WITH LONG BLOND HAIR, brown eyes shadowed in heavy blue and lips painted medium-rare pink, 5-foot-5, 110-pound Tina Erbe looks out of place among the round-bellied men who stand behind the meat counter at Larimer's.
The fact is, they don't make meat cutters the way they used to, and Erbe definitely does belong. She is among a slowly increasing number of women getting into the male-dominated business of meat cutting.
In this case, women's liberation coincided with boxed beef; up until about 15 years ago, whole 175-pound hinds and fronts of beef would arrive, from a slaughterhouse in Wichita, at a Safeway warehouse. The carcass would be "broken down" at the warehouse and the resulting primal cuts--loins, rounds, etc.--shipped to the respective stores for further cutting into steaks and roasts. Now most of the meat comes into the chain store warehouse, the Northeast wholesale operation or the specialty shop already reduced to primal sections--and vacuum-packed in a Cryovac wrapper. Today's meat cutter deals with smaller pieces.
Although the advent of boxed beef has made it easier for women to do the job, competition is stronger, because the automation and mechanization that go with boxing beef have decreased the numbers of both butchers (a title reserved for those who slaughter) and meat cutters. Many companies are "not adding new ones meat cutters ," either male or female, said Alan Lee, director of the retail division of the United Food and Commercial Workers, the union that represents them.
"Whether or not women could do the job, there was probably less desire for them to do it" 20 years ago, said Tom McDermott of the National Livestock and Meat Board, who added that "even little men couldn't handle" lugging entire carcasses. Some of the old-time meat men still can't picture it. "I'm not being a chauvinist, but you can't expect a woman to pick up a 75-pound round on her shoulder," said Jack Goldstein of Evans & Van Cleef, a wholesale operation in Northeast Washington. (But ask Danny Johnson, a supervisor at Bay State Beef who has a woman meat cutter, Betty Rehmann, working for him, and he'll say, "I'd like to have a full crew of women, if they could all lift like Betty.")
Yet the idea of women as meat cutters, or even butchers, is not a new one; according to Jack Freund, a Polish-born kosher butcher at Katz's, who says many European women were butchers. There, it was "a family affair"; if the husband was a butcher, the wife gradually learned, said Freund.
Other things don't change either, whatever the gender. Nowadays, meat cutters still think of their knives as extensions of their hands (so much so that the ones who talk with their hands end up talking with their knives). And the meat cutter's wardrobe--the layers of shirts underneath the white aprons--hasn't changed. (It'll always be cold where there's meat to keep.)
Women meat cutters, though, have certain attributes that their male managers are starting to notice. They're neater, report their bosses, have "more eye to detail," and are thus being assigned to the cuts that require more finesse--slicing and weighing tenderloins, for example. Actually, the way meat comes in (primarily Cryovac wrapped--a plastic vacuum material) and the equipment (such as band saws and grinders) vary little from one store to another. The real difference between meat cutters' jobs lies in the size of a store's meat operation and the amount of customer interaction. Among females in the field, this difference translates into the way in which they view themselves as women--and meat cutters. The Hipbone's Connected to the . . .
"This is the longest they've ever been," says 20-year-old Erbe, running her stubby fingernails across a cafe table near Larimer's supermarket in Crystal City Underground, where she works as a meat cutter two days a week (the rest of the week she is at the Connecticut Avenue store).
She's never been bothered by what other people think is "icky," and besides, behind all the femininity, Erbe is a hard-core steak-and-potatoes woman. Coming from restaurant roots, she was brought up on meat by her chef-father, loves fried gristle and eats her steaks (two or three a week) "blue--just cool in the center."
At first Ron and Marlene Zimmerman and their son Andy, owners of Larimer's, were apprehensive about training Erbe, who at the time was working at the deli counter of the store's Crystal City branch. "We didn't know if it was our image," says Andy Zimmerman, who said he ended up heavily lobbying for Erbe. Now Zimmerman thinks "she's great" and says that, compared with some of the old-line butchers, she "takes more pride" in her work. And, says Zimmerman, besides "cutting beautiful meat," Erbe can handle the biggest problem of specialty shop butchers: "getting one who knows how to talk to people."
