Mustering some sympathy for the bedeviled ham and beef
By Monica Eng
Chicago Tribune reporter
September 21, 2008
For photos, click here.
What I feared most was the screaming. Desperate cries from a freaked-out pig might ruin bacon for me forever. I'd spent the previous two days hanging out with happy hogs at the idyllic Newman Farm on the Arkansas- Missouri border. I watched them trot around the fields, wag their curly tails and flop in pools of mud. I even held one in my hands when it was only a few hours old. But here I'd come, five hours across Missouri to Trimble, just outside Kansas City, Mo., to witness the other end of a pig's life cycle. Comfortingly, the place was called Paradise Meat Locker. So why was I here? I asked myself the same question as I nervously pulled on shoe guards, tucked my hair in a shower cap and snapped up my lab coat right outside the kill floor door. I didn't want to see a pig get killed. Heck, I don't think anyone does.
But I felt like I couldn't continue eating meat if I didn't. So this summer I embarked on an unpleasant pilgrimage to bear witness to the death of every kind of animal I ate. And in some cases, to kill the animal myself. Before you start with the angry letters, please hear me out. We're probably more similar than you think. Like most of you reading this story, I love animals. I love to pet them. And I love to hold them. But I also love to eat them. So the thought of their execution—something my appetites demand—both frightened and revolted me. But if I couldn't take the reality of what was on my plate, how could I justify eating it? And how could I feed it to my kids? I'd been asking myself this for years, but urban life made it easy to avoid the issue. Meat here comes in manicured cuts covered with shiny plastic. It doesn't have a face (as long as you avoid those ghastly ethnic markets) and certainly doesn't make noise. It's easy to imagine that these cuts come from the rib machine or the chicken tender factory or even the brisket dispenser down the street.
But after reading Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" (2006) in which he personally kills and forages his dinner, I found it harder to tune out the question. My own foodie concerns about the provenance of my meat drove my curiosity further. But the biggest factor was my conviction that it's wrong to ask someone to do something for you that you morally could not do yourself.
This plan felt very personal, but in doing it, I was actually joining a blooming movement of ethical meat eaters. Cool, conscientious folks who used to slump guiltily next to their righteous vegan friends, knowing they were baddies for eating factory-farmed animals, but not seeing much choice.
Today, however, many proudly proclaim their meat love—especially for pork—with the near-virtuousness of vegetarians. That's because ethical meat options have expanded faster than you can say "ex-vegetarian." Between 2002 and 2007 U.S. organic meat sales grew tenfold (from $33 million to $364 million), according to Chicago-based Mintel research group.
This doesn't even count the sales growth in meats that are free-range, grass-fed and natural—less restrictive standards than organic, in which livestock is required by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture to have been fed organic feed and be free of hormones and antibiotics.
The new options have even partially lured vegetarians to the carnivore camp. While no one keeps figures on such things, anecdotal converts include Mollie Katzen, author of "Moosewood Cookbook," and Amy Standen and Sasha Wizansky, founders of Meatpaper magazine, a young quarterly examining the recent "fleisch geist," the trendy term for the new "meat consciousness."
Although watching an actual slaughter lies at the far end of the ethical meat-eating spectrum, a growing number of foodies and chefs are embracing the challenge as a political, environmental and moral exercise.
Anecdotally, Pollan's book pushed many into the killing-and-flesh-eating camp. But mostly, it got them thinking about what it means.
"There were several people I heard from who were inspired to try killing their own meat, and several others who became lapsed vegetarians," Pollan told me. "The book seemed to create a certain number of new vegetarians and a certain number of new carnivores, which gratifies me—that people would have used the same information to come to such diametrically opposed conclusions."
In the name of conscious cooking, some chefs are proudly raising and slaughtering the animals themselves. Chris Cosentino, of Incanto in San Francisco, who has personally slaughtered dozens of animals and writes about it at offalgood.com, leads the movement in the U.S. while Jamie Oliver (who slaughtered a chicken in front of a TV audience this year) is at the forefront in England. Both have earned praise, but also a fair share of death threats.
