September 12, 2013
Find Bigfoot and more, at Jack Bell’s meat market in Kane, Pa.
KANE, Pa. — Mom-and-pop butcher shops usually are pretty friendly places, but not always the cutest businesses on the block.
Not so with Bell’s Meat & Poultry, Jack Bell’s tiny market here in the heart of Allegheny National Forest.
It’s tough to say what’s more Instagram-tastic about the McKean County meaterie: the baskets of local produce stacked outside the front door that speak to the season, or the 10-foot-tall Bigfoot standing guard in the parking lot. Some guy named Snuffy hand-carved the wooden statue this past spring in honor of the hairy creature with the famously big feet who’s said to roam these parts (Animal Planet recently filmed an episode of “Finding Bigfoot” in the area). From the day it went up, it’s been an attention-grabber.
“That causes more commotion!” says the 76-year-old grocer, who has named several products after the giant ape-man. “I can’t tell you how many people stop to take pictures with him.
“And boy, it’s a dandy,” he adds. Even over the phone, I can tell he’s smiling. “He musta been looking right at him when he made it!”
Nearly as picturesque are the store’s shelves, packed with row after row of housemade pickles, jams and other curious delicacies you didn’t know could be stuffed into a Mason jar with sugar and vinegar. Pickled beef logs or chicken gizzards, anyone? I didn’t think so. Though Mr. Bell — Jack to friends, or basically anyone who walks into the store — is happy to try to change your mind with a sample. Will insist upon it, in fact, if he sees you making a face at the label.
Me? I was in search the gourmet sausages tucked into the cold case at the rear of the store — 32 varieties to date, with more in the works, with flavors ranging from sweet (Apple) to savory (Bratwurst) to peppery (Hot Wild Leek) to burn-your-lips spicy (Cajun Boudin). Prices start at $4.99 a pound.
“And I’ve got a Tasso that’s unreal,” I hear Mr. Bell tell a fellow customer as I consider my many options, which on this fine fall day also include Garlic Parmesan, Kick-Ass (with cheese and jalapeno) and the best-selling St. Mary’s Springwater, crafted with Straub beer from nearby St. Mary’s.
When we first heard about Bell’s, my husband and I were enjoying a mouthful of Kinzua Journey, a semi-sweet white wine that Flickerwood Wine Cellars makes in honor of the new Kinzua Bridge Skywalk in nearby Mount Jewett. During our tasting ($3 for six wines), we’d asked the bartender what else there was to do in tiny Kane, which looked as if its best days just might be behind it, save for the Railroad Depot and Museum.
She pursed her lips in thought. “You could go to Texas Hot Lunch/4 Sons,” she said after a while, referring to a local hot dog joint that’s been in business since 1928. Then her smile brightened. “Or try my favorite, Bell’s deli. They make alligator sausage and Cajun crab dip!”
Hmm. Hot dogs or alligator. It wasn’t a tough decision.
A main-drag stalwart for more than 40 years, Bell’s sits at the very end of the business district on Route 6. Mr. Bell opened it in 1971 after spending 13 years as a deli-department manager for Market Basket, a small chain of groceries. Towards the end of his career there, a friend who used to be a Sugardale salesman opened a small market in Limestone, N.Y., and had so much fun running it that he urged Mr. Bell to go out on his own, too.
“I wasn’t really being challenged, so I thought, ‘Man, I think I’ll do that,” he recalls. He’s never looked back.
Like many new to the business, the New York native started small, offering just a handful of sausages in addition to cold meat. Right off the bat, he says, he had to learn how to make Korv, a mild Swedish sausage made of pork, beef and mashed potatoes and seasoned with allspice, to please residents of Mount Jewett, which has a large population of people with Swedish ancestry. Apparently, he nailed the recipe: Today, he sells upwards of two tons a week of the sausage during the holidays. Or as he puts it, “I’m an Irishman, but I’ve got those Swedes thinkin’ I know what I’m doin’. They come from near and far to get that stuff.”
As his skill grew with sausage-making, so did his varieties. Today there’s Polish sausage along with sweet and hot Italian; Mexican-style chorizo; smoked kielbasa; bacon sausage; blueberry and apple breakfast sausage; and in a nod to nearby Bradford’s annual Stinkfest each May, two types of ramp sausage — sweet and hot — made with the locally foraged wild leeks he stores throughout the year in two freezers. The Creole-seasoned Bigfoot sausage also is a heavy hitter, as is his Greek sausage, plump with feta and spinach.
“I got a lot of ideas,” he says of the ever-growing list of ingredients. “It all depends on what we’re thinking about that day.”
One of his latest is the ‘gator sausage. From 1988 to 2003, Mr. Bell fished professionally on the Bassmaster’s and FLW sport fishing tournament circuits, spending his winters in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas. Two years ago, he decided to create a sausage that captured some of the flavors of the South. He decided on alligator because it’s as mild as it is exotic, and works nicely with Cajun spices.
“It’s farm-raised, not those wild ones,” he’s quick to point out. He imports the tail meat from a buddy in Okeechkobe, Fla., and from Louisiana, and mixes it with ground chicken thighs.
The region’s many gas and oil workers are enthusiastic customers of the sausage, and they also go crazy over his Tasso, a Creole-style smoked sausage that’s made from cayenne-, garlic- and salt-rubbed pork. (There’s a smokehouse out back.)
“Man, those boys like that. That’s a real Louisiana deal,” he exclaims.
Whatever’s stuffed inside the natural hog casings, the results have long been a family affair: Until she was beset by health problems, his wife, Carol, helped in the store. So did his daughter, Pam, who now lives in Georgia. These days, he works — seven 10-hour days a week — alongside his grandson, James, and his son, Jack Jr., who runs the greenhouse next to the market when he’s not on the job in the Marcellus Shale industry.
It’s a lot of long days, but Mr. Bell doesn’t look to be slowing down any time soon.
Starting his own meat market, he says, is “the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Because it’s a true service counter — he’ll tell you how to cook what you buy and offer up recipes — he gets a chance to visit with people.
“We have fun in here,” he says. “Every day is a challenge, but my customers keep coming back. It’s all about the people.
“You don’t have to look over your shoulder up here,” he adds.
Unless, of course, you run into Bigfoot in the Allegheny National Forest.
Bell’s Meats & Poultry is located at 203 N. Fraley St in Kane, Pa. It’s about a three-hour drive from Pittsburgh. Store hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mon.-Sat. and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sun. Info: jackbellsmeats.com or 1-814-837-7321.