Volume 75, Number 32 | Dec. 28 - Jan. 3, 2005

Villager file photo

Western Beef supermarket will be moving from W. 14th St. in the Meat Market.

‘Feliz Navidad,’ the pope’s nose and cowboy cactus

By Patricia Fieldsteel

NYONS, France: When I read The Villager online in my home here in the foothills of the Alps, I groaned aloud, “Oh, no, not Western Beef!!” But there it was, plain as day, the store on W. 14th St. with its signature orange-and-blue awning and the smiling green cowboy cactus will shortly close to give way to a high-end office building. Just what everyone needs. Western Beef, Inc., the management of the New York metropolitan area warehouse supermarket chain, has promised to reopen at another location nearby. Perhaps it was inevitable Western Beef would pack it in at its current location; after all, the company’s motto is “We know the neighborhood!” And, honey, THAT neighborhood has changed! No more the raunchy market of meat, animal as well as human, bloody, raw and cheap. Now a skimpy T-shirt in a glitzy boutique sells for more than most Western Beef family shoppers spend in a month.

When I lived in New York, I loved Western Beef: the feeling of community and camaraderie among the shoppers, ranging from homeless people to wealthy West Villagers, transvestite prostitutes, truck drivers, Chelsea guppies, welfare families, firemen (always a good sign of a food store’s worth) and elderly Spanish-speaking people left from the days when far W. 14th St. was called “Little Spain.” A large percentage of the customers were Spanish speaking as were the people working there. I loved the way shoppers would exchange knowing smiles and glances, as if acknowledging we were all in on a secret. Top-quality filet mignon (“flayed minnones” the handwritten signs said) on sale for $2.98 lb; mesclun (“mescaline”) $4.98 lb. You could buy 5 gallons of Hellman’s Mayonnaise (“mayonesa”) or 3 gallons of Sabrett’s hot dog onions with sauce or 20 pounds of corn meal or a whole suckling pig or lamb (with or without wool).

There were open white-plastic barrels of pig ears and snouts in brine; 10- and 20-gallon jugs of pork bellies and carpet-sized rolls of tripe. You needed a strong constitution to shop at Western Beef, which originally was a warehouse where one walked into a glacial auditorium-sized freezer with entire cow, hog and sheep carcasses hanging from hooks in the ceiling. I went once back then, had nightmares for a week and didn’t return until the early ’90s when the warehouse began to upgrade to more of a store. My friend and neighbor on Jane St. and now here in Provence, the cookbook author and cooking school teacher Lydie Marshall says, “I could not breathe in the place, especially the meat department; anyone who wanted to become a vegetarian only needed to go in their meat department and they would be cured forever of eating meat.” Even after the store began to upgrade, it kept its original name, Western Beef Wholesale Warehouse, and with it the sense of something secret, slightly sly and on the cheap.

Sunday mornings the weekly sales fliers came out. Over the years, the fliers never upgraded, never went the way of trendy graphics and muted colors. Bright orange, bright green, bright purple and bright yellow with many of the sale items in Spanish as well as English. “Boneless Chicken Breast Cutlets (Pechuga de Pollo), Fresh Whole Pork Loin (Lomo de Ardo), average weight 12 to 16 pounds.” The meat page itself — “Meat is our Specialty” — was a field day for cultural anthropologists with its ham hocks, pig snouts, cow hearts, sheep brains and turkey butts — where else could you buy a yellow styrofoam tray of 12 enormous pope’s noses (chicken tails) for 99 cents? Each week the flier included a diagram of a steer shown with all the different cuts of beef and the banner “Custom cut to your liking free of charge.” The green cactus in the cowboy hat continued to dance over the pages waving his arms, grinning to one and all. The prices continued to astonish, with many of the exact same items selling at more than double the price at D’Agostino’s a few blocks away. People used to look down on me or recoil in horror when I’d say I shopped there, but they had no idea what they were missing.

I first learned about Western Beef from my friend and neighbor Nick Jones, who now owns the trendy Germantown Central Market upstate. Back then Nick had a catering business and the two of us often worked together. One of Nick’s signature dishes was a filet mignon for which I made a green mayonnaise sauce. Not only did he teach me a foolproof way to cook it (45 minutes at 425 degrees, no matter the size, until the meat thermometer read 140 degrees) but he also let me in on his secret: he bought the filets (“flayed minnones”) at Western Beef. The author Susan Brownmiller is also a loyal Western Beef fan. Earlier this week, she e-mailed, lamenting the projected closing, “I was there just yesterday, buying stuff for a dinner for four (the mah jong game) for under 14 dollars. My best memory is you telling me how to order a whole filet stripped of fat, and tipping the butcher $1.”

