By Tim Norris

The secret to the Meating Place, the heart of it, waits somewhere unexpected, past the vintage refrigerated display cases and their parade of steaks and chops and ribs and roasts.
Most customers don’t get that far. The meat, in red and pink and pale white array, captures them.
The meat also captures the staff, who put their backs and backbones to it, every day.
Mike Baitz, for instance, came in just around dawn on this Monday, and Tom Hoffman right after him, and Del Valeriay, the owner, right after them, unpacking fresh boxed meat from their suppliers, cutting, trimming, arranging, displaying.
The manager, Jack Baitz, who also is Mike’s twin brother, will come in about an hour later, from a doctor’s appointment. “Don’t come in just to see us,” Tom tells Jack, on his cell phone. “Put an apron on.”
“He’s talking to his manager like that,” Mike says.
No respect. Or, maybe, a deeper kind.
The men have been together, Del says, for a decade and more. He hates to add that maybe this profession, this kind of shop, is endangered. Rents keep going up. Popular tastes keep going other places.
A ceramic figure, plump, jolly, aproned, faces the sales floor, and on a Styrofoam plate taped between the shoulder blades, hidden from the public, someone has written “I love papa forever,” and, below that, someone else has written, “Me too.” With a smiley face.
“My granddaughter Jessica wrote the top one,” Del says. “My granddaughter Amanda put in the other one.” Nobody touches that plate.

Family business
Family is the place’s secret, its centerpiece. Ask any of them. They grew up with this.
“I followed my dad, followed in the footsteps,” Mike says. “Our family started with a packing house, slaughtering and packing. That was in Kenmore, Ohio. Jack had a meat market up in Kent (Ohio). We had a packing house, Galat Meat Packing, that was my grandfather’s. The chief’s (Del’s) dad had a business up in Connecticut.”
Del Valeriay remembers the first time he saw a steer slaughtered, 67 years ago. “It was common talk in our house, nothing sensational,” he says. “It was the way my dad supported us. My grandfather, Marco, was a slaughterer in Italy.”
Those were days when millions of Americans worked on their own family farms, and many raised and processed their own animals, for food and income. Now, they say, a lot of people seem to think meat comes into the world perfectly cut and wrapped in plastic.
Old school still applies to the Meating Place and its survival.
When he bought the original Meating Place and another store, in 1978, Del looked for employees he knew and trusted. “You don’t want anyone around who don’t wanna be around,” he says. “My father taught me that.”
This is a family business and, the men say, it’s personal. They don’t advertise, though they’re thinking about it. They count on word-of-mouth.
Early any workday morning, on well-worn wood tables in back, they showcase what their fathers taught them and what they improved with practice.
On this Monday, with Tom out front working on display, Mike is unpacking shrimp, and Del is slicing veal, on an angle, in perfectly matching cutlets. The meat is from Pennsylvania, raised by the Amish. The knives are Forschner, German steel, and each man has his own.
“You don’t mess with a butcher’s knives,” Mike says.
Sharpened with tapered files, retooled in visits from a local craftsman, the knives become implements of art in the butchers’ hands. The men clean up, too, with Clorox and industrial-strength Joy.

Lessons in meat
From a walk-in cooler, their fathers and grandfathers would have wrestled down sides of beef from hooks, carried in hindquarters, forequarters.
This meat arrives in boxes, most of it vacuum-sealed in plastic, much of it from Colorado, Niman Ranch (involving 650-some farms), antibiotic-free, hormone-free, and Cross Creek, and Harris, out of California.
Del carefully skins off thin sheaves of fat and peels out sinew. With an unerring eye he slices off filets, chops, medallions.
More than 40 years he’s been doing this, and he can walk a customer through the cuts, from boneless rump roast and tip steak to shoulder top blade, and the multiple USDA grades, utility, good and select (the low 40 percent) through three grades of choice to prime (the top 3 percent).
“Most people aren’t too educated about meat,” Mike says, and Del offers a lesson.
What gives the meat its flavor? Flecks of fat, he says, called “marbling,” or grain. If a supplier doesn’t consistently send meat properly marbled, Del will look for another one. Otherwise, he figures that he loses customers.
The wooden work tables date from decades before, and so do the vintage Hobart slicers and the Tyler refrigerated display cases out front, circa 1969.
That’s where the men slide the day’s arrangements of cut and packaged meat, laid on the backs of trays on butcher paper, into slots for a customer’s look-see. Mike has just turned a tray of shrimp into garnished decoration, and he slips it into its berth, hoping to turn glances into ogles.
From behind the front counters, the men dispense their wisdom about meat and about what matters in life and about cooking, too.
They can tell a customer whether to bake, roast, broil, stew or braise. They can advocate a garnish.
Life hands you a lemon? Sure, make lemonade. Mike hands you a lemon? Go with the mahi-mahi.
Bake at 350 degrees, Tom Hoffman says, a little lemon pepper, couple slices of thin lemon on top, start if off maybe four, five minutes each side, then open it up to make sure it’s done.
Then eat. Somewhere quiet, romantic, maybe. When he’s asked, Del says, “Without my wife, Barbara, I wouldn’t be anywhere.”
They all like the idea that their high-end product will be eaten in a high-end atmosphere, conjured by someone who cares.
Filets are the top-seller, and the ones that don’t move in two days will be wrapped in pastry dough for beef Wellington. Other meats will be sealed and frozen and set into display coolers alongside fish and more exotic meats, duck and quail, buffalo and brisket, Cornish hens and sweetbreads.
Above them are galleries of seasonings and condiments, and alongside extends a case of prepared foods, potato salad, chopped liver, cole slaw, crab salad.
The staff made and wrapped all those, too. What shows most is the hand-work, the personal touch made literal.
The men may talk sports, or faraway places, but they also cook. Part of their business is preparing packaged dinners for customers, for some as often as three nights a week.

A lasting legacy?
Del says he has moments when he wonders how much longer they’ll all be doing this. In an age of convenience and cutting corners and hurry-up, the appreciation for high-quality meat, he figures, is shrinking, and the market with it. More and more people look for bargains. Some of his long-time, loyal customers, “so many beautiful people,” he says, are dying off. His own children have gone on to other professions.
“For awhile, we had four generations going,” Del says. “My son, Jamie, was the last one to leave. But you can’t blame him. This is hard work, a lot of hours. Now he goes to work dressed up, selling furniture, and he’s happy. And I’m happy that he’s happy. Life’s too friggin’ short.”
Thanksgiving is coming, and the staff usually do a brisk business in turkeys, fully prepared with all the trimmings. That, they say, is a time where families meet over meat.
These men have been doing that, they say, all their lives, every day.
For now, for tomorrow and the holidays ahead, they’ll be stepping up to the
cutting tables again.

In Coasting Along, our writers occasionally stop to reflect on life along the shore.

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