Mike Fritz lost his pinky finger to a meat saw early in his career. Photo by Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News
The first thing you need to do if you plan to be in the vicinity of the massive vat of sausage at Mr. Prime Beef is suit up in a white coat and a hard hat. The coat protects against blood spatters and cross-contamination. The hat protects the brain in case of any unfortunate run-in with a giant freezer door or a shelf full of lamb legs.
The second thing you need to do, at least on andouille day, is hold your breath. Andouille is a Cajun-style smoked sausage made with pork butt and fat. It packs a lot of heat. When George Elmore, the shop's grinder, poured the andouille spices into the bowl of his meat mixer, a fine powder of red and black pepper puffed into the air and acted a little like Mace. I breathed through my scarf while I watched him, trying to stifle a coughing fit.
"You get used to it," he told me.
His eyes were watering.
Tuesdays and Thursdays lately have been sausage-making days at the 37-year-old meat shop on the Old Seward Highway, one of the oldest and largest retail butchers in Anchorage. The andouille recipe comes from Mr. Prime Beef himself, Gordon "Gordy" Larson. He founded the shop and ran it until his death in 2005. His sister, Pat Muzzana, took over with the help of her children and grandchildren.
Pat Muzzana wears a hard hat that says "BOSS" above the bill. She's a matter-of-fact kind of person who appreciates people who get to the point. She appeared near the sausage mixer and took over for a minute, eyeing the hole where she could see the meat mixing.
She and her brother learned the meat business growing up with their parents' grocery in Montana, she told me. Since her brother died, she has kept his office, with all its knick-knacks, pretty much the same. She hasn't touched his sausage recipes much either. Her brother was a master meat man.
"Meat cutting is basically, it's a dying breed," she told me.
She gets applications every day from people who want to be meat cutters because they sliced meat at a deli or a fast food place. That kind of training won't do. At her shop, most employees learn on the job and work their way up from the bottom.
Earlier Pat's daughter, Heather Muzzana, took photographer Marc Lester and me around the shop, through the huge freezers where boxes of lamb, pork and beef were stacked floor to ceiling.
Lucky Wishbone and Arctic Roadrunner serve Mr. Prime Beef's ground beef, as do a number of Bush work camps, and village groceries sell it. In the cold retail cases out front, you can find duck, goose, smoked turkey, free-range chicken, game hens and capons (those are neutered roosters). You can buy fresh bones for your dog and beef suet for bird seed patties. There are a half-dozen flavors of bacon, fresh homemade sausage, smoked pork chops, hams and a case of full beef cuts.
Business has changed a bit with the influx of immigrants in town, Heather said. Africans come for goat or two-inch square cuts of lamb on the bone. Mexicans come for thin-cut beef for carne asada. Samoans come in search of whole pork legs. At the moment, prime rib from the Midwest rules the day. During the holidays the shop sells 200 cases of it. It takes about 400 head of cattle to make that much prime rib.
The andouille recipe is secret, kept in a battered three-ring binder that has "the bible" written on the cover in Sharpie. The bible also holds the recipe for jalapeno cheese dip, twice-baked potatoes, baked beans and inky au jus, which goes out this time of year by the bucket-load.
Elmore let the sausage mixer run for a while. Then he turned on the extruder and it spit a test patty the size of a softball onto a piece of butcher paper. Elmore shaped it and set it on a George Foreman Grill. While it cooked, Mark and I wandered over to talk to Mike Fritz who was sawing a boulder-sized 160 round beef cut for a hotel. A bone ran through the center, thick as a fence post.
Fritz is a life-long butcher, the son of Mat-Su colonists, with close to four decades in the business. I asked how he learned to cut meat.
"Old time," he said. "People showed you."
Some lessons he learned the hard way. He lost half a pinkie to a meat saw early on. That was back before butchers let meat warm a bit before they cut it. His hand was so numb from cold he didn't feel much.
For the most part, being a butcher has been good to him. He likes talking to people all day.
There have been a couple trends at his meat case lately, he said. For one thing, people are buying more low-cost meat like chuck roast that can stretch to feed a family. That's the economy. On the other end, there are still plenty of requests for fancy cuts. That kind of business is helped along by cooking shows on cable, he believes.
Elmore came around and offered us cooked sausage on the end of toothpicks. The hot pepper hit my tongue and burned in a pleasant way. After he got some nods, Elmore disappeared to start shooting the sausage into casings. Later it would go to smoker for a slow cook.
Marc and I met Pat back in her brother's old office. Some of the trade magazines have been saying that small butcher shops are coming back, she said. She wasn't sure that trend would take hold in Anchorage. I asked her about competing with grocery stores.
"In some areas I can't compete," she said.
Warehouse stores can move huge volumes, so their prices are lower. Now most meat comes to large stores pre-cut. Her shop is one of the last places where the butchers still know how to dissect a whole side of beef, and her niche is serving customers looking for things done custom. They don't want a family pack of steaks at grocery store. They want a say in how thick their rib-eye is. They have opinions.
"Here, you buy what you want. If you want one steak, you get one steak. You want 20 steaks? You get 20 steaks," she said. "You get em cut the way you want em."