In New York City, a phrase like ethnic market can often feel, for all intents and purposes, obsolete. Having said that, there’s still much to be discovered in the aisles of small markets, “ethnic” or otherwise, that dot Northern Brooklyn, and such remains the case with Melinda’s Halal Meat Market, a businesses owned and run by a family whose roots go back to the small Balkan country of Montenegro. For someone like myself, not intimately familiar with all the cultural complexities of the Balkan peninsula, the products that cram Melinda’s shelves project an intriguing otherness. Many of their flavors, however, would eventually prove accessible, even familiar.
I met Rasim Dedovic, Melinda’s patriarch, one afternoon, amidst the piles of filthy snow caking Ridgewood and Bushwick after a recent blizzard.
Dedovic and his close-knit family have kept the store alive and churning out veal, chicken, house-smoked and cured meats for 30 years. As the name implies, Melinda’s Halal Meats is primarily a butcher shop — the trade has been their bread-and-butter since Dedovic arrived in the United States in the late 1980s.
After learning of my interest in his shop, Dedovic quickly handed me off to his son, Admir. The handsome butchery scion, who has been helping his father with the family business for about three years, proceeded to give a thorough and loquacious tour of the property, which for the last century, he said, has never been anything but a purveyor of meat.
A testament to the building’s age, and the shop’s centerpiece, is its antique walk-in freezer, the kind that includes a kind of mini-attic directly above, accessed by a cute little Hobbit-esque square door.
A list of the shop’s former owners, who fed and clothed their own families with sales of countless sides of beef, pork and lamb, quartered and hoisted onto the freezer’s hooks, presents a quick lesson in the history of the successive waves of immigration that broke over New York from the late-19th century to the middle-to-late 20th.
“First, I believe, the owners were Italian, and then Romanian, and then Yugoslavian,” said Admir.
Just then, Admir’s father yelled something inaudible over the roar of the meat grinder.
Admir paused and cocked his head: “Ah, ok, sorry. It was German, Italian, Romanian and then us, Yugoslavian.”
Admir’s father arrived in New York from Montenegro in 1989, and learned butchery working at an Italian-owned shop in Staten Island. He got married and opened Melinda’s with his father-in-law. Admir grew up shuttling back and forth between Ridgewood and Staten Island, where his uncle owned his own butcher shop shop.
Outside Melinda’s freezer —which has long since traded ice for electricity— is a long chain of hooks from which hang great loops of sujuk, a smoked beef sausage, as well as hunks of mishthat, dried beef not dissimilar to jerkied pastrami. The almost-constant hum of the meat grinder somewhere in the depths of the shop probably meant that another of Melinda’s specialities was being made: cevap, an oblong meatball that Admir touts as a crucial element in Balkan gastronomy.
Islam exists in the Balkans because the Turkish Ottomans deposited it there, where it still remains in some areas, most famously Albania. Cevap, according to Admir, arrived in much the same way, via the conquering Turks. Specialties like cevap and sujuk are what help make Melinda’s a hub for the neighborhood’s community of Eastern European expatriates.
“The majority are from the Balkans, I would say,” said Admir, when asked about the shop’s customers. “Albanian, Montenegro…also Romanians come in a lot. And non-Eastern Europeans come in, too! They ask for cevap and we asked them how they knew about it. They say, ‘from coming to your shop!’”
The odd touch of old school hospitality helps bring customers in the door when exotic items like cevap fail to do the trick.
“It’s funny, all the children that come in, we like to give them chocolates,” Admir smiled. “But 20 years ago, for some reason my father would give them lollipops. Now, those kids have grown up; they come in and say, ‘You’re father used to give me lollipops; now he gives my kids chocolates.’ So it’s a generational thing.”
In spite of my advanced age, I was similarly plied with gifts during my visit. The most delicious of these was a jar of ajvar: a slightly spicy puree of red bell peppers and eggplant. (When I returned home, the ajvar worked brilliantly as a dip for the pan-fried cevap meatballs.)
A few years ago, Admir decided to dedicate more time to the family business after realizing his father needed more help in what can be a back-breaking business.
“That’s the plan anyway, god willing,” said Admir. “Let him relax.”
Admir’s father left for the day just before my own departure, but not before a few false exits — seemingly unable, despite having arrived for work at 4am, to tear himself away from the 30-year-old neighborhood hub he had cultivated. He felt compelled, also, to set me straight on his family’s ethnicity:
Rasim Dedovic: Listen, we’re Albanian. After WWI, Yugoslavia took parts from Albania, Italy, Romania — and Yugoslavia was made. But originally we’re Albanian.
Me: So you’re from Montenegro but ethnically Albanian.
Rasim: Yes. [Does a once over, leaves.]
Admir: So anyway, we have a lot of Turkish influence. Sujuk is Turkish but we make it a little different. But everything we make is –
[Door clangs, father comes in again, does another quick scan, says “I love you” and leaves.]
Melinda’s Halal Meat Market
A family owned butcher shop in a spot with a history of family owned butcher shops.
1535 Greene Avenue, Ridgewood (off the Seneca Avenue stop off the M train)
Thurs-Sat: 9 am – 8 pm
Follow Melinda’s: Facebook
Cover photo credit: Matt Fink
For more news, sign up for Bushwick Daily’s newsletter.
Join the fight to save local journalism by becoming a paid subscriber.