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Otto Wolf readies meats for the smoker at the Glasbrenner Butchery, a shop near Stuttgart owned by one of a dwindling number of master butchers in Germany. (Andreas Teichmann)

For German Butchers, a Wurst Case Scenario

As Germans turn to American-style supermarkets, the local butcher—a fixture in their sausage-happy culture—is packing it in

There is also an expanded butcher counter and display case, where one can have meats sliced to order. Although I hardly have the stomach for more sausage after my trip south, journalistic duty compels me, so I ask for a taste of the “house salami.” It looks like a butcher’s salami, but when I bite into it, it’s greasy and bland. I ask the woman behind the counter who made it. She doesn’t know. “Can you tell me where it was made?” She can’t.

It’s a phenomenon that I’ve grown accustomed to in the United States: food that looks like food but lacks flavor. And whereas a master butcher knows exactly where his meat comes from, supermarket meat in Germany now travels from industrial farms and slaughterhouses all across Eastern Europe. Ultimately, a butcher proudly stands behind his quality; the supermarket worker may or may not take pride in his job, let alone have a master’s knowledge of it. The worker behind the meat counter could just as easily be stocking shelves.

Still, Germans by and large continue to overlook their remaining master butchers. There are now entire generations of Germans who can’t taste the difference between a handcrafted sausage and a mass-produced one.

That a squeamish foreigner should grieve for German butchers may seem odd. But for me, it’s about the loss of quality craftsmanship. Sadly, butchers aren’t getting help even locally. The city of Düsseldorf recently closed its slaughterhouse because it was deemed unseemly, opting to replace it with luxury housing. Meat is now shipped to butchers from regional suppliers.

I have little interest in buying “flesh sausage” for my daughter at the supermarket, so I walk over to Axel’s instead. It’s been a few weeks since we’ve bought meat, and to my surprise, Axel’s shop is in the midst of its own makeover. The large menagerie of life-size farm animals that graced the store’s marquee for decades is gone. A Tibetan flag hangs from one of Axel’s upstairs windows, lending the otherwise drab building the air of a college dormitory. In the entryway, framed copies of jackets for Paulo Coelho’s books line the walls, and a cup filled with brochures advertises Axel’s newest passion: shiatsu massage. The brochures feature a photo of Axel dressed in his white overalls, but minus his rubber apron and boots, applying pressure to the spine of a prone human figure.

Axel greets us from behind the meat counter, but gently guides us away from the sausages (which he no longer makes, but buys from a nearby butcher) and toward the steam tray filled with today’s vegetarian offerings: pasta with mushrooms, lentil soup, spinach quiche and a casserole with steamed veggies and smoked tofu. Axel hands my daughter a spoonful of the casserole. She likes it.

“I’m glad you like it,” he tells her with a smile. “It’s good for you.”

She points to the steam tray. “Tofu, Papa!” she demands. “I want more tofu!”

Andrew D. Blechman’s latest book, Leisureville, is about age-segregated utopian communities. Andreas Teichmann is an award-winning photographer based in Essen, Germany.

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