Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Writing Adventure Group #10 - I Butchered This

Here is my entry to WAG #10. The instructions: “WAG #10: The Professional” As we go through our days, we’re surrounded by people doing everyday jobs: the guy that reads the gas meter, cashiers, bank tellers, security guards, doctors, circus clowns… This week, your assignment is to observe someone doing a job (their profession should be one you don’t know that much about). Describe him/her and also what they’re doing, why they’re doing it (as best you can tell), and how. Feel free to use your imagination, but don’t forget the concrete observation!

I grew up in the beef capital of the world. As a child I would go to lunch with my Dad at the steakhouse restaurant in the stockyards. Going in through the backdoor, scraping my Keds at the boot scrape for the stockyard workers, it never dawned on me that what I was eating came from the cattle I saw moving through the chutes as we walked from the parking lot to the restaurant. Once I realized where my sandwich was coming from, that restaurant lost it's appeal.

Today, while we buy our groceries at a large, modern and well appointed supermarket, we still buy our meat at a small, old fashioned butcher shop. It's my husband's idea, not mine. I do best when I don't think about, much less look at, where meat actually comes from and what it looks like before it is delivered to me in pristine, white, butcher paper.

I try to send my husband, a handy kid or anyone I can rope into going to the butcher shop so I don't have to. Occasionally though, it can't be helped. I have to go to the meat market. I have to look at and interact with the butcher.

Butchers alternately repel and fascinate me. If I think about what they do, I can't eat the product they create. Yet I am fascinated about why a person becomes a butcher. What makes them decide that they want to work 40 hours a week cutting through dead muscle, fat and bone, trimming what was once part of a living creature into an unrecognizable mass wrapped in Styrofoam and plastic wrap?

I watch the butchers at my meat market and wonder what they do when they go through the white swinging door with my bone-in Boston Butt (a cut of pork used for my family's secret recipe for pork tenderloin sandwiches) and come back with a pile of translucent, paper-thin slices of pale pink elasticity with all trace of bone removed. What do they think about as they slice through that hunk of hog that used to be the hind quarter of a living creature? And what exactly goes on in that back room that am I not supposed to see? It can't be as bad as what I imagine. At least I hope it can't. My imaginings run to the carnage in the first 20 minutes of the movie Saving Private Ryan.

Is being a butcher more or less pleasant now that the meat comes to them already partially processed and their job is made easier thanks to the advent of electric saws, grinders and tenderizers? Do the old-timers still reminisce about their long-retired favorite cleaver?

Do butcher's prefer to work with a specific animal, much like an artist prefers still life to landscapes? I would assume that some butchers work better in the chicken medium than the pork. Is that true? Why? Is it a visual, olfactory or a tactile preference?

If I were forced to become a butcher tomorrow, something I haven't given much thought to, I think I would prefer chickens over red-meated animals. Even though the only chickens we eat now are boneless, skinless breasts, I have cut up whole fryers before, without disgusting myself too much. But I've also watched chickens have their necks rung or their heads chopped off. I've seen the headless bodies jerk and jump. And I realize if I was a butcher, I would picture that process every time I picked up a fryer or a hen in order to separate the thighs from the legs, the breasts from the wings.

As I've studied butchers through the years I have made one interesting discovery. As a kid I remember feeling nauseous when I'd watch a butcher, who's white apron was heavily spattered with blood, talk to my grandmother about such questionable meat products as suet, gizzards, blood sausage and that great mystery - mincemeat, all of which she used regularly. By my observation butcher apron's today are considerably less bloody than they were when I was a child. I don't think this is one of those instances where my childhood perception of something is warped by the passage of time. I think they really are less bloody.

Which begs the question, do they just change their aprons more often, or has the miracle of modern science somehow engineered cattle and poultry so they aren't as bloody as they used to be?


Iain Martin said...

Good story, Lulu; I enjoyed hearing a little about you growing up. I gave up eating chicken after I started working at a popular chicken franchise because the chicken parts came in tubs of some kind of marinade and the employees had to reach into this mixture and feel around for the parts they needed; the problem is that the bones of the chicken would routinely puncture the skin, mixing the employees blood with the marinade. Forewarned is forearmed.

Christine said...

