Cutting to the chase

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Lifelong Renter

November 30, 2011

David Hayes


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Those of us who love St. Lawrence Market value it because the food is fresh and often exotic but also because the atmosphere is the antithesis of a Loblaws, Metro or Sobeys.

The colours, smells and sounds are a big part of it — more European market than grocery megachain — but as much a part of the experience are the characters, like Rube Marcus of Rube’s Rice Shop or Odysseas and Sandra Gounalakis at Scheffler’s Deli and Cheese.

Or “The Little Butcher Girl.”

That’s 26-year-old Sydney Jacobson, who is celebrating her fourth anniversary this month serving (and entertaining) customers at the Market. She used to be behind the counter at Witteveen Meats but recently followed former Witteveen manager Brad Noonan next door when he transformed Manos Meats into Canicero’s. (It means “butcher” in Spanish.)

Jacobson is hard to miss. There aren’t many female butchers, true, but she’s distinctive in other ways. Petite and pretty, with a nose ring, newsboy cap and a tiny silver cleaver on a necklace, she’s both mouthy and funny (and not infrequently profane).

One day I looked hesitant about buying stuffed chicken breasts for a dinner party that evening because those I wanted were only available frozen. Rolling her eyes, she barked, “Jeez, what’s your problem? You just put ’em in cool water for a couple of hours!”

The other day I asked her what made the shop’s Mennonite-raised turkeys, which are much in demand at Christmas, so special. With a twinkle in her eye, she said, “They sing them a lullaby before chopping off their f—in’ heads.”

On a recent Sunday, I visited Jacobson in her 800-square-foot one-bedroom off the lobby in what was once a carriage trade address during the early to mid-20th century. It’s one of a series of apartment buildings, strung like pearls along Eglinton Ave. between Spadina and Bathurst, which are part of North Forest Hill. At $1,020 a month, including underground parking, it’s just affordable.

“I pretty much live pay cheque to pay cheque right now,” she says. “But that’s partly because I love cooking up big meals and throwing parties for my friends.”

We’re sitting at a retro red-and-white table in an L-shaped dining nook off the living room. Jacobson’s interior design taste is quirky and eclectic. Most of the framed art was done by either family (her photographer brother; her niece and nephew) or friends. There’s a working phonograph in a handsome wood cabinet once owned by her grandparents and piles of vinyl, which she avidly collects.

In front of the north-facing windows, there’s a cage containing her two pet rats (“Olive is very young and smart,” she says, “and Rosie is getting pretty old and …” She taps her finger on her temple a few times.)

Reflecting her chosen trade, on the hardwood floor there’s a cowhide rug, given to her by her family, a large animal’s skull hanging on a wall (“I found it in Algonquin Park; it might be a moose”) and a cow’s jawbone on the mantel (“A guy had it at the Royal Winter Fair — I traded him a steak for it”).

Jacobson grew up in this neighbourhood with two older brothers and a younger sister. When she was 11, with her brothers off to university, her father, a general practitioner, moved the family to Signal Mountain, Tennessee, a suburb of Chattanooga.

She went to the Chattanooga High School Center for Creative Arts but after graduating she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her life. Always adventurous, over the next few years she went back and forth to Israel three times, inspired by the beauty of the country and the community spirit of kibbutz life.

Back in Chattanooga, she landed a job in the meat department at Greenlife Grocery, a natural food shop later bought out by the Whole Foods chain.

“There was this laid-back butcher who chewed tobacco and listened to Journey and Michael Jackson,” she says. “It wasn’t really a formal apprenticeship. I just picked up a knife and started doing it beside him while he taught me stuff.”

By 2007 her parents were living in Oakville and she realized she missed her family, especially the niece and nephew she wanted to see growing up. So she left Chattanooga and temporarily moved in with her parents.

One day she went down to St. Lawrence Market, studied the butcher shops and decided Witteveen looked like the best one. Talking her way into a job — “if there’s one thing I’m good at other than cutting meat, it’s talking” — she’s been a butcher ever since.

“I’m always on time and I take pride in my job,” she says. “I evenly cut the steaks, trim them neatly. When I lay them out on the tray, I give each one a little pat first. It’s like, ‘okay guy, you’re good to go.’ ”

A former boyfriend’s mother found the Eglinton Ave. apartment for her, and even though she loves it, she recently spotted the apartment of her dreams: a 1,300-square-foot loft in a commercial building. Too expensive, though.

About property ownership, she’s ambivalent. “I wish I could own a cute little gingerbread house with creaky floors and a lot of character but I don’t want to be house-poor.

“I called my mom one day and asked her if she thought I should be thinking about buying a house. She said, ‘You’re a little butcher girl. Just pay your rent and be happy in that little apartment of yours for now.’ ”

David Hayes is an author and award-winning feature writer who has been a renter most of his life. If you have stories or information to share about renting, he can be reached at

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