Michael Henderson

Life of pie

A conversation with Peter Myers, butcher and unofficial British consul to Manhattan celebrity

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‘To tell the truth,’ says Peter Myers, his Cumbrian baritone untouched by four decades of life in Manhattan, ‘I’m glad it’s all over.’ By ‘it’ he means Christmas and new year, when Myers, the sausage-knotter and purveyor of pies to New Yorkers, is at his busiest. ‘It was bedlam. They began to queue up outside the shop ten days before Christmas for their mince pies. We were making thousands a day. Bedlam, I tell you’.

Myers of Keswick, the shop on Hudson Street that bears the name of his birthplace, is not your average butcher’s. Looking round the shelves stocked with salad cream, Colman’s mustard, Marmite, Jaffa Cakes, Branston pickle, HP Sauce, Lyle’s golden syrup, sherbet fountains and oatcakes, it is not, strictly speaking, a butcher’s at all. It is a slice of English life, real or imagined, in the West Village which happens also to make pork pies, sausage rolls, scotch eggs, Cornish pasties and, of course, Cumberland sausages. ‘We advertise them as the best Cumberland sausages west of Allonby,’ says Myers. ‘We have a few imitators but ours are the only ones made by a Cumbrian.’

As thousands of British people living in New York know, Myers of Keswick is more than a source of comfort food. Since he set up camp on 4 July 1985 (‘I sold one pork pie that day’), its owner has become an unofficial British consul, who has seen the great and good, and the not so good, use his shop as their retreat. He has been befriended by Keith Richards, celebrated in print by the novelist Kinky Friedman. ‘Kate Winslet lives round the corner,’ he says. ‘A nice lass, intelligent, well-rounded. And modest with it.’ Nowadays his customers include pop stars whose names are unfamiliar to Myers. ‘I read about them in the gossip columns, but I’ve no idea who they are.’

The son of a butcher, Myers was born in Keswick, the town in northern Lakeland that sits beneath Skiddaw. A keen climber, accomplished enough to accompany Chris Bonington, he did his national service as a RAF wireless operator in Scotland. ‘I belonged to the Kinloss Mountain Rescue, but the only time I saw a wireless was when I listened to Mrs Dale’s Diary.’ In January 1972 he visited New York for a fortnight’s holiday, ‘and I have been here ever since, though I keep a place in Keswick.’

Drinking one night in the Bells of Hell, a pub on West 13th Street, Myers found himself behind the bar when a member of staff missed a shift, and that is where he stayed for the next three years. ‘It was run by Malachy McCourt, Frank McCourt’s brother, and I could see he was running it all wrong. It closed in 1975, and stayed shut for a year before I reopened it. There were some nights there, I can tell you. Journalists from the Village Voice used to drink there, and a publication called High Times. When there was a fight at Madison Square Garden the British lads used to pop in — Hugh McIlvanney, Ken Jones, Ian Wooldridge on occasions. And of course the guys from the New York bureaus were there all the time — Ivor Key, Phil Finn, Dermot Purgavie. I remember a young Paul Dacre, too, who was working for the Express at the time.’

One evening Myers asked the American pop singer Jimmy Buffett what he thought of the place. ‘Great atmosphere, good air-con, and not many queers,’ he replied, well refreshed. ‘So we ran it as an ad in the Voice, “Come to the Bells of Hell — great atmosphere, good air-con, and not many queers.” Bloody hell, what a night we had after that. There was a march from Washington Square, and we had all sorts in the bar, trannies dancing on the tables. I had to herd the buggers out at four in the morning.’ There were other big nights, and a few casualties along the way. ‘There was a lad from Tennessee, Henry, who used to drink a bottle of vodka every night. Another regular went out to the deli for a bottle of milk, and we didn’t see him for three days. Then coke reared its ugly head.’

It was in the Bells of Hell that Myers got the idea for opening his shop. ‘My father Tom came over for eight weeks, and made pork pies and sausage rolls for bar food. I realised that, for many of them, that was their evening meal. The penny dropped.’ So, in 1985, when he spotted a run-down Italian deli in Hudson Street, he spent $20,000 on transforming it. ‘That first day I sold one pork pie. The second day I sold two. My wife broke down in tears. I told her, “Irene, there won’t be many businesses that increase their turnover by 100 per cent in 24 hours.”’

One of his first customers was a well-dressed Welshman called Algernon. ‘He wore a three-piece herringbone suit, and told me he was a sheep farmer. A few weeks later he was back, extolling the virtues of Concorde, and when he popped in again a month later I thought there must be some very exotic sheep in Wales. It took a pal to put me right. “I do believe it is drugs,” he said. This Algernon chap was Howard Marks.’

A more regular customer was Richards, of the Rolling Stones. ‘He’s done us proud, has Keith. One day, just before the Stones played at Shea Stadium, he came in for a cup of tea and a chat, and he left a bundle of tickets for the staff to see the show. Well these tickets were gold dust. They weren’t VIP, they were VVIP. Doors opened, flunkeys bowed, on and on we processed as far as the inner sanctum. Then I saw Patti, Keith’s lady, who shouted across to me, “Oh Peter, have you brought the stuff?” Everybody turned round to see me carrying a parcel wrapped in silver foil. It contained the sausages Keith had asked for. Pork and leek, if I recall. Payment for the tickets! I ended up standing next to the band as they were about to go on stage. Mick Jagger looked at me as if to say “who the bloody hell are you?” At that point I thought it was wise to leave.’

Naomi Campbell evokes less fond memories. ‘She was in the shop one day, behaving in a rude way, talking on her cellphone and barging in front of other customers, so I asked her to leave. The next day I took a call from her agent, but it was obviously her. “Miss Campbell,” she says, in a silly voice, “wants you to know that she will never visit your shop again.” I replied, “I hope she is a lady of her word.” But we don’t get many like that.’

Situated on the block where the West Village meets Chelsea, next to the meatpacking district, Myers is well-placed to supply the restaurants in one of Manhattan’s most handsome neighbourhoods. He used to supply the Plaza, the chateau-style hotel next to Central Park, until Ivana Trump received it as part of her divorce settlement. ‘The sausage sales to the Plaza used to pay my rent. When the purchasing manager told me Ivana didn’t like them, I told him no wonder The Donald got shot of her! She’s got no tastebuds.’

In time Myers hopes his daughter, Jenny, will take over the shop. But he can still be found behind the counter, beneath the Carlisle United scarf that adorns the kitchen wall, an Englishman very much at home in his adopted parish. When, a couple of years ago, some expatriates explored the idea of calling the area Little Britain, Myers was unimpressed. ‘I had never heard of anything so daft. The West Village is the heart of New York, historically, architecturally, every way, so far as I am concerned. The Upper East Side bores me. In fact I rarely cross 14th Street unless I am making a delivery or buying a motorbike’.

And so the champion piemaker returns to his pies.