When my alarm goes off at 3 o’clock on an icy-dark winter morning, the absurdity of my rising so early begins to sink in—the last time I can remember waking at this hour was when I heard a bear rummaging outside my tent. But this is when most butchers get their work done, including Axel Schäfer, the 49-year-old, third-generation butcher down the street from our apartment in Düsseldorf, who has invited me to make sausages with him.
Axel, who has already been at work for the better part of an hour, meets me at the entrance to his family’s 80-year-old butchery dressed for action in heavy white overalls, a thick rubber apron and knee-high white rubber boots. Although he greets me with a smile, I find the thickness of the apron and the height of the boots somewhat unnerving.
Not only does Axel sense my ambivalence, he shares it: he is a recent convert to vegetarianism. Axel can’t afford to quit handling meat altogether—he has a family to support—but he has already stopped selling pâté from fattened goose livers and now offers customers an alternative to his homemade sausages: a lunch buffet for “nonjudgmental vegetarians.”
Axel stumbled across his new diet when the stress of 90-hour workweeks in a declining market frayed his nerves. A desperate visit to a nutritionist and a life coach resulted in an examination of his diet and profession, which he feels was partly foisted upon him by his family. “I felt like I was dying,” Axel says. “The pressure was killing me.”
At first, he couldn’t even bring himself to eat vegetables—too foreign—so his nutritionist recommended he try vegetable juice. “The only way I could drink it was to pretend it was soup,” Axel says. “I placed it in a jar and warmed it in the kettle with the sausages. But the more vegetables I ate, the better I felt. I no longer feel well when I eat meat.” Axel lost 45 pounds, giving him a trim appearance, even if the weight loss did accentuate his already elastic, sad-dog cheeks.
His rubber boots squeal as we step across the tiled threshold separating the front of the store from “the jungle” beyond. I expect to see employees lugging sides of beef to and fro in anticipation of the work ahead, but Axel works alone. Automation makes that possible, but there’s more to it than that.
“In my grandfather’s day, this room was packed with a dozen employees and apprentices,” Axel explains. “I only do a fraction of the business he did. Of the 40 butchers in Düsseldorf, maybe 7 make good money. Butchers go out of business all the time. I have a friend who makes more money baking gourmet dog biscuits.”
Mere decades ago, to see a butcher struggling in Germany, let alone converting to vegetarianism, would have been unthinkable. When Axel’s father contemplated medical school, Axel’s grandfather scoffed at the idea: a doctor’s income was less reliable. But industry statistics bear out Axel’s grim pronouncement. There were 70,000 butchers in Germany in the 1970s; now there are 17,000, with 300 to 400 dropping out or retiring every year.
Even if Axel could afford employees, they’d be hard to come by, given the grueling hours, physically demanding and messy work and the decline in business. Axel’s own two children have little interest in following their father’s profession. Butcher shops that were once neighborhood fixtures now simply board up their windows and close. Another demoralizing development is the increasing number of regulations from the European Union regarding meat preparation, which favor large operations.
Nor does it help that Germans are eating less red meat. Meat consumption per person has dropped 20 pounds in 20 years, to a bit more than 100 pounds, with the citizens of France, Spain and even Luxembourg now eating more meat per capita than Germans. Even though Hitler was its most famous advocate, vegetarianism continues to grow in popularity.