It’s early morning on the east coast of the US on Thanksgiving Day. Around here, that means tradition is in the air: Buttermás will soon be over, and today is our last day to revel in sweetness of all things buttery.
Today being Thanksgiving, many of us are already busy preparing for a feast. Yesterday, I went to see Sonny D’Angelo to pick up our turkey. D’Angelo’s is in the 9th Street Market – you probably know what it looks like, if you remember that scene where Rocky is running up the middle of the street, trash cans ablaze to either side of him, as he’s chased by a group of children cheering him on. Those same trash cans are still ablaze, as it’s the most convenient way to dispose of the wooden pallets on which most vendors’ daily provisions arrive, as well as to keep warm.
Sonny’s a good bet if you need a pasture-raised turkey, rabbit, pheasant, alligator or elk. Or sausage made with all five. Now, normally, Sonny is perfectly pleasant, if a little a dry-humored. But by the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, he has plucked the feathers out of 700-1000 birds, and is slightly less good natured than usual.
This is Sonny, holding a piece of pastrami made from wild boar. He is smiling. Trust me. Also, this picture was either taken 10 years ago, or 20 years from now – it’s impossible to tell, because this man never ages.
That’s Sonny in one of his lighter moods. That is, not during Thanksgiving week.
I once walked into Sonny’s, a few Thanksgivings ago, to pick up our bird. That day, there was a line of 10-12 people. Now it helps to picture the rest of Sonny’s shop, which is about 40 feet long, and 15 feet wide – he stands behind the refrigerator cases, and customers wait on the other side. The walls of his meat shop are festooned with animal pelts, antlers and snake skins hung on all manner of meat hooks. The refrigerator cases are filled with hand-made sausages, pâtes, confits and steaks of dizzying variety, and there are several hand-written signs which read, among other things, “All Prices Quoted in Cash. Credit Cards, Add 10%. Tell Me First.”
Between the cases are two 100+ year-old standing butcher blocks, brought to the United States from Italy by Sonny’s grandfather. They are worn but sturdy, with depressions worn into the centers of each of them from the blows of a million cleaver strikes, swung with expert marksmanship upon the neck or carcass of an unsuspecting turkey, rabbit, rattlesnake, you name it.
Seriously – look at the curvature of that butcher block table in front of his apron. That is aged, kiln-dried end-block wood that’s been worn down over decades.
Sonny is a consummate professional, with a deep and unassuming knowledge of all sorts of meats, game and fowl, and wields his skills deftly and without flair. If you are ever in Philadelphia, stroll on down South 9th St. and go see him. And try his elk jerky – it is amazing.
Now, on this particular day, as I waited my turn to read aloud the number I’d been given a month prior, when I’d come in to order my turkey, Sonny was busy preparing a Turducken. (That’s a chicken, stuffed inside of a duck, stuffed inside of a turkey. Sonny’s is layered with sausage stuffing in between each bird, and is magnificent.)
The first step in preparing a turducken is to debone a turkey. Sonny can do it in 70 seconds. I timed him. He starts by splitting open the bird along its chest, with three whacks of a cleaver.
Whack! Whack! Whack!
The bird splits open, and Sonny picks up a long, sharp-tipped knife and begins slicing away tendons and meat from the bones. 40 seconds later, he removes the entire skeleton of the turkey, in one piece. Seriously, it looks like something in a Looney Toons cartoon, where a turkey’s skeleton has been scared out of its body but still manages to hold its form upright. He tosses the bones into a large pot, which is evidently going to be used to make stock.
As you might imagine, this is somewhat intimidating, if impressive, to watch. A dozen other patrons and I are standing, alarmed and amazed, in awed silence. Sonny slides the boneless turkey to the side, and brings forth the duck.
Just then, a short, burly man swings open the door to this tiny shop, and calls out over the crowd:
“How much are your turkeys?”
Whack. The duck splits open after a single, deft blow.
The rest of us fall dead silent. I am fairly certain one of us gasped, possibly me. Sonny is not, on any day, someone to be trifled with, and this gentleman is clearly unaware of the shocking faux pas he has committed. There is a procedure to be followed on these days, and we all know it instinctively: wait your turn, recite your number, pay for your bird and go. Say “Happy Thanksgiving”, but don’t necessarily expect it to be returned with much joie de vivre; that’s not Sonny’s style, and especially not today.
The rest of us, certain that a calamity is about to ensue, scan for a quick exit. We are out of luck – the interloper is blocking the only door out of the place. There is the front window, which one could theoretically dive through, but it is crowded with hanging pheasants and rabbits, and piles of alligator and turtle meat.
