MCCONNELLSBURG, PA. -- Richard Rotz holds a razor-sharp knife, poised like a conductor's baton, over an entire pork loin and awaits the customer's instructions.
Before him on the stainless steel table are 13 pounds of meat, give or take a couple of ounces, all in a chunk. What it becomes -- chops, roasts, tenderloin, back ribs, or a little of each -- depends on the cook's whim and how Rotz wields the knife.
Time was when buying meat this way was standard procedure: Customer face to face with butcher, communing over an amorphous slab that would become the makings of an entree with a few deft strokes. Today, most cooks make do with what's offered up on a foam tray in the supermarket. For those with a yen for the real thing, in an authentic setting, there are still a few old-fashioned butcher shops around, tucked into corners of the countryside.
Rotz Meats -- "Country Butcher Shop," the sign says -- is just north of McConnellsburg, the seat of Fulton County in south-central Pennsylvania. The white-painted butchering house and retail shop are just over two hours northwest of Washington by car, but for the shopper accustomed to precut and prepackaged supermarket meat, it is like a trip into another era.
In the main cutting room, a vast cauldron of lard is roiling and another steel pot is cooking up "pudding," a kind of pork hash that is usually sliced and fried for breakfast. Cooling in a back room are loaf pans of panhas, a traditional Pennsylvania Dutch delicacy made of pork broth thickened with corn meal and flour.
And over it all wafts the hickory-smoke scent of the house specialty, country-cured ham and bacon.
A glass-front counter in the small retail shop displays ready-cut steaks and roasts, ground beef and homemade sausage -- mild, Italian or smoked. But many customers here prefer to have their dinner cut to order, from the joints and sides and loins hanging in the back cooler, and three generations of Rotzes have been happy to comply. "We're here for a service, and we try to give our customers what they want," said Rotz.
That is, if what they want is pork or beef. You won't find poultry of any kind here, or veal, or much in the way of luncheon meat. "The only lunch meat we sell is our own ham, boned, tied and cooked up," said Rotz's sister, Marion Walker, who with her husband, Charles, and son, Steve, helps run the business.
The focus here is on pork, in large part because the Rotzes believe that they are in a unique position to provide what the supermarkets cannot -- freshness.
"All beef is aged," said Marion Walker. "It's not as hard to get good beef as it is good pork. Pork is not something that keeps well. The fresher you can get pork, the better, and it's hard for supermarkets to get pork that's real fresh."
Rotz concurs. "The stores get it vacuum-packed," he said. "It's not frozen but it's not fresh either, and with pork that's a sensitive issue."
To get the freshest, the Rotzes start by producing their own hogs. More than two-thirds of the pork sold at Rotz Meats comes from animals born and raised on the family farm. The rest they buy locally. When it was decided eight years ago to add beef to the meat case, the family arranged to have the cattle raised locally as well.
Hogs are butchered twice weekly during the season to assure a fresh pork supply. That means that the meat is never more than four days off the farm by the time it arrives on the dinner table.
"Some of the meat in the counter there was walking around this morning," said Rotz.
In Fulton County, folks know the difference. The county's motto is "Where Country is Still Country," and in this rural enclave home butchering is still common. Iron kettles and hog scrapers still get a workout each fall, when the first frosty nights signal the start of butchering season. That's how Rotz Meats got its start in the 1940s, founded by Richard and Marion's father, Harold.
"He started out helping butcher for neighbors," said Marion Walker, 63. "It was custom butchering, mostly hogs."
The family also raised and dressed chickens, which were sold to a grocery store in nearby Waynesboro, Pa. When the store owner requested cured hams, Harold Rotz complied, dry-curing and smoking the meat the old-fashioned way.
Eventually Harold and his wife, Beulah, built a slaughterhouse at their farm, about a mile north of the current business. Marion Walker recalls that "my mother used to have to run back to the cooler when somebody wanted a pound of sausage."
The business expanded of necessity in the late 1960s when Congress enacted a strict new federal meat inspection law. The old slaughterhouse wouldn't pass muster, so the Rotzes built a new facility on Marion and Charles Walker's farm, completing it just ahead of the deadline.
Richard Rotz, 50, joined the family business in 1980, leaving behind a career as a high school teacher and band director. Steve Walker, 32, came back to Fulton County four years ago, choosing a rural life for his family over programming computers for the military in California.
