The Other Notebook
by David Helwig
On a winter morning, my sharp steel knife is cutting through stewing beef, trimming off bits of fat and gristle, preparing the meat to go into the iron Dutch Oven, which is heating on the stove, ready to brown the chunks of meat before they are mixed with vegetables and spices and set to stew for the day, eight hours or so at a very low temperature. A stew boiled is a stew spoiled they say.
As I stand there, a cooking apron tied on over my dressing gown, I remember that before I got out of bed into the dim morning, I was dreaming of Roy Constable. Nearly sixty years back, I worked in large grocery store where Roy was manager of the butcher shop. The other butcher was George Swan, an ill-tempered Scot with a steel plate in his head.
I have written before about Roy and George, an essay called “Presences” in my book Living Here. The essay is, I suppose, about a youngster learning to read the odd byways of adult life, though it never says that explicitly, but the two men were a generation or more older than I was, and as regular help in the butcher shop in the summers and sometimes on weekends, I was implicated in the small conflicts and collisions that took place.
Trimming stewing beef or the tag ends of meat that were ground up for hamburger was the kind of job I did, and I remember how George, the older of the two men, once proprietor of his own butcher shop, would instruct me not to cut off too much fat and not to pick out only the lean bits when selecting hamburger to grind for a customer. Roy, he suggested, did that to win people over. He wanted them to like him. George never much cared whether anybody liked him, and his shrewd, pawky Scots nature dictated a significant amount of fat must drop into the grinder and add a few pennies to the store’s profit. What we were there for.
So as I trimmed my stewing beef, excising the fat—paid for and now to be thrown out—I thought of Roy and George and the way of the world. After George left the store a new butcher brought a new approach, ground hamburger perked up with substantial amounts of the bright red meat of an old bull. Deceptive, but it looked good.
That was business as I learned about it, that and observing my father’s hard work and the related financial struggles. Now I live in a world where free enterprise has become a religion. The business schools make it all sound upscale and professional, methods of financing based on complicated mathematical tricks, but I can’t help but recall the butcher shop of my teen-aged years.
I’m certain small businesses still face a struggle. Many go broke. No doubt some attain success by deals in which they are perceptive, imaginative and brave. But most people are still selling their time and their labour for what they can get. I like to remember my father’s story from the years when he was on the road with a gang of men selling door to door. It was the Dirty Thirties, and this was the only work they could find. One of the salesmen, determined to bring in a few dollars, began his day by taking out his false teeth, so that he arrived at the door of each house with a sadly collapsed mouth. It got him sympathy sales. It was a hungry time, and I hope the little trick made him a few dollars. Maybe as times got better he was able to find work he could do with his teeth in.
When I think about business I don’t immediately remember big names, Frank Stronach, or Steve Jobs, or RIM. I’m more likely to call to mind George Swan and the fat in the hamburger.