Sometimes it's "a suggestive sale," admits Zimmerman, referring to the men who will ask Erbe for recommendations about what to serve their dates. As for women shoppers, when Erbe first started, they would sometimes grill her on recipe hints and then "ask somebody else to cut her meat." And some of the older customers would just grumble and watch. Now, though, Erbe says of the Zimmermans: "I think they like the attention" she gets.
For Erbe, the hardest part of her on-the-job training was learning the parts of the steer. When she was asked to fetch sirloin tip roasts from the cooler, for example, she couldn't find them. The boxes said "Knuckles," which she later was told was a different name for the same cut. So section by section, she would practice. If Larimer's was putting the sirloin tip roasts on sale, for instance, that's all she would cut that day. And to help her remember her cuts, she started comparing the sections--loins, ribs, round--to the human body.
Along the way she learned that shoppers, too, "don't understand where meat comes from," says Erbe. For instance, a customer will make a synonymous request such as, 'I see you have tenderloins for sale. Do you also have filet mignons?' Recipes are also misleading, she said. Customers will ask her for a leg of veal, for instance, because it's in the recipe. A leg of veal weighs 50 pounds; the recipe "usually means rump roast."
Recipe recommendations and salesmanship are what she enjoys most about her job, such as suggesting that a shopper buy tenderloin, not a rib roast, to cook on the grill. One time a woman who had bought a leg of lamb later called Erbe in a panic; she wanted Erbe to butterfly it for her--at the woman's house. Instead, Erbe took her through the procedure step by step over the phone. And then there are the tough customers, the man who was adamant that one duck would serve six dinner guests (Erbe insisted he buy two); the types who ask for her opinion and then disagree.
It's late afternoon and Erbe is trimming and tying a tenderloin. Compared to Harley Caldwell, a 51-year veteran doing the same next to her, Erbe's movements are smooth and swooping; Caldwell's are short and quick. To trim the other side of the tenderloin, he flips the meat over so it lands with a thud; she just turns it over. With a sharp thin knife and with seemingly little effort, she trims the fat off ("you want to make sure you don't stab it or tear it 'cause it's so tender," she says), tilts her head and pats the meat knowingly, the way a cook would step back after the final stroke of icing on a cake.
The after-work crowd is starting to filter in. "How do you cook those?" a male customer asks Erbe, pointing to the mushroom caps stuffed with crabmeat in the case. "Five minutes under the broiler," she answers. "Tina, do you handle the cheese department?" he asks. Breezily, she shouts across the counter. "No, darling." Just One of the Guys
If Erbe uses femininity to advantage on the job, Betty Rehmann survives by being one of the guys. She says she likes the cold--and she likes the men. You can't be a lady in the warehouse, says Rehmann, smoking a cigarette and straddling a bench in the women's locker room at Bay State Beef, the Northeast wholesale house where she works. "You can't say 'I can't do this.' But as long as they the men see you trying, they'll help you."
Okie Street is a familiar hangout for Rehmann. At 16, she was racing up and down that street in her '56 Oldsmobile convertible. And when she was 18, she worked as a meat packer at Swift & Co., also on Okie Street. Now, after a quarter century in the meat business, Rehmann is back to her old stomping ground; this time as a full-fledged meat cutter at Bay State, located on the premises of the old Swift & Co. building.
"I'm from the Stone Age as far as women's lib goes," says Bay State owner Peter Alafoginis. Rehmann convinced him to hire her.
Rehmann is hotheaded when it comes to public misconceptions about meat--and she says the chain stores could do more to help. (Barbara Ettinger, consumer affairs adviser of Safeway, said that 10 or 15 years ago the store instituted a meat department educational program, but these days "attention has shifted to the nutrition and produce sections.") For instance, a porterhouse steak, explains Rehmann, consists of a New York strip steak on one side of the bone, a filet mignon on the other. So if you buy a porterhouse (which is cheaper than either of the other two cuts) and cut it yourself, you're getting the same thing, she says.
