I'll admit it, I get a little intimidated when I go into the butcher shop. If there is one thing that I know absolutely nothing about, it's meat butchery. On the very few times that I tried to joint up chicken wings or separate a thigh from a drumstick, it has been nothing shy of disastrous. I end up with flesh that is shredded at the edges like Christmas tinsel. I can take apart and dice a bell pepper with the best of them, but when it comes to knife skills in the meat world, I get a failing grade every time.
Everything about the process inside the butcher shop is about mastery, from the confident way they handle the different cuts to the understanding of which cut to use for what purpose to the blindingly fast use of a knife. So, like the puffer fish of the deep, I puff up my chest and stride in with a Dirty Harry swagger, as to not tip the professionals off to my lack of understanding or skill. Think Billy Crystal in Analyze This, but with meat.
I confidently approach the counter and tell the butcher that I would like a pound and a half of ground sirloin and a pound of ground chuck. I am sure the butcher is scratching his head over this odd ratio, but he is kind enough not to ask. I don't want to have to tell him that I do this out of laziness because if I use all chuck in my chili, it takes too long to skim the extra fat off the top, so I mix in something leaner.
"Anything else?" he asks. I momentarily seize up as I had not thought past the pot of chili. "Yes", I blurt out trying to mask the hesitation brought about by my utter lack of preparedness, "I will take a whole organic chicken, cut up". It was the first thing I could think of and I believe that I have managed to convince him that I had planned all along to make chicken. I laugh on the inside, believing that I have not tipped my hand (clearly a pair of twos) and exposed the fact that I had no clue what else I wanted, that is until he decides to throw math into the conversation. If I have one Achilles Heel weaker than my knowledge of butchery, it's my knowledge of math.
"Do you want that chicken cut in eight pieces?" he asked. The look that came over my face was probably something approximating abject fear and constipation as the thought of meat math was binding up my brain. I started to do an inventory of chicken parts in my head, which is the meat math equivalent of counting on your fingers "Two breasts plus two wings plus two drums plus two thighs equals eight". Then as if to provide a haughty "Go ahead, make my day" type response, I tell him, "No, make it ten. I want to split the breasts across the middle so that all the pieces are the same size, and they cook evenly".
He slowly took two steps back from the counter and I could see the mental meat math that he was now doing in his head. Of course, he solved the problem quickly and turned to the butcher block and started hacking up the chicken, and everything was right with the world. I stood there listening to the solid "thwack, thwack,thwack" of his cleaver against the bird on the board. I moved toward the register, ready to pay and take the spoils of my chicken victory when he held up the backbone of the bird and asked me if I wanted it. Shit! How did we end up with an eleventh piece? Defeated by vertebrae! I looked down at my shoes and mumbled, "You can keep it" then I paid him and quietly slunk out the door, more Cowardly Lion than Dirty Harry. Maybe next time I'll make a list.