Back in frigid February, the news hit like a razor-covered sledgehammer. My favorite butcher shop, Coney Island’s Major Prime Meat Market, was shuttering. Septuagenarian flesh monger Jimmy Prince was closeting his cleavers and trademark neckties. This meant no more dry-aged steaks and fresh-ground “murder” burgers.
“Maybe you’ll eat fewer hamburgers this summer,” my girlfriend said hopefully. She’s fearful of my early death and encourages me to consume comestibles that never mooed, quacked or oinked.
“No, I just need enough murder burgers to last me till September,” I replied. I headed to Coney, where Prince held court one final afternoon. Major’s long, snaking line contained a neighborhood cross-section of zaftig grandmas and pot-bellied papas, burly construction workers and harried moms, paying their final respects to the meat altar. Butcher shops, like post offices, are great egalitarian meeting grounds. My turn: I ordered several dozen ready-to-freeze murders. “I know summer is months away, but I just wanted to stock up for barbecue season,” I said. I smiled wanly, as big-band tunes glided from the cassette player.
Prince paused, his hands full of raw, red cow. “You know what,” he said, voice cracking. “I’m really going to miss barbecue season. It’s…my favorite time of the year.” His eyes drifted off to a happy land, where coals always glow white-hot.
“Mine too,” I said, gulping down a lump of sadness. It was an era’s end, another nail in the coffin of old New York. Major was irreplaceable, but it needed to be replaced. As my murder supply dropped, dwindled, then disappeared, I pedaled around Brooklyn, searching for a throwback shop where meat wasn’t sold in bloody Styrofoam. On a recent perambulation to East Flatbush to nab a fiery goat roti at
On a recent perambulation to East Flatbush to nab a fiery goat roti at Nio’s Trinidad Roti & Bakery (2702 Church Ave., at Rogers Ave., 718-287- 9848) and a honey-glazed donut at oldtimey Nostrand Donut Shop (1449 Nostrand Ave., betw. Martense St. & Church Ave., 718-826-3008), I noticed a neon sign reading MEATS.
It’s the calling card for Michael’s Prime Meats (1412 Nostrand Ave. betw. Linden Blvd. & Martense St., 718-284-8344; B’klyn), whose loping, cursive-font sign appeared in an era when beef was for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I entered the shop. It’s like coming home again for the very first time. Sawdust speckles the floor, while amply proportioned women speaking in island lilts order goat-shin meat. It’s a dizzying, carnivorous Disney Land.
“I can’t believe I’ve never been here,” I tell the white-haired counterman. I’m as wonderstruck as I was the first time I had sex: What have I been missing for so very long?
“Well, we’ve only been here 79 years,” he replies, introducing himself as Al. I tell him my name. “My grandson’s name is Josh. I’ll never forget you.” Happiness surges through me; my grandparents long ago passed on, so I take grandpa kindness wherever it’s allotted.
Family-owned Michael’s has held this slice of Flatbush since 1931, as demographics shifted from Italian and Jewish to West Indian and African. Sure, there’s a higher demand for ox tails than Italian sausage, but locals’ demand for flesh has remained constant. Seeking guidance, I tell Al my needs—a backyard BBQ, no steaks. “All chuck,” he says, pointing to the beet-colored ground beef. Sold. Next, he suggests store-made sausages. I grab a pound-and-a-half of spicy Italian, the white-paper package labeled zap and pow. Lastly, there’s Michael’s specialty: chicken-breast burgers, big as Frisbees and chunked with onions and green peppers. The burgers are virtually fat-free, a bearded co-worker adds, advising me to cook them frozen, on low heat; luscious fat’s absence means they’ll burn like a baby in the Caribbean sun.
I thank Al profusely. “Come back soon,” he says, confident his product will make me rush back, an addict eager for another hit. He’s right. That afternoon on the Weber, the burgers cook juicy and mineral-tangy, only needing salt and pepper.
The Italian sausages swell like pork balloons, retaining their succulent snap and zippy heat until the first spurting bite. And the chicken burgers, well, color me convinced.
Oftentimes, grilled poultry is as tough as a dog bone. But these chicken burgers are marvels—moist as a medium-rare steak.
“Look, I’m eating healthy!” I tell my girlfriend, shoving fowl into my mouth. She spears an asparagus. “What about these?” she says, holding the pencil-shaped veggie aloft like the Olympic torch.
“I think you’ve got me confused with another vegetarian you’re dating,” I say, plotting my next trip to the butcher named after my middle initial.