Sonny raises his cleaver to about shoulder height, turns to the gentleman, and says, “You don’t ask me how much my turkeys are; you ask me if I have any turkeys.”
Undeterred, and visibly annoyed at having been corrected, the man shouts back (this is South Philly, after all, where men are men, foolhardy or not), “you have any turkeys!?”, jutting his neck forward with each word, as if to imitate the animal he wished to procure.
Whack. The duck’s head, newly departed from its body, rolls across the butcher block.
The rest of us, eager to avoid the horrifying scene we’re all sure we’re about to witness, inch slowly backwards towards the pelts hanging from the meathooks on the back wall. In a pinch, I think, one of these might be used for self defense.
“No,” says Sonny.
“What’s that?” says the man, incredulous, pointing at the now-boneless split-open turkey carcass laying limp next to the duck.
“That,” replies Sonny, calmly and cooly, clearly straining to keep himself from leaping over the butcher block and demonstrating his deboning technique on this protocol-ignoring guest, “will be a Turducken. It was ordered three weeks ago.”
Somehow, while explaining this, Sonny has also managed to debone the entire duck without looking at it, and has moved on to the chicken.
We – the 12 potential future patrons of the Federal Witness Protection Program – are all staring at the man in the doorway, eyes wide and pleading, silently, “Do. Not. Say. Anything. Else…. Just. Go. Please.”
“How much is that?!”
I think, maybe, I can head for the back door. I don’t know where it leads – all I know is that Sonny or his brother go back there to fetch each of the turkeys when a customer comes and follows the proper procedure for purchasing theirs – so if nothing else, there’s probably a room full of meat I can hide under.
Having sensed that further inquiries were not going to net him a Thanksgiving turkey – either that, or having noticed the increasing force with which Sonny’s cleaver was meeting the butcher block with each reply – the burly man turned around, and left in a huff. Sonny proceeded to finish with the chicken, layering the three fowl with sausage stuffing, and sewed up the whole masterpiece with a length of butcher’s twine, and a technique that would put the most skilled surgeon to shame.
He wipes his hands on his apron, moves over to the meat case and smiles.
It may seem strange to some people, but this is one of my favorite Thanksgiving stories. I’m a great admirer of craft, and the people who have the fortitude and stamina to maintain it, and nurture it, with or without the admiration of those around them. Sonny is one of those people, and he does so without the slightest pretension. But nor does he suffer fools gladly.
I imagine, accurately or not, that he will be sitting down today with his favorite people, enjoying what is probably the most well-chosen and deftly-carved fowl on the planet.
This Thanksgiving, I hope you are surrounded by your favorite people, and your favorite foods. I know we will be enjoying our turkey later this evening, with all our chosen trimmings. And if you should be so warm and welcoming as to include us in your holiday, I thank you for that, too.
P.S. Here’s the secret to the most perfect roast turkey you’ll ever have. Actually, there are three:
- Buy a good bird. Pastured birds are good, wild birds are best.
- Whether or not you brine your bird, once you’ve brought the bird up to room temperature, stuff sprigs of rosemary and thyme between the skin and breast, as well as a few cloves of garlic. Stuff lightly, and smear the entire outside of the bird with a whole stick (8-12 oz) of salted butter. Don’t go easy on it.
- Put the bird in a 350 degree oven and close the oven. DO NOT OPEN THE OVEN TO BASTE THE BIRD. I repeat: NO BASTING! Basting is a sham, and opening that oven repeatedly does one and only one thing: it dries out your bird.
All this week we’re celebrating Buttermás (from the Spanish, Buttermás – which, loosely-translated means, “more butter”) an ancient holiday tradition which just so happens to straddle American Thanksgiving. It begins on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, and ends on the Friday after, encompassing one full week of rich, thick, buttery goodness.
* Buttermas (or, as they say in Spanish, Buttermás – which, loosely-translated means, “more butter”) is an ancient holiday tradition which just so happens to straddle American Thanksgiving. It begins on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, and ends on the Friday after, encompassing one full week of rich, thick, buttery goodness.
Join us as we celebrate the 7 Days of Buttermas:
- Day 1: The Thanking of All Ruminants
- Day 2: To Every Thing, There is a Churn
- Day 3: The Coating of the Super-heated Kernels
- Day 4: The Crumbling of the Butter Cookies (Paleo Edition)
- Day 5: The Making of Omelettes (CIA Operative Edition)
- Day 6: The Kramering of the Turkey
- Day 7: The Hoarding of fatCoffee for Winter