Hi Lulu,

It was hard to read this post as I'm a vegetarian and animal lover. I did find it interesting the way you described the butcher. There are no more butchers near my home, only those big supermarkets that waste food.

Interesting piece.

Nancy J. Parra said...

I'm mostly a veggie eater-having grown up helping at slaughter time. My job was to put the heads in a bag for disposal...chickens, ducks, geese, rabbits...

I thought I was Ok with it all-until shortly after my first child was born. My father had given us frozen rabbit. I was thawing the carcass in the sink (like a turkey) when I looked down and saw a headless baby...yeah... no more rabbit for me.

Now if I eat meat- it's ground up or far removed from the animal.

Nice post- unusual pro to choose. Thanks!

Donna said...

Was that the Kansas City stockyards you talk about? I'm near Kansas City. A google alert on Iris Dement brought me here.

My husband worked in a family butcher shop for over twenty years. It's a skilled trade, really, and he took pride in being able to kill an animal quickly and painlessly, then skin and gut it. On other days he cut and wrapped the various cuts of beef and pork.

The butcher shop closed, and all my husband has left of that job is the arthritis in various parts of his body from repetitive movements required by butchering.

Now... I'm off to find the reference to Iris Dement.

Donna said...

Oh, I found it in your list of music. Have you heard Iris sing "When My Morning Comes Around"?

Christine said...

My first real job was a food safety manager in a meat processing plant. My company took the broken down pieces of beef and cut them into steaks for restaurants. It was a messy bloody business. I never worked for a kill plant so steak was never ruined for me.
Interesting piece.

J. M. Strother said...

Good introspective piece here, Lulu. I'm not sure, but if I had to butcher my own meat I may well become a vegetarian. There is a reason hunting and fishing has never appealed to me.

Butchering is a skilled trade, and I'm glad there are people willing to do it. I do like my beef, pork and chicken (not to mention fish). But it's not anything I think I could do.

I really like this piece. It makes us think.

SueO said...

Hi, Lulu. I'm not a vegetarian, but I still found this a bit hard to read. Strange thing about that is when I was a kid, I'd love to hang out at the meat counter when my mom took me along to do the grocery shopping. Not only did I find the plastic wrapping and the labeling machinery fascinating, I thought it was cool to see the men cutting up these carcasses. This was long ago, back when the process was pretty much expected to be observable. They probably changed it when people complained about what their children were seeing.

Come to think of it, they probably requested it because nosy little kids like me were making them nervous by staring at them! :-)

I agree with Jon in that this really did make me think.

Cheers! SueO

Lulu said...

Ian - suddenly I am very glad I haven't eaten in any popular chicken franchises for many,many years.

Christine - Sorry. Writing this I was worried I might offend a butcher. For some reason I didn't think about people at the opposite end of the scale. Surprising because I have a love/hate relationship with animal protein & had long periods of time not eating meat myself. Writing this actually put me off of it again. But I doubt it will be permanent. It is hardcoded in my midwestern DNA.

Nancy - Thanks. I chose this pro at last minute. I was thinking of all the jobs I could never do. This ranked up there with dentists & morticians. I've never eaten rabbit. My cat however tells me that other than the spleen, which she leaves for me on the back porch, the rest, including bones and fur is quite tasty. It is pretty disgusting.

Donna-yes I did grow up in Kansas City. My guess is per capita KC has fewer vegatarians than any place else in the world. Somehow meat was made to fit all the major food groups. Glad you came by.

Christine - I am beginning to think a whole website could be devoted to people's personal history with meat and how it impacts their diet today. Seems almost everyone has a story.

Jon - thanks. I could never hunt. Knowing my cat does is bad enough. I wonder if they have ever polled butchers to determine what % are vegitarians. It might be higher than we think. They are skilled and their job has value, but there are so many valuable jobs I could never imagine doing myself.

Sue - thanks for stopping by. It is interesting what jobs fascinate kids. Mine was beautician, a profession I never considered as an adult (I can't even trim my own bangs). I think society has done a lot to sanitize the appearance of certain jobs through the years. Hiding what people is ugly. But that also hides what makes the job of value sometimes. I think it is due to TV shows. Drs. walk out of surgery with no blood on them. Police shoot people and they die but don't bleed.

Thanks to all of you for stopping by and commenting!