"Be careful," Cosentino warned when I told him of my mission. "Some people have threatened to murder me because I kill the animals I'll serve. People love to eat their sausage and T-bones and hot dogs, but they don't want to know how they got to the plate. They refuse to come face to face with their food and where it comes from."
For those who do, the journey usually starts with buying organic milk and eggs. It often progresses to buying natural, organic, grass-fed, antibiotic- and hormone-free meats.
That's how I started. But soon I'd moved on to buying meat at local farmers markets. Then I'd graduated to secret "tuppermeat" brunches in Wicker Park where a farmer set out coolers of meat and eggs in a living room. We'd load up our bags, drink Intelligentsia coffee, write the farmer a hefty personal check and go home with heavy bags of organic meats and virtue.
One pal swooned with pride: "These eggs are so fresh they still have chicken poo on them." For an urban foodie like me, this was as close to the source as I could get.
Or so I thought until I read Pollan's book. His indictment of factory farming, his first-person exploration of his food sources and his unflinching examination of what it means to eat meat inspired me—and many others—to take that next step.
So I called some local farms and asked if I could attend a slaughter. I was greeted by chuckles and head shakes at the idea that these farmers actually do the slaughtering anymore. A typical response came from Diann Moore, of the Moore Family Farm in Watseka, Ill.
"Since ["The Omnivore's Dilemma"] came out people are much more interested in their food sources and the animal raising," says Moore, who sells her sustainable produce and meat at the Urbana Farmers Market, among other outlets. "But we send most of our livestock out to a processing facility. Just about the only people who ask for live animals are Muslims, Hindus and Hispanics. And they need to get the right licensing in order before they do it."
This was not a promising start.
I thought I might never see a slaughter. But then providence stepped in.
A chance call to New York-based Heritage Foods revealed that this sustainable specialty meat broker was offering the first ever pig-farm tour that finished with a trip to the abattoir. I signed up right away.
Then a few days before driving through Minnesota this summer, I learned about a slaughterhouse that offered viewing facilities for select visitors. I called and the owner said I could come and watch.
All the pieces came together to produce a six-week period in which I ruefully watched the death of a pig, cow, chicken, fish and crabs—yes, crabs. The most traumatic was the biggest surprise to me.
As we toured the holding pens at Paradise Meat Locker, it was as if the black Duroc pigs were playing tricks on our guide.
Each time he described Paradise's calming environment, the oinkers around the corner would start squealing again.
To be fair, the seven bristly porkers had already moved beyond the holding pens and were in an alley leading to the abattoir. I was touring the plant with a group of chefs on this blisteringly hot day and a few of us went to investigate. It appeared to be a fight over who had dibs on the water bucket. The fact that their fellow hogs were disappearing through a small black door ahead of them seemed less of an issue.
Back in the cool of the building, we were offered a buffet of cured meats before donning our safety clothes and heading onto the kill floor. I skipped eating the meat and chatted with the anxious chefs. None was looking forward to this. But each saw it as a rite, a show of respect and an education.
The first thing that hits you on the kill floor is the temperature. The body heat of open hogs, the torches used to burn off their bristles, the steamy "dehairing" machine (like a horizontal washing machine full of boiling Nair) and the hot Missouri air that slips in with each new pig, crank it up to around 100 degrees.
Our first station is the innards table, where freshly harvested organs are dropped for the U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector to examine. In back of that table are the knife-wielding eviscerator and the hair-and-hoof removing guys. Also, the man who deals with the live hog. He lifts the door, zaps the hog with an electrical wand on the back of the neck, hoists him by his leg over a barrel and then "sticks him," cutting deeply through neck arteries that unleash an avalanche of blood.
