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December 14, 2006

After the Fire

Above: The remains of the building where Taste would have been, seen from inside Avalon. Photo by Colleen Dickens

I had steak for dinner Sunday, a pretty decent piece of a New York strip, split with my wife Amy. She seasoned it with just a little salt and pepper and seared it rare just the way I like it. As the steak sizzled, she sautéed some button mushrooms and zapped a potato in the microwave -- just one for me, since she's still watching carbs. The weak fan above the stove couldn't keep up with the smoke from the meat and the fire alarm blasted, but it stopped when she opened the kitchen door.

When the alarm went off I couldn't help but think about the fire in Eureka Friday night. As you've probably heard by now, a devastating fire of as yet unknown origin destroyed the historic building on G Street between 2nd and 3rd that had been the longtime home of Eureka Wholesale Meats. Next door, in the space that I remember best as Globe Imports and more recently the Eureka branch of Video Experience, a new business was just about to open, a gourmet cheese and wine shop called Taste.

Earlier Sunday I'd received a note via e-mail from Beverley Wolfe, who runs Avalon, the upscale restaurant right across the street from Taste. The cheese shop was her baby, and she thanked the friends of Avalon who'd expressed their concern and reassured them that everything will be OK.

When I tracked her down on Monday she was trying to maintain that positive attitude, but I could tell it wasn't easy. She put tons of energy and a part of herself into the Taste space in recent months. "All we needed was to receive our wine license in the mail," she told me. "The Health Dept. had been waiting for one last piece of flooring, which would have been done on Saturday morning. The inspector would have come today (Monday) and everything would be set for opening.

The Corner of 3rd and G streets in Old Town Eureka after the fire. Photo by Colleen Dickens

"The little place was absolutely beautiful. It didn't look like anything that's been here before." She paused and let out a heartbreaking sigh that let me know how hard this loss really is, then went on to praise the carpenters and other craftsmen would helped her put Taste together. "Michael Hayes was just finishing this mural based on an obscure Van Gogh painting, something I've had a print of for year. He left his brushes in there, as a matter of fact."

I mentioned a conversation I had at dinner Friday night with some foodie friends. Everyone was excited about the prospect of a new cheese source. "Oh yes, cheeses from all over," said Beverley. "We're serving them at Avalon, but I've been getting cheeses directly from France and new things from my vendors here from New York to California. There was a lot of cheese over at Taste, but we still have some of it here."

Having laid the groundwork and made the contacts for this new business, she's definitely thinking about the future and resurrecting Taste. Describing the encouraging words she's gotten since the fire as "like a wake," she turned attention to the loss to the Maxon family, who owned the building, and to Eureka Wholesale Meats and its proprietor, Barney Barnhart.

"Support for us has been incredible, but I keep shifting it back to Barney. There was nothing that Ron wanted that they couldn't get him. [Ron Garrido is Beverley's husband and the chef at Avalon.] There were countless things we were able to do because of Barney. We haven't really assessed what no longer having Eureka Meat will mean for Avalon."

photo of details of the Russ safeI got to know Barney Barnhart and his partner Ted Maxwell when I was in the restaurant trade myself, particularly during the eight years I spent as chef at the Silver Lining. I called them once or twice a week to order New York strips, sirloins and filet mignon, along with anything else I wanted, and the meat came with free advice. Barney taught me the best way to cut up the sirloin into uniform steaks to minimize waste. When I told him I wanted to make beef stock and reduce it to demi glace, he supplied big boxes of bones gratis and offered advice on roasting them beforehand.

It wasn't hard finding Barney on Monday. (Pretty much everyone knows him as Barney.) Eureka Wholesale has a partnership with Redwood Meat Co., and he was there taking orders, trying to resume business as usual. In between calls we talked about his history.

Barney grew up in Eureka and started his career in the meat business there at the age of 16. "In 1962, I started cleaning up at Humboldt Market at 5th and Myrtle, where the Pro Sports Center is now." Jim Worthen owned the place; Les Ambrosini and Bill Morgan taught him to cut meat. From there he went on to work briefly in the butcher department at Safeway, then around 1972, jumped to J&J Meats, where he worked for Jess Wallace. "Then I got a chance to lease a butcher shop out at Cutten Market -- I did that for two years."

Barney had met Ted Maxwell while working at J&J. In 1975, Ted, Barney and Les Ambrosini formed a partnership and bought J&J Meats from Wallace. "We were there for 10 years and then bought Eureka Wholesale Meat from Hap Pavlich and Ive Kryla. We moved our operation down there in about 1985."

Details from the Russ safe. Photos courtesy Beverley Wolfe

The Old Town butcher shop and cold storage facility had a long, long history. "There's been a butcher shop in there for more than 120 years," noted Barney. "The Russ family started it in the 1870s, I think. That was their retail store; Rockin' R, down on the highway, was their slaughter plant."

At this point in our conversation Barney was interrupted by the Eureka Meats phone line -- an order from someone from Luzmila's -- and he slipped into Spanish.

A little pre-history: According to a website maintained by the folks who currently run Fern Cottage in Ferndale, formerly the Russ family home, patriarch Joseph Russ came to California during the Gold Rush.

photo of Joseph Russ"In Fall, 1852, Joseph purchased approximately 100 cattle in Placerville and, with two hired vaqueros, drove them over the Coast Range to Humboldt County, selling them in Eureka to settlers and the Army at Fort Humboldt. The next spring he filed a claim and built a log cabin a short distance east of Centerville (not far from where Fern Cottage stands). He and a partner, Berry Adams, went to the Sacramento area to purchase a large herd of cattle to drive back to Humboldt.

"There, he met the Nehemiah Patrick family, including daughter Zipporah, who had just arrived from Pennsylvania. He persuaded them to move to the Ferndale area. About the same time, he and Adams drove their herd to the Bear River hills and opened a meat market in Eureka."

The Old Town meat market that burned Friday was built in 1879 and run by Zipporah (Joseph married her), whose name was painted on a safe that Beverley was integrating into the décor of Taste. It's worth noting that the Russ family still raises cattle in Humboldt County.

photo of Zipporah RussOnce the Luzmila's order was written, talk returned to the work down at Eureka Meats. "Our mainstay in life was the restaurants," said Barney, "but we also cut and wrapped locker beef and pork, even game like venison."

If you were a local hunter or someone who bought one of those 4-H-raised steers at the County Fair, Eureka Meats was where you'd go. They would butcher it for you and store what you couldn't use right away.

As if on cue, the phone rang again, this time someone named Brian, who was wondering about the venison he had stored in the Eureka Meats locker. Barney was pretty sure the loss was covered by the guy's homeowner's policy, same as the personal property he lost in the fire. He gave Brian the name of his insurance agent and wished him luck.

Apologizing for the interruption, he let on, "Today's just one of those days," a bit of an understatement for someone who's just seen his business burn to the ground. What next? "I'm not sure at this point," he admitted, and before he could continue... "There's the phone again. I gotta go." It was clear this is a guy who isn't going to let a little fire slow him down.

Life will go on for Eureka Meats -- perhaps in Old Town, perhaps not, and without a doubt Taste will be born again. What was lost in that big barbecue was an irreplaceable slice of Humboldt County history. Can you think of another local building that's housed the same type of business for 127 years? I can't.

Above: Zipporah and Joseph Russ. PhotosCourtesy Humboldt County Historical Society.

your Talk of the Table comments, recipes and ideas to Bob Doran.


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