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Small Town Hearts in the Big City: A Slow Food Tale

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Mr. McGrath. I hadn't remembered that name in years. He was my mother's butcher when I was a wee lad, in a small town in New York. It was always an adventure and a treat to accompany my mom on her weekly visits to that strange but exciting world of crackling white butcher paper and mysterious slabs of meat to be cut to order and wrapped for Sunday dinner. And there was always a lollipop, or even better a tootsie-pop, to garnish the event.

And now, more years later than I care to enumerate, I live in the heart of a major metropolis, where even the most conscientious of markets display impersonal cases filled with shrink-wrapped animal products that shriek of anonymity and commerce. Even the rare soi-disant "butcher shops" obtain their goods from far-flung and unidentified sources, the product often pre-cut and pre-packaged and pre-almost-everything. With a gusty sigh and a nostalgic glance in the rear-view mirror of time, I long ago bid a regretful good-bye to the local family butcher of yesteryear.

And then, like a warm welcoming wind blowing through the door of Dr. Who's time-traveling TARDIS, along came Lindy and Grundy. Oh, I had seen and heard all the pre-opening hype -- features in prominent food magazines, articles in major media, even friends in the food biz prattling on about the New Kids in Town. Pish-tosh, I said to myself, yet another trendy gimmick with attitude to spare and nothing of substance to offer beyond a certain novelty and counterculture glamor.

Okay. Boy was I dead wrong. I'm not ashamed to admit it. You behold a man upon whom the light has shone; I've fallen from the horse, the scales have dropped from my eyes, the cynicism has melted from my bones, and I am a total convert. Long Live Lindy and Grundy!

So here's how the conversion went down. Reluctantly succumbing to the need to be au courant, and needing a roast for Easter Sunday for my favorite client, I drag myself over the hill to Fairfax and Willoughby to check it out. 2:00 in the afternoon, and I'm met with an improvised hand-lettered sign on the door: CLOSED. Behind the sign, an expanse of empty glass cases. Slightly exasperated, and not at all hopeful, I motion to a young lad seated inside -- "Can I order something?" I mouth to him.

Without a moment's hesitation the youngster, who looks like the Artful Dodger's older brother with a jaunty cap and an appealingly crooked grin, opens the door and welcomes me. Apologetically explaining that they've simply "run out of everything," he suggests I return on the morrow, since the chickens have just arrived, and the beef will be arriving the following morning. He seems genuinely concerned with my needs, and couldn't have been friendlier or more accommodating.

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Wow. A real person, genuine and helpful. Maybe not so trendy and attitudinous after all. Certainly an auspicious introduction, I think.

Intrigued, I return the next day with my camera and my notepad, curious to see what adventure might befall me. Though I still don't yet quite get it; I think perhaps one of the "girls" might condescend to give me a few minutes of her time, without having to seek the intercession of their obviously talented publicist. I can be in and out in 15 minutes.

I walk into the scrupulously spotless store, and the first thing I see is an adorable girl with retro chocolate-box prettiness and 40s red lipstick smiling at me from behind the counter. "Hi, welcome. Can I help you with anything today?" Could it be... ? Why yes, this would be Amelia Posada, otherwise known as Lindy. As I would soon discover, she's a sweet, savvy, wholly unpretentious delight who along with her wife Erika (otherwise known as Grundy) is pursuing and realizing a very special dream.

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And so for several hours, I hang about the shop, chatting with "the girls" and their small staff and their customers, having the time of my life. This is truly the benign and beautiful face of the Slow Food Movement, and a textbook primer on how to source foods in an old-fashioned way in a newfangled world. Not to mention a lesson to all retailers on how to treat your customers.

Because for Amelia and Erika, they're not customers -- they're neighbors. This is truly a "neighborhood shop" -- only the neighborhood encompasses the very wide swath of land that comprises Los Angeles. The store has been open a scant few weeks, and already almost everyone who walks through the doors while I'm there is "a regular". One gentleman informs me that he has worked for that large "health food" store chain for 10 years, but since Lindy and Grundy came to town, he wouldn't get his meat anywhere else but here -- on a daily basis. And the staff is already family; Alex, my Artful Dodger friend, lives across the street. He offered his services to the girls while they were under construction, thinking they would be awesome to work for and learn from; they welcomed him with open hearts, and indeed he says, they are absolutely awesome to work for.

From Amelia, I learn that they get everything "whole," and butcher it themselves. There are no crates of chicken parts being delivered here, no boxes of multiple cuts of meat; whole chickens, whole pigs and lambs, entire sides of beef is what we're talking, from a few very select farms. And the girls have met with every farmer, toured every farm, approved every detail -- this is knowing your sources to the ultimate degree. For Amelia and Erika, the farmers are their rock stars -- hardworking people who raise animals the right way, at great expense and with great love, because that's how it should be done. Integrity with no compromise -- what a concept, and so very rare in our time in the food world, or indeed in any part of the realm of commerce.

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Then the real fun for me begins... Alex emerges from the back slinging an entire side of beef on a hook, sliding it along a rack and depositing it on Erika's butcher block. I've never been this close to the origins of my food before...

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Erika takes pity on my adolescent enthusiasm and invites me to don a hairnet and join her. As I watch her deftly begin her breakdown of the carcass, we talk about "meat philosophy." We discover a shared affinity for the atavistic concept of honoring and thanking the animals we rely upon for our sustenance, and we compare notes on the fantasy books we have read over the years that illuminate the hunter-gatherer traditions from which we have become so far removed, tomes such as Clan of the Cave Bear and Red Moon and Black Mountain. Seriously, it doesn't get any better than this for me -- food prep and literary discussion combined, with an adorable, dedicated, generous lady who shares my passions.

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Reluctantly, after pumping endless quarters into my parking meter, I finally tear myself away from this delightful visit. I don't go away empty-handed, though; I bear with me a skirt steak that I watched Erika cut off and trim right in front of me and wrap up in -- yes -- crisp white butcher paper... not to mention a wedge of truffled cheese from the small but select cheese case. Clutching my goodies, I am hard-pressed to find the words to convey to them how special I think their endeavor is, and how grateful I am to be welcomed into their family.

The spirit of Mr. McGrath definitely hovers over Lindy and Grundy for me, blessing them for bringing back a lost art and a sorely needed service. I know I'll be haunting their store for many moons to come!

P.S. I rubbed the skirt steak with my own BBQ dry spice mix and grilled it last night -- it was awesome.