Above the din of machines and power hoses, meat scientist and PhD candidate David Newman explains the procedure. Newman, the son of Newman Farm owners Mark and Rita, has been our instructor on this pig tour, teaching us about everything from feed options and pH balances to marbling and slaughter theory. "The pig will lose most of its blood in the first 15 seconds," he says. The hog's heart is still beating. It shudders and kicks a leg as the desanguination continues.
My knees are trembling, but overall I feel relief. Since Bristly is shocked into unconsciousness before he flops into view, we encounter minimal struggling—and mercifully, no screaming.
Still, as soon as we leave the kill floor and step into the open air, the chefs are silent. They reach for beer and cigarettes to help digest what they just saw.
On a torrid Minnesota day in suburban Minneapolis, Mike Lorentz meets us at the employee entrance of Lorentz Meats. With brown hair and a sturdy build, Lorentz is a thoughtful talker, often allowing a few moments of silence before he answers a curious journalist's question. He's completely transparent about his meat operation, but knows this can make him extra vulnerable to those who oppose meat eating in general. Although I've explained my mission, he still seems leery about my motives.
Pollan had given me Lorentz's name a few days before. I had already planned this road trip with a friend to pick up his 13-year-old from summer camp. Providentially, our trip takes us near Lorentz Meats precisely during steer-slaughtering hours.
As we approach town, we warn the boy about the visit. "Cool," he says with teenage bravado. "Can I kill a cow?"
"No," we say. He opts to stay in the car.
As we enter the two-story rectangular industrial park unit—built in 2002 to the specifications of Temple Grandin, the czarina of humane abattoir design—it feels like a refrigerator and smells like a butcher shop.
Lorentz leads us up to the viewing room where, he's told me, only one person of the thousands who have been through has fainted.
The windows (one overlooks the kill floor and the other the butchering area) are located in the employee lunchroom. This may sound stomach churning for some but it seems to speak to the quotidian nature of animal death here.
The possibility of allowing my children to witness a slaughter drew outrage and derision from my urban colleagues but here those sentiments seem absurd.
"My own kids [who are all under 7] look out there and say, 'Daddy, is that going to be our hamburger tonight?' " Lorentz says.
The workers are on a 15-minute break. So one organic cow hangs by his legs and another lies half-skinned and belly-up in "the cradle"—a stand that allows workers to cut and carve different parts of the animal after he bleeds out. I discuss the different stations of the kill floor with Lorentz using my newly acquired terms, like "immobilization," "desanguination" and "evisceration." He says, "We don't use those fancy words here. We say stun, bleed and gut." OK.
Soon the workers return to finish off the steer in the cradle. Carefully gutted and almost totally skinned, he gets hoisted back up and a roller contraption grabs his hide and pulls it cleanly away from his body.
Time for the next steer.
As he enters the "knock box" (a one-cow-sized pen connected to the holding area by a sliding door) all we see from the lunchroom window is his curious white head barely poking over the wall. The worker recharges the stun bolt (a la " No Country for Old Men") and calmly assumes a position near its head to get a clean stun.
"One of the ways this differs from a large factory slaughterhouse," Lorentz tells us, "is that, if the bolt doesn't stun him right, we have the time to go back, correct it and make sure he is really out."
The stun works and Whitey has fallen on his side to the floor. But he still kicks.
Like the pigs at Paradise, Whitey is hoisted into the air with his heart still beating. His carotid artery and jugular are severed by hand and he dies of blood loss over a barrel. The steer is then processed by strong, skilled men who wield knives like artists, efficiently removing head, skin and organs before the carcass moves into the cooler. The men handle one steer at a time.
The only noises come from hoses and the machinery that moves and cleans the beasts.
The scene is a little easier to bear the second time around, especially since we are watching it from our lunchroom opera box. Still, I feel a certain buzz in my limbs and that familiar knot has returned to my stomach. When we stop at Culver's for lunch, I order a salad.
When I arrive at the live poultry shop on Chicago's Lawrence Avenue, I spot a bad omen immediately. Painted on the window are the words "POLLO Y PATO" (chicken and duck) and "ENG" (me?). It's probably some sort of mistake, but it doesn't make me feel great.