Other ways to cut down on meat costs as suggested by Rehmann and her supervisor Danny Johnson: Stew beef and boneless chuck are the same cut; stew beef is just boneless chuck cut into chunks and sold at a higher price. And the more expensive cube steak is just bottom round that's been put through a cuber.
As at Larimer's, much of the meat at Bay State arrives in vacuum-packed bags to be broken down into steaks and roasts. But unlike Larimer's, which grinds its beef from remainders of the primal cuts, and Safeway, which receives the beef pre-ground from its packing plant (all for the premium grades), Bay State grinds its beef from the hinds and fronts it has hung, and that ground beef, ground chuck, lean, etc., is made into some of the best burgers in town (such as Bon Appetit's and Houston's).
Rehmann said she has broken down whole hinds in her time, but doesn't do it anymore; now her day consists of mostly portion control--cutting and weighing 2 1/2-ounce tenderloins (3,000 a week) and cutting T-bones with the meat saw. Wearing a Bay State Beef hard hat and gloves caked with fat (she always wears them, even though "the guys think I'm a sissy"), Rehmann is like a one-person assembly line as she cuts each filet, weighs it and shoves it into its plastic tray. Up Through the Ranks
For Vernia Kennedy, the meat manager at Safeway's 4310 Connecticut Ave. store, being a meat cutter doesn't involve analyzing sex roles. For her, it's a job.
Kennedy, who was a meat wrapper with Safeway for 12 years, went through the store's meat cutter apprenticeship program starting in 1977, finishing her training in eight months. After taking a series of tests (both practical and on paper), Kennedy moved on to the next stage--a journeyman. After that, she became "a first cutter" and then a meat manager in 1981.
Unlike Rehmann and Erbe, Kennedy often works alone. Behind the mysterious glass across from the refrigerator case, the work space is small--a grinder, a meat saw and counter space is about it, and there is a walk-in meat freezer stocked with shelves of vacuum-packed meat that comes from the chain's Landover warehouse.
Most customers don't know how to save money on meat, says Kennedy. Most of the questions she gets consist of "What size roast do I need for seven people?" or "How do you cook it?"
Her friends all ask her, "How can you stand the cold? How can you stand looking at blood?" Kennedy always has an answer. "How can you sit in an office all day?"
Here are some recipes from the meat women. LARIMER'S LAMB KEBABS (4 servings)
Tina Erbe sometimes prepares this recipe for Larimer's. For the marinade: 1/4 cup capers$$4 cloves garlic, minced 2 cups red wine or enough to cover lamb For the kebabs: 1 1/2 pounds boneless leg of lamb, cut into 1-inch cubes 1 small eggplant, cut into 1-inch chunks 8 pearl onions 1 green pepper, cut into 1-inch chunks 8 mushrooms, halved 8 cherry tomatoes
Combine marinade ingredients and marinate lamb at least 2 hours, preferably overnight. (Any or all of the vegetables may also be marinated at the same time.) Alternate vegetables with lamb on skewers and grill 5 minutes on each side. VERNIA KENNEDY'S MEATLOAF (4 to 6 servings) 1 pound premium ground beef 1/4 pound ground lamb 1/4 pound ground pork 1/2 cup chopped onions 1/2 cup chopped green pepper 1 tablespoon flour 1 egg 1/4 cup tomato sauce Salt and pepper to taste 2 cups mashed potatoes
Mix all ingredients except potatoes and place in a greased 9-by-5-inch loaf pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Allow to cool for 10 minutes. Remove from loaf pan and spread top and sides with mashed potatoes, much as you would ice a cake. Serve hot. BETTY REHMANN'S SPARERIBS (4 servings) 4 pounds pork spareribs 1 1/2 cups catsup 1/4 cup honey 1 tablespoon worcestershire sauce 3 cloves garlic, minced Boil spareribs in water to cover, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until tender. Combine catsup, honey, worcestershire sauce and garlic. Drain and place in broiler, basting ribs with sauce as they cook, 5 minutes on each side.