Sunset Beacon
January 2005


Author Carves Up History of City's Butchertown

Photo: John Oppenheimer

Robert Bowcock, a Sunset District resident, is the author of "Butchertown, A Collage
of a San Francisco Institution During 1850-1969."

By Judith Kahn

Districts such as the Cow Hollow, Tenderloin, North Beach and the Richmond are familiar to most San Franciscans - but what about Butchertown?

Butchertown was a six-block area of slaughterhouses, canneries, saddle shops and meat processing plants on the west side of Potrero Hill, off Third Street roughly between 16th Street and Evans Avenue.

Local author Robert Bowcock, who has just published a book about Butchertown, worked in the beef cutting rooms of the famed H. Moffat & Company.

During WWII Bowcock served as a navigator on a B-17 "Flying Fortress" over Europe. When he returned, he helped his father and brother in the family's butcher business before opening up his own butcher shop and deli, Bowcock's Market. He ran the Irving Street business for nearly four decades before retiring in l977. He lives on 37th Avenue.

Bowcock graduated with a degree in animal husbandry from the University of California at Davis.

After studying animal breeding, he knew what parts of the animal made the best cuts of meat. With this knowledge, and his experience in his father's butcher shop, he was destined to become a butcher. 

Bowcock's new book, "Butchertown: A Collage of a San Francisco Institution During 1850-1969," is a look at the inner workings of a slaughterhouse and meat-packing operation from the birth of an animal to its final by-products in the processing process. Through a series of personal remembrances and anecdotal interviews, a reader is introduced to both the history of the district and the "heady aroma of slaughter houses."

Bowcock, 87, said he decided to write the book after his wife Polly passed away. His daughters persuaded him to write the book - it would give him something to do and keep him busy. His knowledge and experiences at Butchertown made him a good candidate to tackle the topic.

What Bowcock liked best about writing the book was talking to some of the surviving members of the families that owned the slaughterhouses and getting the chance to interview the people who once worked in the meat packing plants. He found correspondence from people involved in the industry, as well as photographs of Butchertown, at the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley. During the process of writing and researching, he was reminded of the closeness of the community - it was like an extended family.

It was like walking down memory lane, he said. 

Bowcock said the Moffat Company started feeding steer sugar beet pulp in the '20s to add sweetness to the meat. Prior to that, steers had been fed alfalfa.  Today, corn is the primary diet.  Bowcock feels corn-fed steers make the best-tasting meat.

He said that there are three ways to recognize top-quality beef; the streaking of the fat (marbling), evenness of the fat and the fullness of the carcass.

Bowcock remembers when a butcher would go to the slaughterhouse and select a particular carcass that he wanted in the store. Once the carcass was delivered, it was up to the butcher to make the selected cuts. He pointed out that this involved a good eye for meat and the ability to cut skillfully.

Bowcock regrets that there are no butchers in supermarkets today, only meat-cutters. Today, the large retail chains have their own butchers making the selections and cuts. The beef is boxed and then sold to large chain stores, who then take the large cuts, cut them smaller and pack them into styrofoam packages. What disturbs him is that the quality of the selection is no longer under the local butcher's control.

Bowcock said the taste of beef today is different from what it was, partly because of the way it is cooked. In his day, you usually cooked meat in a skillet or a coal- or wood-burning stove. This method allowed the meat to cook in its own fat. 

"The meat would have a better, smokier flavor," Bowcock added.

For more information, or to order a copy of "Butchertown: A Collage of a San Francisco Institution During 1850-1969," write to Bowcock at 1571 37th Ave., San Francisco, CA  94122.