Where have all the grocers gone?
When I was a little girl, my grandmother would go to Shorling’s every Friday morning to pick up her weekend groceries. I accompanied her in the summertime, lingering over the pretty food. The guys working in the produce aisle would have samples to nibble while we shopped. Watermelon, sweet cherries, cantalope. Locally grown, of course.
The neighborhood grocer. They were everywhere in America. There was a helpful person in every department ready to answer your questions. At every moment, the produce, meats, breads were presented beautifully. Nothing was wrapped in styrofoam and plastic – it was all paper bags and butcher paper and twine.
The butcher was a big fellow with enormous hands. He would grind beef – mixing fat and what I imagine was chuck in ratios to order. “A little leaner this week,” my grandmother would say, “I’m watching Ben’s waistline.” There were accounts, billed monthly, and as kids we’d walk over to get an ice cream sandwich from the big freezer and we’d just sign our name.
Bag boys carefully packed (paper) bags and then walked them out to the car. Or they delivered the bags, boys driving their cars around the neighborhood, walking in perpetually unlocked back doors to set groceries down on the counter, placing the ice cream in the freezer.
We knew everyone who worked there, and they knew us.
Until I walked into Wagshal’s , a small, but extensively stocked, grocery store in northwest Washington, DC, I thought the neighborhood grocer was a thing of the past. Brian Fuchs, VP of Operations, invited me to tour his family’s operation recently. I spent a lovely morning peeking into all the corners of this tiny but vast emporium.
There are two shops – the grocery and the deli. At lunchtime, the deli makes some of the best sandwiches you’ll ever have. Do not miss the brisket – it’s been cured, smoked, baked and steamed and is falling apart tender – it’s the most amazing huge flavor. Each brisket takes over 52 days to produce, and each taste of this meat tells you how adoringly it’s been handled.
The Fuchs family is bringing back the neighborhood grocer, and part of the strategy seems to ride on their remarkable butcher, Pam Ginsberg. Pam works behind the meat counter, her area elevated above the sales floor, on a tiled platform with big stainless steel sinks and knives and able assistants gathered around marble and stainless counters.
Pam has been a butcher all her life. Her father worked as a butcher at DC’s Eastern Market. I asked her if the story is true – Pam, age seven, broke down her first side of beef – and yes, it is. A butcher ever since, seemingly, these are old world techniques she uses in cutting, preparing and otherwise offering up the most beautiful hand butchered meats I’ve seen in a long time.
Pam’s talent is evident. But what you don’t expect is the relationship she forms with the customers from the first moment. She’s interested in what everyone has to say, and she dispenses wisdom right back in a gentle, easy way. Her throaty banter is jocular, each person made to feel special, remembering everyone’s preferences, I am enchanted. I could stand all day and watch Pam work her magic from this most unlikely perch.
A frequent competitor and winner at Cochon and this year’s Lamb Jam, Pam knows her meat. She says “it’s who I was meant to be.” Pam the Butcher
The meats displayed are amazing – fat streaked steaks, generous roasts, marinated chicken, a broad range of house-made sausages, and a good amount of prime-display-case-real-estate devoted to pork – a very special pork. Iberico de Bellota, the near mystical acorn eating pig of Spain.
Note to Charcutepalooza DC’ers – Pam will fill special orders happily. And has fresh casings available by the foot.
While both the deli and the grocery are humming with activity nearly every moment they’re open, what’s happening behind the scenes is even more impressive. Like a well constructed beehive, the departments work together and separately to fill the shelves with an amazing range of options.
The seafood smells clean and fresh. Fruits and vegetables are appealing – a good selection of produce is fully represented and local, when possible. Bakery items range from decorated cookies and cupcakes to hearty breads. Pasta sauces make dinner a snap. If you want to spend a few more minutes, the range of frozen dinners, all house made in small batches, is impressive. And the charcuterie is awesome.
I tried both the lamb stew and the lamb shank, and I was pleasantly surprised. Frozen dinners aren’t usually on my grocery list, but I’ll be stashing a few of these in the freezer for some busy days ahead. .
Wagshal’s business now extends to a catering operation (Spring Valley Catering) and the day I visited, the kitchen was busy prepping for the Fancy Food Show. Am I lucky or what? They asked for my help! They needed my opinion! (seriously?) So I had to try THREE versions of heaven. Yes, heaven. Which cracker to serve it on… three tastes. Only three. I wanted thirty. Just a small amuse bouche – a thyme scented pork rillette with a sliver of cured Iberico de Bellotta. Rockstargood.
I hope you’ll visit Wagshal’s in Spring Valley. Their sandwiches are stellar. Let’s celebrate the grocery store. Go talk to Pam she’ll tell you how to make something special. Pick up some wine, pastries, charcuterie and cheese. It’s all been so carefully selected and prepared, just the way you would do it yourself.
I mentioned it twice already – I’ll bet you’re wondering, Iberico de Bellotta? Unless you know, in which case, you may already be in your car on the way to Wagshal’s.
This special pork is Spanish in origin, a breed nearly extinct when Chef Jose Andrés and Ferran Adria focused their attentions. It’s a wooly pig with unique fat streaked meat. Pastured and finished on acorns and mushrooms, the meat has an earthiness unlike any other. Wagshal’s has joined with Chef Andrés to bring the Iberico del Bellotta to America. Aren’t we lucky?
So, perhaps you are saying – another pig breed? Really? Yawn. Well, listen up. Once you taste the SECRETO cut, an amazing piece of porky fatty deliciousness, you will be a believer. You will think about it for days. The taste is so sweet, rich and perfect. It’s haunting. You will drive everywhere to find it. You will dream of Iberico de Bellota.
I’ve made the Secreto twice now and never got any of it onto a serving platter – it’s been devoured right off the cutting board, which is exactly what Pam told me would happen. Pam’s directions were clear. Sear each side in a super hot skillet. There should be a good crust on the outside and the meat should be pink and juicy on the inside. Drizzle with good honey, salt and pepper. Slice cross-wise in pieces the perfect size to pick up with your fingers.
Please make this sauce. It’s the most useful grilled pork or chicken glaze. A perfect dipping sauce for spring rolls or dumplings. It’s just all around wonderful. I’ve made it with red, yellow and purple plums and all kinds of combinations. I’ve blended it smooth, kept it chunky, and settled on something in between the two as my favorite texture, achieved with a few whirs with the immersion blender.
Absolute perfection with the Secreto.
Not into canning, but want to try this? I scaled down this recipe for my very first entry on Food52.
Spicy Plum Sauce
Makes 5 half pints
3 pounds pitted and chopped plums, any kind or combination
1-1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
3/4 cup white sugar
3/4 cup apple cider vinegar
3/4 cup onion, finely chopped
1 medium jalapeno pepper, finely chopped
3 teaspoons mustard seed
1.5 teaspoon salt
6 cloves garlic, minced
1-1/2 tablespoon fresh ginger, minced
Bring all ingredients except plums to a boil in a non-reactive pan.
Stir in chopped plums.
Reduce heat and simmer until thick and syrupy, stirring often, between 30-45 minutes, until it is reduced by more than half.
Mash with a potato masher, immersion blender, or regular blender if you want a smoother sauce.
Fill sterilized jars with hot sauce, leaving 1/4” headspace.
Process in a boiling water bath for 20 minutes.