: I was in the shop one Saturday morning to witness him rebuffing a Major Chain Buyer on the subject of bacon: “But if I sell all my bacon to you, what happens to my customers? No.” I will attest that his bacon was excellent: he had an arrangement with a Marrickville smallgoods producer which let him smoke things to his own specifications in their chimney.

Before I ramble too far, two points: one about community, the other about choosing a butcher.

About community: he was a true believer. He loved the country he found himself in – there was a little Australian flag in the shop – and the community he found himself in, even though much of the St Peters of his lifetime could fairly be describes as a slum.

We found out about his love of community when Ms T was pregnant and we were broke. He discovered that she had a passion for lamb’s fry (which is, when cooked with skill, something close to heaven). So once each month during her first pregnancy, he would save a lamb’s liver for her, price thirty cents. “She needs it for the baby”, Maria would explain. Others in the community who were regular customers also got treats: I once saw a desperate mother leaving the shop with a stock of lamb shanks that today would fetch on the plus side of twenty dollars. “No, no, two dollars, when you can.”

And I know that he wasn’t poor, if only because of the queues that would form when his regulars knew he always prepared something special: there was a calendar for the various smallgoods and sausages he hand-made, and at some times of the year, a little street-corner butcher in a slum would have Rolls-Royces parked outside.

And that brings me to the other point of this post: sausage.

Chains and supermarkets haven’t destroyed the family butcher in this country, thank heavens. But people without experience beyond ColesWorths don’t know how to tell a good butcher from a mug. 

Sausage is our family benchmark.

If the butcher cares – really cares – about sausage, then you can safely bet the butcher cares about everything.

We’ve had sausage that tasted like heaven, but in the cooking, stunk like cat piss. The butcher had a good recipe, but didn’t bother soaking the offal before dropping it in the sausage bucket.

Whereas someone who is the real thing wants everything about his sausage to be loved: the tying is perfect, there are no disappointments (or cat-piss stench) in the cooking, and the eating is right.

If you find a butcher whose sausage is good, the rest of his work will also be good.

Oh, and a local businessperson who loves his community? A pearl beyond price. Nobody resents someone who does well, if that person loves the customer as much as the customer loves the business. That is something that big business can never steal from the small, for all the worship bestowed on “customer relationship management.”

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