The Meatmen of Greenlawn Avenue
Thurn’s serves up authentic specialty meats
By Molly WillowPublished April 1, 2012
If you are a meat eater in Columbus, you only have one of two relationships with Thurn’s Specialty Meats:
1) You have never heard of Thurn’s Specialty Meats
2) You talk about it the way that guy down the hall in college talked about the sticky buds on his weed.
People who know Thurn’s aren’t just fans, they are meat dorks – passionate about its products with a devotion not usually ascribed to stuff you can put on a sandwich. They probably want to give you a taste of what Thurn’s is smoking to get you hooked. If you are smart, you won’t say no.
The Thurn family has been feeding Columbus’ carnivorous habits since 1886 and operating out of their location on Greenlawn Avenue off Interstate 71 since 1958. They offer some fresh pork items, but their specialty is smoking. Consider their nearly 70 varieties of goodness, including seven types of bratwurst (garlic to smoked teriyaki) and 10 types of sausage (andouille to braunschweiger). Hell, they even have three kinds of smoked bacon (once, twice and pepper).
On two nights in February, Thurn’s opened the doors to give tours of its freezer, grinder, and Hansel-and-Gretel-sized smoker, where everything from the bacons to cheeses becomes infused with an earthy-delicious smokiness. If you are dumb enough to wear cashmere on this tour, you’re going home infused with this same smokiness, leaving you with a jones that only buying pounds of smoked meat can fix.
Tour attendees got to take a walk back in time behind the meat case at Thurn’s.
Albert Thurn took over in 1988 and runs the joint with his sisters Theresa and Bernadine and younger brother Anton, who all started behind the counter as kids. Anton will tell you how his big sisters used to hang him from his overalls on the meat rack rails, the same rails on which the racks (called trees) slide into the yawning smoker. Sounds like the prelude to an ’80s action movie climax, but he seems to think it’s funny now.
Up front, Thurn’s meats are displayed on small white plates in the case. They are not labeled or adorned. Just glorious meat, in slices, links, hunks, and slabs. When the food is this delicious – meat that would make the cold cuts at the chain delis weep with embarrassment – you don’t need to mess around with garnishes.
Neither Albert nor Anton look like stereotypical butchers. They are not tall, fat, ruddy, or wearing aprons covered in blood. Both still have all ten fingers, as they will separately demonstrate, unprompted.
The 20 people who assembled for the sold-out tour felt privileged to be so close to meaty greatness – meat acolytes worshipping in the temple of pork. They snap pictures of the meat hanging in the freezer, where you expect Rocky to be working a slab nearby. A fat man on the tour sports a tattoo of the cuts of a pig on his arm, and a giant takes assiduous notes so he can make his own sausage when he gets home.
The back area of Thurn’s has a brick floor, greenish subway tile walls, and gleaming metal processing machines. Thurn’s is the definition of old school; there’s not a digital readout in sight.
The scale is from “at least” the 1930s, according to Albert, and the bowl chopper (a giant bowl machine that chops meat – duh) dates back to 1939. Albert can’t pinpoint the age of the wooden paddle used to stir boiling hams and tongues in the 200-gallon copper kettle. “I don’t know, but my father used it on me a couple times,” he jokes. (He has a dry sense of humor; some might even call it cured.)
Albert lives in a brick house behind the building, built by his grandparents in 1926. This is especially convenient on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, when the smoker must be stoked. Red oak, white oak, or mulberry logs burn underneath the trees draped with meat and must be tended to keep the temperature around 210 degrees. (Hams, for instance, smoke for 30 hours; bacon, for 20 at 190 degrees.) On these nights, Albert usually falls asleep on his couch watching TV, then comes back over around 1 a.m. to relight the fires. He gets back in bed ’til 4 a.m. and then makes the short trip over again to start the day.
The meat comes from around Ohio and ends up in Thurn’s freezer just one or two days after it is slaughtered. The Thurns prep on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays – drying, grinding, and smoking – and sell only Thursdays and Fridays and half a day on Saturdays. They still don’t take credit cards. Rarely does buying meat feel so much like getting into an exclusive club.
Most of Thurn’s customers are regulars. Some come for the hard-to-find items like souse, landjadger sausage, and pickled tongue. The blood head cheese, Albert’s favorite, isn’t for everyone. (Not surprisingly, there are no vegetarians in the Thurn family.) They also have wieners and franks, smoked turkey breast, baby back ribs, capicola, salami, and cheeses, among many foods you may have previously enjoyed from other places until you tasted Thurn’s.
After the tour, I smelled like everything else in Thurn’s: smoky and delicious. (When I got home, my dog didn’t know whether to jump on me or eat me.) Before leaving, I ordered nearly one of everything: bacon, Tasso ham, Italian sausage, andouille, smoked ham, cheddar, and Muenster. When that runs out, I can always eat my sweater.