Catalpa Avenue in Ridgewood, Queens, is a long, sleepy stretch of Brooklyn-esque brownstones, the unending façade punctured only by the occasional tree. With business relegated to Myrtle and Forest Avenues, one might not venture into the unassuming side streets. But do so and you'll stumble upon the anachronistic storefront of Morscher's Pork Store, a fascinating spot which holds the distinction not only of being one of the oldest Pork Stores to be covered on this column, but also the most culinary diverse. To step inside Morscher's is to step into a microcosm of the shifting histories of a culturally dense neighborhood, seen through the lens of meat.
The charmingly old-school butcher shop shows its age—there's been a butcher at 58-44 Catalpa Avenue since the early 1900s. The butcher counter occupies most of the small space; strings of sausages in various stages of drying hang in sheets against the wall. The beige wallpaper is patterned with evergreens, and framed images of bucolic Eastern Europe scenes hang high on the wall. On that sticky summer afternoon I visited, two men worked the counter, sharp in their butcher whites and matching paper hats with blue piping. One of them stretched his hand across the tall counter, every bit the jolly butcher. "Hello there!" he exclaimed. "I'm Herb, nice to meet you."
Though Herb has been at the helm since 1981, the Morscher name has adorned the awning since 1957. Herb launched into its history with the familiarity of one accustomed to telling the well-worn story. "The [Morscher] family is originally from Austria. It was the Austria-Hungarian Empire then, and then it was divided and become Yugoslavia. We lived in an area that is now Slovenia, called Kočevje [Gottschee in German]. We lived in the area for 600 years. My great grandfather had a restaurant, a hotel in the town where he was from, a gästehaus they called it."
He gestured to a trio of small black and white photos hanging above the counter. "They were well to do people, but once [WWII] came they lost everything. Since we were Germans in Yugoslavia, when the war came we were displaced, thrown out of our home. Long story short, we wound up in refugee camps in Austria. We had family living here in the US, they sponsored us to come."
The family ended up in Ridgewood, Queens, a well-known Eastern European enclave, and Pepe, Herb's cousin, took over the tiny spot on Catalpa Avenue. "They came to this country with empty pockets and they just worked" he noted with pride. Today, the family name carries on, with the help of Herb's partner Siegfried Strahl—a camera shy East German gentleman with his own long and war-touched story—who joined Morscher's in 1983.
Though Morscher's exterior may feel dated, its wares are anything but. Ridgewood has changed dramatically in the years since the war, and Morscher's has made it its business to cater to the community. Herb credits their survival to this approach. "Back in the day, it was heavily German, Austrian. Through the years we had Serbians moving in, Croats, Yugoslavs, well, they're not Yugoslavs anymore. And then there was a big influx of Romanians; now we have a lot of Polish people and even Central Americans. We always tweaked our recipes to make something that they liked, so that they would come shop in our store. That's how we've survived. When I first started here, there were maybe 15 stores like this in the neighborhood, and they all shut down, we're the only ones left."
The bell rang above the door, and Herb paused, greeting the small woman who entered in Spanish (she was Dominican). Behind her followed two gentlemen, one Polish, the other German. Herb smiled, knowingly, as he went about filling orders. As they left, he explained: "some Germans, they don't like garlic, but Eastern Europeans, they love their garlic, so we have sausages with and without."
The result of their considered community attention is, well, a lot of meat. Herb took me down the line: there's sremska ("this Hungarian sausage is ready to eat, but if you heat them up the flavor just comes popping out of the sausage.") TV sticks ("some people call them pepperettes or kabanos"), domacha ("in Serbian that means 'homemade'"), debricina, ("a Slovenian sausage"), keilbasa, prosciutto cacciatorino ("dipped in rice flour—this is a recipe from South Tyrol, which is in Italy but used to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire"), touristenwurst, ("'touristen' in German is tourist, so you keep it in your pocket and when you're hungry you take out your knife"), gefüllte schwein brust ("Bacon, stuffed with veal, roasted peppers and fresh parsley. This recipe comes from Switzerland. In the finer restaurants in the Swiss Alps, you'll have this for breakfast with two sunny side eggs, Bearnaise sauce and a glass of champagne.") There's smoked prosciutto, smoked tenderloin, cognac and green peppercorn salami, an array of head cheeses (blood, tongue, olive, spicy Hungarian, regular, and mushroom), Spanish-style chorizo, deli meats, fresh sausages, brats, cocktail franks, liverwurst and pâtés.
Ziggy wiped his large knife on his apron, laughing wholeheartedly. "That's a lot of bologna you see!" Herb smiled, rolling his eyes. "Butcher jokes!"
Keeping up with the neighborhood is no small feat. Herb and Ziggy make the entirety of their impressive stock in house. They grind, season, cook, cure, dry and smoke every last meat product themselves. Herb credits this capacity with their modernized kitchen. "Before, I'd have five men working back here every day to keep up with demand." Herb explained. "Now Ziggy and I work, two, maybe three days when we're really busy."
He pointed out the sausage stuffer. "This machine is from Germany. It costs $45,000! When the manufacturer heard we were interested in buying one, he told us, take this sausage linker too. He gave it to us for free for six months, if we weren't happy, we could send it back to Germany. We used to link by hand, because our old machine wasn't consistent, and it would take me and Ziggy three hours to link 500 pounds of sausages, and that's working fast. This new machine! We can do 500 pounds of sausage in 20 minutes." He patted it fondly. "Never takes vacation, never asks for a raise!"
Herb turned and opened the large smokers, blackened and smelling faintly of hickory (The butchers use hickory chips—"it's all honest, natural. None of this fake smoke flavor!"). "We used to smoke the meat in these two eight-foot pits dug into the ground right here. You'd have to take the trees out halfway through and rotate them. It was a mess. More than once we had to call the fire department because the whole thing went up in flames!"
Of course, Morscher's isn't all meat. The wall opposite the counter holds groceries from Germany, Poland, Croatia, Macedonia, Italy and where ever else customers might hail from. Most intriguing: bottles of radioactive blue Fanta. Herb laughed when we saw my puzzled look. "This comes from Macedonia. It's elderberry! They call it Fanta Shokata, because who's ever seen blue Fanta? See how the label is upside down? It's shocking!"
And, you'll always find a wheelbarrow full of whole, pickled cabbage at Morscher's. "Pickled cabbage—it's sauerkraut but whole. How you use it depends on where you are from. We'll use fresh cabbage when it's in season, but then we'd pickle cabbage so it lasts throughout the winter. You can stuff it or use it as a side. At Christmas time we sell thousands of cabbages."
Herb looked with satisfaction on his impeccably arranged counter, the strings of sausages, the carefully curated selection of groceries, and smiled with obvious pride. "We're not hitting home runs, we're hitting grand slams. When the customer comes in you want them to feel like they're at home, that's soul, that's deep, and that's key."