It takes about 14 hours to smoke a turkey, James Ackley told me. He’d know and so would his sons, his wife, his brothers and, well, anyone related to him, because the Ackleys know meat, and they have for generations.
And when people are celebrating any holiday, the Ackleys get busy. The one coming up seemed an apt time to talk with him about food, family and community. Ackley owns Bob’s Quality Meats in Seattle’s Columbia City neighborhood, where the business is part of the community’s DNA and a reason for meat lovers to give thanks.
“We do serve vegetarians,” he quipped, nodding toward four smoked chickens on a rack.
He’s used to the banter with customers, but his business is no joke. It’s small and family-run from a very old shop. If you’ve eaten in one of the better restaurants in downtown Seattle, you’ve probably eaten something from his butcher shop.
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Friday morning, while his older son, Abraham, prepped turkeys and waited on customers, Ackley told me about his family and the business.
His grandfather, Joe Ackley, sold meat off a wagon pulled by two mules. Every morning he’d go out to farms, and he’d kill animals and put them on the wagon and go around Yakima ringing a bell. Customers would pick what they wanted, and he’d butcher it right there in front of their homes.
He opened a shop in 1909 after the invention of the refrigerated meat case. The next generation, Ackley’s father, Bob, and his three brothers became meat cutters, and later so did Ackley and his two brothers.
Bob Ackley moved his family to Seattle in 1963 and opened a shop in West Seattle (he called it Bob’s because one of his brothers had already opened an Ackley’s in Seattle).
Another longtime family of butchers, the Nelsons, owned the shop in Columbia City until the last butcher in the family died in the late 1970s. His widow asked the Ackleys to take it over.
“Mom and my brother Al worked here,” Ackley said, “and my brother Rodney and my dad worked over in West Seattle at that shop.”
Ackley decided early he would do something else with his life and had left the family business by the time it expanded to Columbia City.
“I started working at the meat market when I was in first grade,” Ackley said. “I came to the meat market every single day, and all I could dream about all of my school years was when I could get out of the meat business.”
He became a horticulturalist, working his way through college and earning his bachelor’s degree from the University of Washington and his master’s degree from Washington State University. He likes to tell people, “My team has won the Apple Cup every single year.”
He moved to the Yakama Indian Reservation, and for many years grew apples, pears and cherries, and raised cattle. He loved that, and he’s glad his children got to grow up mostly on a farm.
What eventually brought him back was not choice, he said, but responsibility.
“Being an old Irish family, it’s tradition that the oldest son has to come back and buy the business from the parents so they can retire.” So he returned to Bob’s in 1997.
He said he likes the shop, too. He’s working with his family, and he likes the neighborhood, especially its openness and diversity.
He lives in the area, and said his own family’s diversity helps the shop match the tastes of lots of customers. His wife is Vietnamese, and Abraham’s wife is Mexican American, he said.
Ackley has spent time with relatives in Texas and Louisiana, and his familiarity with Southern tastes helps him serve his many customers who have Southern roots.
This time of year, though, it’s turkeys most people are looking for. The shops sell more than 500 fresh turkeys each Thanksgiving and smokes about 480 birds each November, which is the most they can handle.
They always sell out, even shipping lots of birds around the country to people who used to live in the neighborhood.
One of Ackley’s brothers manages a Safeway meat department in Yakima and the other runs a Safeway meat department in Spokane. Every Thanksgiving, Bob’s outsells them both.
In fact, it’s so busy, one of his brothers is driving over to help out this week.
It’s a big job, but this year Ackley is controlling the smokers from an app on his smartphone.
There aren’t many such breaks from tradition, though. Ackley said he uses meat raised the same way it was in his father’s day — pasture-raised, natural, no hormones.
“My dad always said, never mess with Mother Nature.”
I asked about his Thanksgiving tradition, and Ackley said it’s different each year.
Sometimes the family gathers at his mother’s house, sometimes at his sister’s house. But some years he’s too tired, so they have a simple meal at home.
“I’ll run down and get myself a big oil’ mess of collard greens,” he said, and eat that with smoked turkey and mashed potatoes and maybe some sweet potatoes cooked on the stovetop.
He said it doesn’t take a lot to make him happy; that’s one of the keys to happiness, not wanting too much.
“I’ve got a blessed life,” Ackley said, “I have a great family, a wonderful wife and great kids. I have more blessings than I could ask for.”
And that makes every day a bit like Thanksgiving.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org