Editor's note: I just want to take a moment here to introduce this post, and then I'll let you have at it. On Fridays, we'll be featuring Southern Foodways items, from Melissa Hall of the Southern Foodways Alliance. The SFA is an organization based in Oxford, Mississippi, that "documents and celebrates the diverse food cultures of the American South." This is the first in the series. Dig in! Adam
Immigration is in the news and working its way in to the consciousness of thinking eaters everywhere. The reality: Much of the food we enjoy comes to us through the labor of immigrants—on the farm and in the kitchen. Much of the recent political debate centers on the arrival or deportation of immigrants. Little is said about those folks who are already here. Still less is said about the impact these folks have on the culinary life of their new communities.
In Carrboro, North Carolina (just outside of Chapel Hill), Cliff Collins (pictured) started working in a local meat market when he was still in high school. After five years behind the counter, he decided to open a place of his own. The year was 1973. Thousands of pork chops and chicken breasts later, Cliff’s Meat Market, the last of the family-owned markets in the area, is still going strong.
Cliff has built his reputation on quality, variety, and, above all, hospitality. Most all of his customers have been buying from him for years. Some stop in just to chat. Part of his secret, though, is that he isn’t afraid to change with the times. When his customers requested organic meats, he got them. When Latinos came to the Carrboro community, he hired them. Cliff’s is one of the only butcher shops where you’ll find beef sirloin next to marinated pork for tacos al pastor. And it’s certainly the only place you’ll find Cliff.
Cliff relishes the challenge of serving an evolving culinary community.
And also it’s satisfying me to get what they want and to be able to tell them, “Oh yes, I can get that. I know what it is.” And they say, “You really do?” They say, “Nobody else in town—I’ve been everywhere; they don’t know what I’m talking about.” I said, “That’s the reason you need to come here.” [Laughs] And I can probably tell them that, “I can get this for you. Now if you just give me a picture of it. I know the cow well enough after all the years that I can tell you where it come from. I can tell you by the grain of the meat and what part of the cow it was in—most every time or the shape of it or the texture or the—just a view of how the muscle grows and tell them what they want.
He also enjoys watching how one customer’s desire for the familiar becomes a market trend.
We have the customers—a lot of times the customers come in and say, “Well, when I was in Mexico—” or “When I was in El Salvador, we got the chicken breast sliced thin.” I said, “Okay, no problem.” They say, “What do you mean, no problem?” I said, “Let’s take the knife, and then I’ll slice it thin. Is that thin enough?” They said, “Yeah, that’s exactly right.” And the next thing you know, I’ve got ten people waiting in line to get the same item.
To learn more about Collins and his market, visit southernfoodways.com