Inside the waiting room, the stench is intense. I figure it has something to do with the cage of pooping quail staring us in the face.
My friend and I join a half dozen others waiting and breathing through their mouths. Most seem to be picking up several fresh birds they've ordered in advance. They leave with bulging black sacks delivered by a mustachioed man. He seems to run the whole operation.
When it is finally our turn, I ask if I can choose my chicken. He leads me through the processing room (which includes a cash register, a scale, a cutting table, a scalding vat and several tin buckets) into the chicken room. It holds several cages of noisy brown and white birds. We point to a fluffy chicken that is drinking water. The mustachioed man reaches in, grabs Fluffy and takes her to the scale.
She flaps her wings and clucks during the weigh-in, all the while eyeing me with contempt. The mustachioed man carries her to the back of the room, pulls back her head and slides a sharp knife across her white neck. He whispers "bismillah, allahu akbar," a Muslim blessing that must accompany each halal slaughter.
Looking up, he places her head down in a tin bucket to let her bleed out—another halal requirement. "This will only take a few minutes," he says. I ask if we can watch her last moments. He nods.
My eyes turn to Fluffy as she shudders, stretches her claws out of the bucket and waves wildly. She falls still, but resumes the seizure-like dance. Stillness again. I hold my breath.
My friend squeezes my hand and whispers, "It's over. She's gone."
But, as if on cue, Fluffy summons her strength for one last theatrical hand jive.
Who can blame her for trying to make me feel as bad as possible. I'd do the same.
Finally, with Fluffy at rest, the mustachioed man places her in the scalding bath to loosen her feathers. Next stop is a spinner (kind of a small washing machine) that pulls off her feathers.
Inevitably bits of chicken fall on these floors and the man hoses them down frequently. My rubber flip-flops feel like a bad shoe choice.
While Fluffy spins, the mustachioed man asks us to return to the waiting room. Ack, that smell again. But soon she's ready to leave. I pay my $11.50 (chickens cost $1.59 a pound), thank the mustachioed man and put Fluffy in the car. She is warm and heavy.
At home I put her in the refrigerator and close the door. I avoid the fridge all day.
By late afternoon, I call my mom to come over for moral support. But she is late and I must cook dinner. So I enlist my children. Under orders from his mom, my 9-year-old son, Joe, removes Fluffy from her double black plastic bags. He drops a clear, chicken-filled bag on the counter before me and Fluffy's head stares me down again.
Her legs, thighs and wings, though, look comfortingly like anonymous chicken parts I've known. My kids each take out a leg and roll it in seasoning. I gather the strength to remove a few more pieces and slide them in the oven. My mom arrives and we make a coq au vin with the rest, leaving the head, neck and feet in the bag.
The baked chicken smells pretty good. The coq au vin smells great. I force a few bites down but Fluffy seems oddly dry and tough. I feel like she's trying to vex me again—but later realize it's just rigor mortis that I was supposed to wait out before cooking her. The leftover coq au vin is tastier and tenderer when I try it again the next day. But I'm only eating it out of respect.
We get to the Chinatown fish store late. The guy at the tanks has already put his cutting board and knives in the sink. He speaks to me in Chinese and then tries English. Two words: "no cutting." I'm hoping this means he won't trim nice fillets today. So I respond in piercing, language barrier-busting volume, "No problem!"
He nods. We scan the tilapia tank. Joe wants the one tilting on its side so we can "put him out of his misery." I choose a healthier-looking fish. Swiftly the man scoops him out the tank and drops the flopping creature in a plastic bag for me.
"No, no, no," I say, pushing the bag back into his hands. "I can't." Even as the words escape my mouth, I know that killing Floppy myself is exactly what I should be doing for this exercise. But my fear is strong. Giving me a dirty look, the fish man shakes his head and pulls his board and knives out of the sink.