Arthur Stoliar, my across-the-street neighbor for more than 30 years, is perhaps the ultimate Western Beef aficionado and connoisseur. When Arthur retired, his late wife Joan was still working, so Arthur took up cooking to help around the house, a practice that led to their eating at The Beatrice Inn six nights a week. At the same time, Arthur discovered the art of bargain shopping for groceries. Being an engineer and scientifically thorough in everything he does, he would read, research and calculate ounces, kilograms, liters, pennies and pounds from the weekly supermarket fliers before he’d shop. According to his informal but scientific survey, Western Beef systematically proved to have the best bang for the buck. Arthur was a gold mine of information. Sometimes when we’d pass on the street, he’d sidle up to me and whisper sweet secrets in my ear, “Rib lamb chops, on special, $4.98.” I always knew what he meant. Arthur was the first to cultivate the friendship of George in produce. George had a gift and a perpetually friendly smile. No one knew how to select a melon the way George did. Thanks to George, Western Beef carried rare, exotic and ethnic vegetables and fruits long before the trendies and at half the price. One of Arthur’s greatest Western Beef finds, which he gloated over for weeks, was the unadvertised in-house special — 40 pounds of chicken legs for only 29 cents a pound. Naturally, at that price, he couldn’t resist. The only problem was finding room in the Stoliar freezer. We all benefited from Arthur’s find — and, of course, his generosity — as he gave out great masses of raw chicken legs. A lot of Jane Streeters ended up consulting their cookbooks for chicken-leg recipes that year. At Christmastime, Joan and Arthur would buy a big filet roast or two and have the butchers cut them into generous-sized steaks to give to friends as presents. I was often a lucky recipient.

At times, I admit, especially in the heat of summer, Western Beef was heavy on grunge and fetid odors, from the customers as well as the meat. I rarely shopped there in July and August. However, if there was one time of year when the store became magical, it was at Christmas. Christmastime was always a three-dimensional, live and in-living-color New York experience.

The morning of Christmas Eve, Western Beef would be so crowded with happy people you could barely force your way in. No matter how poor, everyone seemed to have saved up extra food stamps and cash for a holiday feast. Families with many children would slowly push carts down the narrow aisles, caressing the items on the shelves, examining them, looking, feeling, shaking the boxes, debating and deciding what treats would be bought. Parents and grandparents warmly indulged their children as well as themselves with goodies they normally couldn’t afford to savor. The younger kids would be so excited they’d try to hitch rides on the sides of the carts, squealing and shrieking in delight. Delicious expectation was always in the air as the public address system piped Christmas music throughout the store: “Feliz Navidad, Feliz Navidad...”

In the meat freezer, mammoth rib roast beefs with 10 or more ribs would be stacked on the stainless-steel industrial shelves. One year, I wanted a roast of one rib. The most I could afford was two. It had occurred to me maybe one rib wouldn’t “stand.” When I made my request to a butcher in the cut-to-order section in back, my suspicions about a single rib’s balancing abilities turned out to be correct. The butcher suggested I have company. He volunteered himself. He was a good carver, he said. He was also quite persistent. I pointed out my “husband” might not be pleased. Yes, of course I had a husband. The butcher was cute. I did some quick calculating and left a dollar in the rapidly filling tip box, which was actually an empty pre-frozen hamburger pattie carton. There were five butchers filling orders. Two were singing Christmas carols as the loudspeakers blared “Feliz Navidad, Feliz Navidad...”

The checkout lines were long and took forever. Western Beef was noted for its narrow aisles, its Brobdingnagian logjams at the checkout. Most of the checkers were hirsute Spanish-speaking young women. A major portion of the customers paid with food stamps. They’d discover they’d bought too much and couldn’t pay, scrounging in their pockets, pulling out every last penny, nickel and dime. The checkers would yell, “Shameeka, KEY!! Rosita, KEY!!!! REGISTER!!” Another long wait, another delay until someone arrived with the master key to unlock the cash register. No one complained. “Feliz Navidad, Feliz Navidad...” Everyone was in a good mood.

The carts in Western Beef were bulky and big, unlike the smaller streamlined ones in the trendy markets. One year, the woman on line in front of me caught me eyeing two enormous white plastic barrels marked “chitterlings” in her overflowing cart. Embarrassed, I smiled. More was expected, so I said, “I was just wondering how you cook them.” She proceeded to tell me in great detail, astonished I’d never tried them, licking her lips as she explained. My stomach was floating just below my teeth, but I managed to smile and thank her. Where else could such an exchange take place? I might have felt slightly queasy, but I was also entranced, in love with the rich and colorful mosaic of Western Beef. I handed over my cash, put a tip in the box for the little boy, clearly the son of the checker, who was helping to pack, his eyes wide with delight, and left with two heavy plastic bags, stamped with the orange and blue “Western Beef” logo.

Outside, it had started to snow, with flakes filling the spaces between the Belgian-block cobblestones, outlining them in pristine white. Even though it was early, the transgendered hookers were out selling a different kind of meat, sashaying up to cars, slapping raw upturned butts and offering blow jobs for $20 or less. A girl in a transparent minidress and size-12 stiletto heels beckoned, dancing an obscene tango with her tongue while she cupped a siliconed breast. She turned away when a woman left the store with three young children. On the sidewalk, Christmas tree sales were brisk. The giant, most expensive trees (scrawny to be sure) were $14.99. Tiny tabletop trees with fake snow were $1.99. Everyone was smiling and content. For that one day, at least, the world was rich. Feliz Navidad, Western Beef, and au revoir!

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