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?