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A butcher’s art

John HartButchers Dameon St. Clair (left) and Mitch Dowling prepare steaks at P.J.'s Thursday.
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Mitch Dowling and his two aides at P.J.’s in Nevada City are busy these days turning steers, pigs and lambs sold at the Nevada County Fair into steaks, ham, bacon and sausages.

“We do it all, from start to finish,” Dowling said Thursday as he and his staff prepared T-bone and Porterhouse steaks at the shop at 756 Zion St. In Nevada City.

P.J.’s cuts, wraps, smokes and cures meat. It is the only custom butcher shop in western Nevada County that works from carcasses – bones and all.



“It’s not chop chop. They’re all done differently,” Dowling said of the orders.

Dowling, 41, said he learned the trade from Pat “P.J.” Johnson, who started P.J.’s in 1972 when he bought the meat shop from Joe Dilley, one of SPD Markets’ founders. Dowling, his wife, Krista, and other partners bought the business when Johnson and his wife retired in1995.




Butchering, Dowling said, is a dying trade.

Ken Dolan, a semi-retired butcher, works at P.J.’s when the demand is high.

Now 69 and retired for 10 years as SPD’s meat manager, Dolan said he still loves the work, even when it means less time for his golf game.

“I just enjoy (the work),” he said. “It’s what I do … and it’s what I know.”

Dolan said he learned the basics of meat cuttings in his early 20s, when he was a grocery clerk in his home state of South Dakota. Customers stayed home during blizzards, and business was slow. That’s when he started helping the butcher.

“That got me addicted,” said Dolan, who later did a three-year apprenticeship in Southern California.

Dameon St. Clair, who started working at P.J. five years ago as a cleanup boy, may represent the next generation.

The 20-year-old now cuts meats alongside Dowling. One day, his boss says, St. Clair will be able to do it all.

On Thursday, St. Clair helped prepare beef steaks.

“Just to learn how to cut stuff is the hard part,” he said. “But once you get it down, it’s pretty easy.”

None of his friends are butchers, he said, but they are curious about his job, and he likes that. “It makes you feel interesting.”

Ray Hoegger, co-owner of Allen’s Custom Meats of Auburn, agrees butchering is a lost art. Small butcher shops are few and far between, he said.

Hoegger, who says he cut and wrapped 24 pigs, four steers and three lambs bought at the county fair this year, said most butchers in grocery stores get meats pre-packed in boxes, with 90 percent of the work done.

“All they have to do is slice it,” he said. “No one knows what to do with the carcasses anymore.”

P.J.’s bone-in ham won first prize this year at the American Association of Meat Processors’ annual convention in Reno. The association has 1,800 members.

The U.S. Agricultural Department Agriculture reports that in 1999, the average American ate 197 pounds of red meat, poultry and fish – 64 pounds more than in the 1950s.


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