He holds down Floppy's head and performs a cursory scaling. My son mock-barfs and dashes for the door with his sister close behind. I threaten future toy purchases if they dare leave. At the same time I try to keep one eye on the fish man, so as not to miss the actual execution. I feel like a failure on all fronts. Crazy screaming mom. Lax journalist. And cowardly carnivore.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see him remove more scales. His knife slices half-way through the gullet and then down Floppy's belly exposing innards that are gone in one quick move.
The man slides the red-spattered fish back into the plastic bag and hands it to me. I sheepishly take the still-wriggling purchase to the counter. The clerk weighs it, charges me $8.57 and places it into another plastic bag. I put Floppy in the trunk hoping he won't make much noise as we drive the six blocks to my friend's house.
There we wash him and dress him with soy, MSG, fresh ginger and garlic. We slide his body onto a steamer over a burbling wok and top it with a glass lid. When I return 10 minutes later, I find a fin perpendicular to Floppy's body pushing at the glass. He steams up beautifully. The flesh is white, sweet and delicate. But I take little pleasure in the eating.
When my children and I walk up to the three boxes of live blue crabs at the Vietnamese market, we're not sure which ones to grab with our tongs. An experienced shopper takes pity and advises us to choose only live crabs with orange markings on their shells. We try, but the whole thing is so disturbing that we end up just filling two bags as fast as we can without getting pinched. If one crab latches on to another couple of pals, they go into the bag too. This seems to account for the pungent smell of dead crab that wafts from the sack.
I call my friend and ask him to start boiling a huge pot of water to which we add Old Bay seasoning, corn, potatoes and finally the feisty crabs. The kids gather in the kitchen and we thank each crustacean for its sacrifice as it heads into the pot. Through the steamy glass lid I watch one wave and struggle as it succumbs to the heat. I've cheerfully eaten a lot of blue crabs in my life. I even wrote a story on how to do it properly. But this crab meal is not cheerful at all. This time I'm wholly responsible for the dirty work and can feel a guilty knot in the pit of my stomach.
I have a close friend at the Tribune who once worked as a chef. One night he had to kill dozens of soft-shell crabs as he cooked them to order. With each crab he said he could feel the death and bad karma creeping up his arm. Maybe that's what I felt as I dutifully nibbled each cooked crab out of respect. Was this what it was like to kill your dinner? Why didn't these taste good? And why did I feel like Lady Macbeth as I spent the night trying to wash this damn crab smell off my hands?
In the end, the crabs would be the only thing I actually killed. And they were the thing I felt worst about.
My summer of slaughters left me with mixed feelings. But not the feelings I'd imagined.
I thought I might emerge from it with a greater sense of entitlement and accomplishment. Like if you can face the realities of meat, you're allowed to eat it. But I felt no sense of entitlement. I felt more hesitance, a deeper reverence and a new conscientiousness.
Yes, I will probably continue to eat meat—I am a food writer. But in these weeks after the experiment, I already find I'm eating a lot less. I select it very carefully, eat it only occasionally and consume it in the kind of precious quantities that my grandparents did. Most of all, I approach the meat with a renewed sense of gratitude that extends to the farmer, the slaughterhouse workers, butcher, broker, chef, artisan meat curer and, most of all, to the animal that lived and died—I will try to ensure, well—to bring it to me.
I involved my children in parts of this process—despite disapproval from friends—because I want them to make food choices based on knowledge. The lasting effects are still unclear. My son, Joe, is still upset about the crabs. Before we killed them he insisted that I look the crustaceans in the eyes and confess what I was up to. He is currently contemplating vegetarianism. The 5-year-old, Miranda, keeps asking if we can play with the next "Fluffy" for a few days before "we kill her." I assure her this is a terrible idea.
I don't know how this will affect their greater meat consciousness in the long run. But I drew hope the other day when I heard my daughter whisper to a paper-thin slice of prosciutto: "Thank you, pig. I love you, pig. Now I'm going to eat you."
Copyright © 2008, Chicago Tribune
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