In the latest of his reminiscences on the early days of the Waikato meat trade, Bill Waring recalls how to judge an animal’s meat quality while still on the hoof, and the pre-refrigeration days when the butcher’s van had to make regular deliveries to far-flung clients.
Initially, most times I made a livestock purchase, one of Father’s friends would either compliment me on my choice or point out the defects. There were many skills needed to be quickly learned; for example the colour of the white of the animal’s eye would indicate the colour of fat the animal carcase would display when slaughtered. When an animal was in prime condition the flank of the animal would move marginally forward in time with the hind leg as it walked.
I learned what to look for: to buy from the ground when bidding on steer cattle and from on top of the rails when buying heifer stock. To read the ‘staple’ of the wool on lambs or hoggets (this indicated the type of paddock they had been grazing in prior to marketing), and the skin sheen on a pig which indicated the fat content.
Before live weight scales came into use, I was taught how to use the constant size of the stock pens to judge the frame and weight of the cattle. I was taught not to look at the cattle but at the space remaining in the pen – the larger the space left, the smaller the frames that particular pen of cattle carried.
With the advent of platform scales the skill of assessing weight by the eye was no longer required, and so the percentage yield of different carcass breeds became the more important task to be learned, especially with the introduction of exotic cattle, such as Limousin, Simmental, and Murray Grey. To learn that skill I sat for six weeks on the buyers bench and just looked, following the purchased cattle through to the retail counter. I learned that the Limousin’s meat fibre was akin to thick school blotting paper, which held its juices well, while the Simmental’s seemed more like that of long-grained Oregon Pine planks, releasing its juices too early when being sliced for retail. My favourite animal was Limousin over Angus, which gave a Limousin muscling with an Angus meat sheen – the sheen giving an eye appeal to the shopper.
Waring’s business (and also Collingwood’s, who had shops in Ohinewai, Te Hoe, and Tahuna) was mostly rural and on a delivery, and because of that the giving of monthly credit was a necessary part of the scene. The orders were phoned for on the morning of delivery, and cut, wrapped and delivered within hours on the same day. Weekend orders were cut the day before and delivered early on the Friday or Saturday mornings to avoid the later heat of the day. The Taupiri post office switchboard operators were very competent in coping with our phoning out to the party lines as long as we commenced phoning for orders by 7am, before the manual switchboards got too busy.
To assist us at that time of the morning, the switchboard operators would work two party lines at a time, switching us from one line to our next request on the second party line, then reverting back to the first line as each call was completed. Some of the better operators could even work three party lines.
When the three lines were being operated we had to have quick voice recognition to avoid an order being placed alongside the wrong name. Once the lines started to ring, the customers would have their orders ready; those requiring nothing would advise the operator who would ring the next customer without needing to refer back to our office. The average call took around 30 seconds.
Our main delivery was 40 miles (Monday, Wednesday and Friday), the second 27 miles, (Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday), and carried out during the war on the baldest tyres imaginable, with rubber tubes even showing through the tyre cases. The puncture rate on the blue chip metal roads averaged at least two per week. While petrol rationing was on, our entitlement was 72 gallons per month. We had to make our own brake fluid with a mix of kerosene and castor oil. One of the junior staff made a well-lubricated mistake when he mistook it for alcohol and gave himself a general ‘clean out’.
Not every home had a phone, and not everybody remembered to put an order in the box. To overcome that difficulty, all that was required from the customer was the family size plus any meat dislikes, and from this a varied parcel would be made up and sent each delivery. Others lacking a phone would have a standard meat order that covered a period of time, with an alternative beef, hogget or pork roast to be sent each weekend delivery. Had every customer on the main 40-mile delivery made a purchase on a single day, there would have been just short of 180 stops; the average was around 120 to 130.
As well as the butcher, the local grocer, baker, and cream cartage contractor all ran delivery services, and each helped the other if needed. Each supplier was called on prior to delivery to check for parcels – we could not have managed on our petrol ration otherwise. Petrol rationing remained many years after the war. Early Friday morning dawn deliveries, often in the peat fog, could be a hazard, as care had to be taken to avoid farmers carting their whole milk to the Orini cheese factory and returning with their whey allocation. Each farmer was responsible for their own milk to factory cartage in those days.
By and large, the rural people received a delivery service that would not be countenanced now, as well as credit extended monthly or beyond, at prices comparable with those in Hamilton. Speaking of prices, in 1941 sausages were sixpence per pound, mince seven pence, beef steaks ten pence, rolled roasts eleven pence, sirloin roasts and rump steak both one shilling and two pence, and fillet steak one shilling and four pence. Weekend family roasts varied from 3 to 5 pounds in weight, and yes, the ‘Scotch fillet’ was left in the roast.
In late 1941 when I commenced continuous employment, I was only aware of three electric home refrigerators on our 40-mile main delivery. The most popular cool storage system was clay pipes – glazed were best to keep out the dampness. The family size was indicated by the circumference of the pipe. These were buried perpendicularly into the ground onto a flat concrete slab or something suitable to keep out burrowing vermin, and located either on the shady side of the house or under a shady tree.
A heavy lid was required for the top. Meat and milk could keep well for several days using this system. It was the lack of home refrigeration that gave the country butcher the business that there was. Lack of refrigeration made home-kill beef a waste except to corn/salt the major portions. However, during the depression many a cow was known to have been `corned’ in the domestic bath.
If you missed it, Chapter 1 is here.