When I first moved to Rome last winter and began walking around the neighborhood that would be my home for the next four months, it wasn’t the ancient, crumbling Aurelian walls that made the biggest impression on me. It wasn’t the preponderance of Vespas, or the number of Apollo and Venus lookalikes. It was that within two blocks of my apartment, there were four butcher shops. Four busy, expansive butcher shops, staffed by greying men in blood-stained aprons. At home in Boston, I knew of only one devoted butcher shop in the whole city — most people just went to the supermarket. Sometimes, I’d tiptoe into one of the shops, listening to the thump of cleavers against wooden boards and breathing in the heavy, ripe aroma of raw flesh, until someone finally asked me if I was going to buy something. That these shops all thrived despite their proximity, and that everyone seemed to shop there, fascinated me.
Whenever I walk into Ann Arbor’s Sparrow Market, I think back to happy moments in Rome. One of the only dedicated butchers left in the area, Bob Sparrow has presided over his shop for 32 years now, and has become the main source of high-quality meat for both home cooks and restaurant chefs alike. And for me — I recently began curing meat in my basement, and Sparrow was the only place in town where I could find pork cheeks.
I dropped by the shop recently to get the skinny (and the fatty) from Bob himself. When I arrived the other morning, Bob was behind the long glass display case, working on a mound of shell-pink chicken breasts. With a scimitar-like knife, he trims off the ragged edges, and then butterflies the meat open with a practiced swipe. Above him, two tanned hams and a bone saw hang from the ceiling. Beneath him, the tile floor sparkles, clean as a surgical theater.
“How are we doing, brother?” he said, rhyming “brother” with “udder.” “You don’t mind if I work while we talk, right?”
In person, Bob doesn’t look like your stereotypical butcher. Jerky-thin, with a shaved head, thick black glasses and a soft voice, he gives off a somewhat monkish aura. But Bob’s been at the cutting board his entire life. He grew up in tiny Willis, Michigan, 20 miles outside of Ann Arbor, on a working farm. He’d help his parents slaughter the animals they raised and taught himself knife work by trapping and skinning fox, mink and raccoon.
He moved to Ann Arbor 34 years ago, and apprenticed for a bit with another butcher, but he liked being his own boss better. After two years, he and his wife opened up Sparrow Meat Market in Kerrytown, and they’ve been there ever since. In his time, Bob’s seen more than a few local butchers go under, as supermarkets with pre-cut and packaged meat become more popular with harried shoppers. Even when a small-time butcher hustles, it’s hard to compete with megamarts.
“I think it’s just too much work and not enough profit. You have to be much more involved — we’re open seven days a week, and I also own all of this,” he said, gesturing to the main space of the market, which holds produce and dry goods and other specialty products. “The only day we’re closed is Christmas.”
For a while, American butcher shops seemed destined for the slaughter. According to the Chicago Tribune, there was an 18 percent decrease between 1997 and 2007. In Britain, it was even worse — by 2008, 23 butcher shops were closing every month. As profits decreased, and fewer and fewer people were interested in apprenticing, many butchers were forced to retire or sell their businesses.
When I asked Bob if the number of customers had decreased in recent years, he gave an amused smile.
“No, it’s gone waaaaaayyyyy up. Especially younger people,” he said. “Definitely it’s the younger crowd, not people my own age, who are more open-minded.”
As gourmet cooking, local ingredients and an overall obsession with craft become more and more popular in America, butchers like Bob are experiencing a needed boost in both sales and appreciation. Not that the work itself has gotten any easier — butchery requires lifting heavy hunks of meat, and wielding blades sharp enough to cut them (or a finger) straight in half. But Bob sees his role as a butcher as more than just a fabricator of flesh. He’s the link to their food that most people don’t realize they want until they enter the butcher shop.
“I know it’s the internet age and all, and everyone’s always walking around on their phones, but they still want human interaction,” he said. “You can’t kill that.”
“I’m not a picky eater, but I want to see where my food came from and who’s handled it,” he added.
He takes this role so seriously that he’s willing to slice through popular appeal and forgo boutique farms in favor of larger, better established meatpackers in Detroit, if he doesn’t think the product meets his standards.
“I’m reluctant if someone calls me up and says ‘I’ve been an organic or grass-fed farmer for two years,’” he explains. “I don’t think you really know enough at that point to be selling to the public.”
Bob has increased his business by supplying meat to various restaurants around town. But he’s also become the go-to guy for anyone in town interested in preparing the more overlooked animals and organs — suckling pigs, pheasants, sweetbreads, pork cheeks, Bob can find pretty much anything if you ask him.
As I prepared to leave, Bob asked me if there was anything special I wanted him to order for me.
“Can you get me beef bung?” I asked. Beef bungs are the stomach lining of cow, used to encase large pieces of meat during curing.
“Beef bungs? You serious?”
“Shit,” I thought. “That was too weird of a request.”
Bob reached into a cooler and pulled out of bag of bone white tubes.
“How many do you want?”