From chuck to ribs, filet to flank

Published 10:00 pm Friday, March 17, 2017

Jeff Morton talks meat cutting in a small town grocery

SALUDA – Historic Thompson’s Store is the oldest grocery store in North Carolina, founded in 1890 by George Lafatte Thompson and Lola Thompson Ward, and has been in operation for more than 125 years.

In 1940, the grocery store relocated to Saluda at 24 Main St. and Ward’s Grill was added next door in the late 1950s after Ward was convinced by her husband Roy and eldest son Jack to open the restaurant.

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Judy Ward and her late husband’s cousin, Clark Thompson, now own the store. Jeff Morton is a meat cutter in the meat and deli section found at the far end of the grocery store, cutting and slicing choice cuts of meat for shoppers.

The store offers the legendary, sage-flavored Charlie pork sausage, which has been made from a secret family recipe handed down for more than 70 years.

After spending nearly 20 years as a police officer and deputy sheriff in Jacksonville, N.C., Morton hung up his officer’s badge, picked up a knife and entered the world of meat cutting for a second time.

Morton was born and raised in Jacksonville, and said he’s known how to cut meat since the age of 14 when he, his brother Wayne and their father ran the Community Meat Center in Jacksonville.

“I learned how to cut meat during the time when you needed to know how to cut meat,” Morton reflected. “The meat would be brought to you in quarters and you would have to know how to cut it properly. It’s all done on conveyor belts now and stores just have to put the packages out because the industry has changed so much.”

“We cut up everything from bears, elk, goats, deer and wild boar there,” Morton recalled. “I would go in and help my brother on my days off, especially Saturdays. This was before the time the supermarkets came in and we had one on either side of the street from us.”

When his father retired, Morton said his father gave the family business to his brother. Morton decided to go into law enforcement with the sheriff’s office in Onslow County.

“The captain would always come into the store and I would ask if there were any openings,” Morton explained. “I spent 18 years as an officer and in the civil division before going into planning and development for the county for seven.”

Before his retirement in 2015, Morton patrolled the streets of Jacksonville as deputy sheriff, where people called him either the sheriff or Barney Fife, before relocating with his wife Pam to Hendersonville. The couple has three grown kids who live in South Carolina, Arizona and California.

“I’ve traveled all the way to California, but never outside the country,” Morton said. “Hunting and traveling are my two big hobbies. The best part about working here is intermingling with the customers.”

He retired from the police force in 2015 with the desire to live a quieter life.

“After about 15 years, you’ve seen a lot of people at their worst and it wears on you,” Morton emphasized. “I can’t imagine how cops do it now because it’s changed so much.”

When he and his wife moved to Hendersonville two years ago, Morton recalled them driving around and stopping in at Ward’s Grill in Saluda for lunch. They noticed a “help wanted” sign on the door of Thompson’s Store for a meat cutter. He and his wife now live across from Pearson’s Falls in Saluda on the Pacolet River.

While working the meat and deli section, Morton provides the meats used next door at Ward’s Grill where his wife works. Diners can get a number of items, from the Charlie sausage burger, to hamburger steaks from the store.

“The Charlie sausage started years ago and we keep the recipe going,” Morton said. “The only thing different that I have done is to start making link sausage out of it. We also will continue to have the sausage made by the Italians who came to us from Carunchio if people still want to buy it.”

The Carunchio sausage is a spicier version of the Charlie sausage. It was brought to Saluda by Massimo Criscio and Chef Dino Paganelli, who visited as part of the sister city program between Saluda and Carunchio, a town in the Abruzzo region of Italy.

“This store is so much like it used to be back in Jacksonville and the store even has the same meat case,” Morton recalled. “I went from meat cutting into law enforcement and then back to meat cutting.”