Friends been cutting meat together for years

Published 2:42 pm Thursday, December 30, 2010

It’s a butcher’s joke.

“What do you call a cow without legs?”

“Ground beef.”

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There’s not much about butchering — including the jokes — that Charlie James and Bud Watkins don’t know, for their combined careers in the business span over a century.

Charlie and Bud work together at County Market, but that began long before the store opened 25 years ago. Bud had already been a butcher for two years when he met Charlie — and that’s been over 50 years ago.

It was probably in late 1959, Charlie said, when he was walking on a Vicksburg street when young George Abraham, driving his dad’s ’57 Buick, saw him, pulled over and said his dad wanted to talk to him.

Charlie had quit school. The family had moved and the change of schools didn’t suit Charlie at all. He was looking for something to do.

“So I went to see Mr. Abraham and he told me to talk to Bud about a job. That’s how it all got started.”

Bud, who is from Dixon in Neshoba County, had been in the military and stopped in Vicksburg to visit his sister. He had a cousin working for Abraham at his Help Yourself Grocery Store. Bud needed a job.

His cousin suggested he talk to her boss, “And I’ve been here ever since.” That was May 18, 1958.

Charlie started as a meat wrapper — that’s when each sale, even if it was just two slices of bologna, was wrapped and priced by hand — and Bud taught him the butcher trade. He didn’t do a lot of meat cutting until about 1961 or ’62, he said.

There’s a right way to cut everything, Charlie said.

“You can’t just start. There are different angles,” and if you cut it right, the meat will be smooth, not lumpy. You cut at the same angle as the bone, not against the bone.”

In past years, if somebody wanted a T-bone steak or a rump roast — whatever they wanted — “you had to go in there (the cooler) and bring that piece of meat out,” Bud said.

“We’re talking about 200 to 225 pounds. You couldn’t just grab it. You had to know how to handle it, to let it rest on you. You had to throw it on the block, and break it down. It took a little time.”

That’s when the meat was brought off the truck, put on hooks and kept in the cooler.

Nowadays, many of the cuts come in boxes, so “you just take it out of the box, wrap it and, in just a matter of minutes, it’s ready. It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to meat markets,” Bud said.

There’s still a lot of butcher work done locally. Charlie and Bud make sausage, and Bud said he always puts a little more seasoning in it than the recipe calls for “because, if I ever get a complaint, it would be there’s not enough seasoning in it.”

The most popular item they sell is ground beef.

“It’s always No. 1,” Charlie said, and though there is some prepackaging, “mostly we do our own.”

They’ve ground as much as 300 pounds at one time — “back in the good days.”

A specialty for them is meat for kibbee, which needs to be finely ground. Bud said, “If they want kibbee meat, they call me.” He grinds all the meat for the kibbee at the annual Lebanese dinner at St. George Orthodox Church.

They both have customers who ask for them, who want orders handled by either Charlie or Bud. There’s one customer in particular who calls for Bud every Saturday morning.

What should you buy to get the most for your money? Both agree — it’s T-bone or porterhouse steaks. Most of their cuts, though, are for chuck or shoulder roasts. Bud said he can tell by the texture of the meat and the grain if it’s going to be tough or tender, “but the customer can’t usually tell. You go by the grade.”

Neither had any idea of being a butcher for a career, and Charlie said he had no idea about his future when he was a teenager — “I just wanted something to do.” When he started, there was no overtime pay, no minimum wage and no matter how much you worked you got the same pay.

He and Bud usually worked at least 60 hours a week, staying late each night to clean up, often until 9 p.m. There were just the two of them and sometimes a part-time helper — now there are nine in the meat department.

The butcher business is, quite literally, one of the coolest jobs in town, for when everyone else is suffering from the summer heat, Charlie and Bud are working in a 50-degree temperature — 45 in the cooler — and Charlie said he enjoys the heat of his truck and doesn’t even put down the windows when he gets off work.

Though they’re experts in their trade, neither likes to cook.

“I don’t like my cooking. My wife does that,” Charlie said.

Bud uses an iron skillet to cook a steak occasionally, but “I don’t eat off the grill. I just don’t like it.”

For relaxation, Charlie plays lead guitar with a country band, The Desperados. His dad used to sit on the porch, play his guitar and sing Jimmie Rodgers songs, and his brothers played some. There was always a guitar around, “so I picked it up and started messing with it. I taught myself.”

Bud’s time off is spent fishing for bream or white perch, “and I can catch them when nobody else can. I don’t know why. The weather doesn’t matter.” He said other fishermen with him who caught nothing, in frustration, tried to break his pole with theirs.

Charlie and Bud give a lot of credit for their success in life to the late George Abraham.

“He wanted you to know the customer’s name,” Bud said. “Treat them right, and they’d come back.”

Charlie agreed, recalling that Abraham said if you treated a customer bad or treated them nice, they were going to remember you. “He was like a father to me,” Charlie said.

Bud is 74, Charlie is 67, and neither has any notion of retiring. Part of that reasoning, they said, is the Creel brothers, who own County Market, are thoughtful and good to work for.

“I really don’t have any desire to retire,” Charlie said, and told Bud, “You can’t retire until I do. After I retire, you can do what you want to, but I’ll go as long as I can.”

Bud said, “It’s been good to me,” and he’s been good for it. In 52 years, he has never been late for work and has missed only two days. Charlie’s record is pretty close.

It’s a good trade, Charlie said, “because grocery stores will always be there.”

Bud said: “There’ll always be a need for a butcher because you can’t grow a boneless cow.”


Information from: Vicksburg Post,