Soon, a Portola institution, Klein’s Quality Meats, will be no more. After 33 years cutting meat for local residents, Joe Klein will retire at the end of January.
Klein learned the family trade in Germany at the age of 10. After school, he would go to work in the family business that began in 1923.
In 1956, he escaped from East Germany into West Germany and eventually immigrated to America. But, he took his own sweet time getting here.
From West Germany, he went to Switzerland in 1958, and then to Canada, and from there to Bermuda.
In 1976, tall ships, sailing ships from all over were invited to participate in celebrating America’s 200th birthday, and Klein was fortunate enough to be invited aboard one of them sailing from the tip of Spain.
The windjammer made its way to the Azores, to Bermuda and then to Newport, R.I., before entering its New York harbor destination. Thus, Klein arrived in America in high style.
From New York, he came straight to Portola, where he had friends: Peter Schmid, former owner of the Log Cabin Restaurant, and Karl Baumann, former owner of the Iron Door in Johnsville.
He established his business at Leonard’s Market that year, and there he stayed until the big snows in 1993 crushed the building. At that point, Klein designed and built the new building at 60 Pine St. and expanded his inventory of meats and seafoods to include groceries and wine.
Klein has been a stable presence in Portola these past 33 years, but his wide travels before he settled here gave him a wide variety of friendships that kept his life interesting.
Peter Benchley, author of “Jaws” and “The Deep,” was one of those friends. ‘The Deep” was the real life story of another pair of friends, Edna and Teddie Tucker. Klein said only their names were changed.
When Jacque Cousteau made a movie about singing whales, Klein was along for the ride. Actually, Cousteau leased Klein’s boat to make the movie.
Another friend, Roland Mesnier, was a cook at the White House for 25 years, retiring only recently. He wrote a book called “All the Presidents’ Pastries: 25 Years in the White House” about his experiences.
Klein and Mesnier have been friends more than 40 years, so parts of the book are Klein’s life history as well. The book, which also features recipes favored by presidents, is available at the library and at the Williams House Museum.
It came out three years ago in French and was translated into English a year later.
The two worked together for many years, Klein said.
The walls of Klein’s meat market are filled with mementos of an interesting life: tall ships, Jacque Cousteau and other friends.
“I did crazy things,” said Klein, acknowledging that health issues are not likely to allow these kinds of adventures again.
Klein does not intend to move from the area. This is home. His years in Portola were full of business ups and downs, and in the last 10 years, more downs than ups.
He points to two poisonings of Lake Davis with much of the economic downturn in the last years. Then the national economy took a dive, preventing him from finding a successor for his business.
Although he would like to sell the building, that, too, seems unlikely in the local real estate market, so it will remain available for lease or rent.
Times have changed in intervening years and it’s a new generation out there, a generation that relies heavily on prepared foods and frozen dinners.
“People don’t know how to cook any more, just frozen or out of the can,” Klein said. “Many kids don’t even know where milk comes from anymore. They come in here and they ask a lot of questions.”
In years past, families often bought a half or quarter of beef to stock up for winter. Few do that anymore.
Whether the traditional butcher shop makes a comeback as hard times continue is unknown, but for the people of Portola, the closing of Klein’s Quality Meats marks the end of an era.
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