Mailbag: Mastering the Art of French Cooking


Thank you for continuing to write an excellent blog. How funny to read your Julia Child post this morning, not an hour after walking down Washington Street as it becomes Kirkland. I’m visiting Cambridge where I too did my PhD, I too scraped together the Team Elite bona fides (even as its ethos eluded me), and I too lived in a crumbling shared apartment in Slummerville. That area’s now full of fancy lofts, by the way.

I was sipping a $4 coffee and daydreaming about, not kidding, how much longer we can collectively pretend Cambridge hasn’t already become Cambridge(TM), when I passed by Savenor’s and stopped to marvel at a sign in the window: “Wanted: Butcher’s Assistant and Cashier”. For a moment, I was spellbound. Here was the artisanal tradition, robust, unbroken, open to any passer-by willing to learn the trade.

And then I woke up and remembered when and where I was: the butcher’s assistant would need to ask his boomer parents for help with downpayment for the Union Square loft, of course. It’d be an Investment, just like the BA in French Lit.

And then I read your post.

— C.

I got a lot of wonderful email from my homage to Julia Child (“Mastering the Art of French Cooking”), including a note from my Mom! Now that made my day.

This email made my day, too. I found this picture on Savenor’s website, showing Jack Savenor and Julia hovering over some … NY strips (?). Julia is all over the Savenor’s website, and for good reason. Jack truly was a master butcher, and Julia truly appreciated the craft. He made a guest appearance or two on “The French Chef”, and Julia always plugged Jack’s work. She was the best marketing Savenor’s ever had.

And C. is absolutely right … in another day and age, the opportunity to apprentice at Savenor’s as a butcher’s assistant would have been a prototypical American story of labor mobility. It would have been some Portuguese kid from Somerville who had finished high school (maybe), and who would parlay four or five years’ experience with Jack into a professional career as a butcher. It wasn’t a cool job. It wasn’t a cool career. But it was a career that could support a family, buy a modest house, and send his kids to college. It was REAL. And yes, this sort of thing actually happened once upon a time in America. It’s not just mythology.

Today, as C. points out, it’s impossible for a working class kid to take that job. The logistics simply don’t work. But it’s a very cool job today, in sharp contrast to 30 years ago, so I’m sure that Savenor’s had no trouble filling the spot with someone who sees the position as art more than as industry, and has some sort of external support to make the economics work.

I’m still wrestling with what all this means, particularly as MY kids start to graduate from college and make career choices. Something has been gained here, in that the art and craft of butchery is now more widely appreciated. That’s interesting to me, and like I say, it’s a good thing. But something has been lost here, too.

It’s the gentrification not just of neighborhoods, but of commerce and skilled labor.

Keep those cards and letters coming …


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