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Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Meet Debbie Ward, S.F.'s Queen of Corned Beef

Posted By on Tue, Oct 1, 2013 at 8:00 AM

Debbie Ward continues the 103-year-old family tradition of curing beef. - RHYS ALVARADO
  • Rhys Alvarado
  • Debbie Ward continues the 103-year-old family tradition of curing beef.

There have been too many a long and drunken night where I've floundered into hofbraus like Lefty O' Doul's with just enough singles to get me a corned beef sandwich to smooth out the inevitable rocky morning after.

No insight as to where this hangover savior has come from. No care but for my own, wasted well being. No idea of the unique history that corned beef has in this city.

So it must have been fate that led me to Debbie Ward in the upstairs office of the city's oldest corned beef plant, adorned with throwback deli photos of sky-high pastrami sandwiches, shamrock clocks, and dated menus of days when the stuff would cost but 25 cents a pound. For the past 103 years, Roberts Corned Meats has been providing corned beef and pastrami to Lefty O'Douls, Mel's Drive Inn, Tommy's Joynt, and a long list of big hitters in the city and around the bay.

"We've weathered the time because we're a specialty house," Ward says.

It all began in 1910 when Ward's great great grandfather George Henry Roberts moved from New Zealand to San Francisco to leave the family business of salting beef only to revert back to his trade when he arrived to the Bay Area. "They laughed at him for the way he made corned beef," she says.

Ward says that in early years in San Francisco, those who cured beef placed briskets in large vats of brine and allowed the meat to cure for up to 30 days. Roberts brought the method he took from New Zealand that involves a pump attached to needles that evenly distributes brine into the meat. The process her grandfather introduced takes but three days. "He was the first person to introduce artery brining to San Francisco," Ward says.

Now that process involves an $80,000 piece of machinery that brines about 3 million pounds of beef a year. Months of cooler weather and St. Patrick's Day is reason that two thirds of her business is done between January and March.

"It's not a big summer food. A lady has to heat her kitchen for three to four hours to simmer this big piece of meat," Ward says.

Outside of the Irish community, Pacific Islanders make up a big part of her business. On my visit, two Tongan bruddahs (each weighing 300+ pounds, easy) picked up $220 worth of Povi Masima or "salted beef" for a family party that weekend.

"The Samoans and Tongans are eating our corned beef like crazy," Ward says. Thank god there's another ethnicity that eats our meat."

Hangover Heaven: Roberts corned beef on sourdough at Tommy's Joynt. - RHYS ALVARADO
  • Rhys Alvarado
  • Hangover Heaven: Roberts corned beef on sourdough at Tommy's Joynt.

Sitting with Debbie was like sitting with a sage. She enlightened me on my deeply-rooted questions to years of hangovers cured by the fatty, salty pastrami and corned beef sopped between sourdough and Swiss, smothered with cheap, tangy yellow mustard. Too lazy to Google the difference between the two, I knew that there was a right time and place for this insight. Who better to gather these answers from than San Francisco's Queen of Corned Beef? The foundational difference is simple: Corned beef is a fresh beef brisket cured in a salt solution and later cooked by either boiling or roasting with pickling spice. Pastrami consists of a similar cure as corned beef but is later given a rub and smoked.

Her hair in a bun, bright red lipstick to contrast her lightly powdered face, and turtle glass frames with matching hair clip, Debbie made me feel as comfortable as a waitress at a roadside diner asking me whether I'd like hash browns or home fries to go with my country fried steak, or a downtown Vegas card dealer congratulating me on a winning hand at the $5 blackjack table.

With a warm personality like that, it's no wonder her tight-knit crew of eight have been working beside her for more than 10 years.

"Once people get a job here, they don't want to leave," Ward says.

But before Debbie committed to a life of taking over the family business, she lived her life as a cruise ship tour guide traveling across Europe. She eventually married the ship photographer who snapped shots of tourists on camels in front of the Sphinx in Egypt and the Hermitage in Russia. Ward later got pregnant on her travels, and on a return vacation home to the city, her father Jim Dixon offered her an office job at the factory that she slowly welcomed.

The Roberts family on a road trip way back in the day take a break alongside the company truck. - COURTESY PHOTO/DEBBIE WARD
  • Courtesy Photo/Debbie Ward
  • The Roberts family on a road trip way back in the day take a break alongside the company truck.

Jim was a true salesman who went door-to-door, taking samples of their meats to hofbraus, delis, hotels and supermarkets across the city. James's Mercedes license plate is emblazoned "CORNBF," and on her Honda Pilot "CORNBF2".

"Dad went out and sold, sold, sold, sold," Ward says. "They used to call him the king of corned beef."

General Manager Franz Wohlauf says that San Francisco's corned beef ascent came in the '50s, when the slabs were promoted as the Thursday special at the Clift Hotel, then at Original Joe's, because Catholics aren't supposed to eat meat on Fridays and on Ash Wednesday during Lent.

After James retired in 2005, Ward has since taken the helm at the upstairs office, punching in orders for the week, sometimes stepping into the downstairs market to assist anyone looking to purchase the time-tested product, then granting her routine instruction on how to properly prepare a brisket.

Big pot. Cold water. High boil at first. Then simmer for three hours. Let the meat rest. Slice against the grain. Enjoy.

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Rhys Alvarado


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