Harold Rotz died in 1988, but Beulah Rotz, 85, remains active in the business. Among other things, she's in charge of the ponhas (pronounced "pahn hahs"), one of the few items the family sells wholesale to local supermarkets.
Local restaurants also account for some of the family's business, but the majority of the fresh meat is sold retail at the shop. Customers come from neighboring counties and from as far away as Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. "Weekenders" from the Baltimore and Washington areas are frequent shoppers, sometimes calling ahead to place orders.
The fastest-growing part of the business, however, is the country-cured ham that helped launch Rotz Meats more than 40 years ago.
Before refrigeration became common, farmers cured meats to keep them over the winter. The traditional "country cure" involves coating the ham with a dry sugar-salt mixture. The mixture is allowed to penetrate the meat over a period of weeks, then the ham is washed, smoked and finally aged. Thus treated, a whole ham will keep for months or even years without refrigeration.
Modern curing methods involve injecting hams with a curing fluid. The method takes days rather than weeks, but the process adds water to the meat and the ham must be refrigerated.
Bowing to changing consumer tastes, the Rotzes have adapted their curing recipe to minimize salt, but in all other respects the process follows tradition. Tables in a back cooler hold stacks of hams in various stages of curing. The smoker is a modern steel adaption of the old wooden smokehouse, but beneath its floor grill is a real hickory wood fire that either Marion Walker or her husband must come out each night to stoke.
"It's an old-fashioned dry cure, no shortcuts," said Richard Rotz.
The hams are a popular item locally. Many restaurants in Fulton and surrounding counties feature country ham dinners and sandwiches, and more often than not the ham is from Rotz Meats. Hundreds more hams are consumed each year at nearby festivals and fairs, including Fulton County's own three-day Fall Folk Festival in October.
Two years ago, the family decided to offer its cured meats by mail as well (for information, call 717-485-3467 or write Rotz Meats, HC 75 Box 30, McConnellsburg, Pa. 17233). Hams are available whole or sliced into steaks or thin "breakfast ham" pieces, with or without accompaniments of Pennsylvania maple syrup and flannel cake mix from the stone grist mill at Burnt Cabins, a few miles north of McConnellsburg.
The decision to enter the mail-order business accounts for the modern vacuum-packing machine that sits near Rotz's office, conspicuous and a little incongruous amid the pudding vats and old-fashioned lard press. The machine is used to pack bacon and slices of country ham, which become more perishable when cut.
The cured-meat business has been successful enough that the family's hog operation can no longer supply all the hams required. "We buy some hams fresh, and then usually trim them some more," said Richard Rotz. "We're careful about how much fat we have on the meat."
That's a far cry from the way it was when the business started. "When my dad was butchering, farmers used to have contests to see who could produce the fattest hog," Marion Walker recalls.
Now the demand is for leaner meat, and the family's own animals are raised with that in mind. The trend has affected other aspects of the operation as well. "We used to make lard every day," said Rotz. "But lard doesn't sell like it used to."
Much of the butcher shop's lard output is sold to supermarkets. The biggest single customer is an Amish woman in Lancaster County who buys as much as 100 five-gallon buckets at a time, presumably for commercial baking purposes.
Paradoxically, the family has no trouble finding a market for its cracklings -- the crisp bits of cooked meat left over after the lard is pressed. "Cracklings are like gold," Rotz said with a laugh. "We have a list of people who want to get cracklings."
So it goes. One foot in the modern era and one planted firmly in the traditions of the past. Steve Walker is experimenting with "heat-and-eat" products featuring the family's pork, such as barbecued sausage and precooked barbecued ribs. "Everybody wants something that they can just put in the microwave," said Marion Walker.
On the other hand, in an era when most consumers expect to buy whatever they want whenever they want it, Rotz Meats still provides fresh meat only in the cool season. Butchering starts around Labor Day and stops at the end of May. In the summer months, only cured meats are available.
The tradition has its roots in the days before refrigeration, but the Rotzes adhere to it for reasons that are no less pragmatic. The summer months are spent growing, harvesting and storing the crops that feed the hogs that produce the meat, not to mention a few sidelight activities like growing and selling sweet corn and Charles Walker's own bred-for-Fulton County hybrid field corn.
"We're busy," said Richard Rotz.
Cass Peterson is a former Washington Post national reporter turned farmer who still finds time now and then to write.