Now that my Dad is older, I listen to his stories with more attention than I did in the past. Dates and names seem more important, though I’m not sure why. Luckily, his memory is good, if not better than my own. He also seems more interested in sharing those memories than before. I’m grateful for the sacrifices that my parents made for my brother and myself. We were lucky that the choices they made resulted in prosperity because hard work doesn’t always equal comfortable life. But in our case, it did. We went to colleges, graduated, and found good jobs.
Now with a 3rd generation daughter, I try to capture my parents’ sensibilities and work ethic so that I could pass it on to the next generation. Part of that is writing it down so it isn’t lost. The other part is sharing our stories about meat during the dinner table. I know, people talk about sports, politics or TV at the dinner table. We just love to talk about food night and day.
My dad is surprised at the lengths I will go to buy a good competition brisket and how much Harry and I are willing to pay. “You pay how much for a brisket? You know, I can get you a good one for much less?” he would offer. I had to explain that this wasn’t just food, but an art form and we were creating works of art. And most of the time, good art is expensive.
Dad thinks we’re crazy. That’s okay with me. He still cuts the Thanksgiving turkey each year with an oversized butcher’s knife and if Mom doesn’t want to roast it, they let me smoke the turkey on occasion. The journey began and circles back to the family dinner table where we all share good times. When my Dad talked recently about the Chevy his friend gave him which led to him getting a job as a meat purchaser and eventually helped him buy that blue Pontiac, I began to realize how the kindness of one stranger can influence generations to come. And I realized how the blue Pontiac symbolized the American dream for my Dad in his new home and country.
Many years later, I became a certified KCBS BBQ judge and then a competition cook. Now as a Master Judge, I find myself being tasked to develop educational materials and serve as an instructor for California BBQ Association’s Advanced BBQ Judging class here in California. One of the topics we cover is BBQ Anatomy, and coming from California, it was important to understand the origins of Santa Maria Tri-tip steak. Of course, the muscle itself has always been present in the cow, but how it was butchered has changed.
When I first started studying tri-tip, Wikipedia referenced an Otto Schaefer’s for many years as the butcher in Oakland who first marketed tri-tip as a steak in the 1950’s. The reference pleasantly surprised me, being a proud Oakland native. Then in summer 2014, I noticed the reference changed to a Bob Shutz of Santa Maria marketing the steak during the same time period. I wasn’t sure who was right. After speaking to Otto’s son (story below), he believes his late Dad popularized the Santa Maria tri tip.
The Schaefer name sounded familiar so I assumed they were a supplier for my father. I asked my dad about it and he said yes, he use to go over there to pick up beef and reminded me that was the ranch where I first rode a horse. I looked up the name on the internet and found a Schaefer cold storage in Oakland. So I called up the number and to my surprise, Butch Schaefer himself answered the phone! He wasn’t selling meat any longer but still owned the cold storage business they started in 1967. I asked him about tri-tip and if that actually got started at Schaefer or not. He talked about it a little bit and he believed so. I asked if it would be alright if I could visit him someday at the store and he welcomed me.
In early September, I arrived at Butch’s business. He is a handsome man with a beautiful head of white hair. We talked for about 45 minutes and he told me his story about the family business. I asked if I could see a photo of the old store and he said he brought the entire photos home because he was retiring in two weeks. I couldn’t imagine my luck to catch him before his business ended all together. The next day he gave me a call and said he had the photos and I visited him again. The photos of Schaefer’s Meat are the ones that were used in this 5-part article.