Nonfiction | September 01, 2001
How to Break a Side of Beef
When I was a boy, my otherwise opinion-shy father decided that my head required a rubbing before I went off to take a test at school. Algebra, history and chemistry tests gave equal cause for this ceremony, and even, to my bafflement, phys-ed, in which swift, lean boys captured the highest grades by racing two miles in less than twelve minutes. As I left the house on exam days, books piled against my hip, he stood at the front door waiting, always dressed in a white, short-sleeved dress shirt and black pants, a combination made more severe by his eternal crewcut and square-framed glasses. As his cool fingers tousled my perfectly combed hair, he’d say, “That’s for high marks!” Or, “Good luck today, hey?” On some days it was a nonchalant rub on the top or back of my skull, executed in a soft circular motion. Other times—perhaps in proportion to the difficulty of the pending test—he rubbed with vigorous, bone-grinding determination, as if he hoped to ignite mental sparks.
This ritual began as a casual gesture one morning before what I feared was going to be a grueling chemistry test. I hated the subject, but had labored over the material daily. When my father suggested a scalp massage to help “activate” my brain, I first balked at the idea and then capitulated as a measure of insurance, in case my many hours of study weren’t enough. After my report card confirmed his powers, the rubbings became de rigeur, continuing well into my high school years. If I resisted, my mother predicted academic doom and lifelong failure, and my father stood righteously at the front door, poised to rub with all the more gusto.
I often wonder if his rubbings held an actual power that continued to affect me long after I ceased being a teenager. What else could explain my passage through law school, through three years of unprecedented levels of test anxiety compounded by an intense disdain for the subject? Recently I’ve also wondered whether my paternal grandfather, whom I never knew, rubbed his son’s head in times of school-induced pressures. Did my father, as a child, enjoy the benefit of the same prescriptive ritual?
In fact I knew little about my own father’s education, perhaps because I’ve always had a solipsistic obsession with my own. For thirty-two years he devoted himself to a job that required study, but I’d heard nothing about his training and preparation for the work that kept him away from home most evenings. For many years he’d leave the house, clock his hours and return late, after I’d gone to bed. On his day off he rested or took us out for a meal, and once a year we went on short vacations. As a kid, I didn’t know what led to my father’s position in life. He never spoke about it, and I never asked. Nearing middle age, I felt compelled to find out how he acquired the skills that helped feed us and, more to the point, fed his soul. And so, determined to learn, I asked.
Before he was formally trained to cut meat for a living, he told me, my father was drafted into the Army. In April of 1953, after six weeks in boot camp, he was sent to Cooks and Bakers School at Fort Riley, Kansas. The Korean War was in full throttle, but Korea itself would remain a far-away and exotic abstraction. His trenches were dug in Kansas, where he learned how to scramble eggs and bake bread for a hundred famished men at a time. This first excursion away from home was a momentous journey of less than a thousand miles. Scrawny, pale and twenty-one, he had grown up in northern Michigan’s backwoods, where ice and snow encase the land seven months a year, and the locals, practically Canadian by virtue of their proximity to the border, attach “hey” to the end of every spoken sentence. He was the youngest of three and the only boy; when he was born, in 1932, his mother and father were relatively old to be adding another child to the family, his mother being forty and his father fifty. Perhaps because of the generational divides between my father and his parents and between him and his two substantially older sisters, his childhood was quite and solitary. He played by himself, and preferred the company of a pet cat. Early on he concluded—or perhaps was told—that the path of higher education had not been paved for him. When I asked him about his time in high school and how he’d decided what to do after graduation, he responded simply that he could not have gone to college. His calm matter-of-factness suggested that he had not been prevented by inadequate grades or poor preparation, but by other obstacles—lack of money, the need to care for aging parents and an assumption, probably incorrect, that he did not possess the makings of a college man.
Before his draft number came up he bellhopped in the same hotel where his father worked as a clerk and played back-room poker. My father, I am speculating, might have stayed on at that hotel indefinitely if the army hadn’t snagged him.
Why Cooks and Bakers School? His brother-in-law, a young pipe-smoking professor of engineering, had offered this advice: “Tell the army you’ve always wanted to be a cook, and if you pass the test they’ll enroll you in the military equivalent of culinary college.” It was sensible advice, and my father, who had no particular aspirations other than to endure two painless years as a draftee, acted on it.
At Cooks and Bakers School, the critical mission of all trainees was to keep everything as clean as possible to ensure that servicemen didn’t succumb to bouts of diarrhea, otherwise known as the GI’s or, more colorfully, the trots. All students began their training in the small-quantity kitchens, where they first learned how to make meatloaf and spaghetti for two. The lessons addressed basic seasonings, utensils, kitchen procedures and presentation. Small Quantity served as the army’s kindergarten of cooking—beginning home economics for young men who, for the most part, had never cooked anything more elaborate than toast. After two days, my father graduated to Big Quantity, where he practiced scrambling eggs and baking biscuits for a hundred or more empty stomachs every morning. At lunchtime in Big Quantity, elbow macaroni boiled furiously in enormous steel vats. If the proportions weren’t right, all the water evaporated, leaving a blob of glutinous casserole crusted black at the bottom. Big Quantity tested wits and muscle, as the men kneaded and rolled hundreds of pounds of dough, concocted infinite gallons of stew in barrel-sized pots, hefted endless sacks of flour and rice, and daily deliveries of beef and pork. True culinary toil was the mark of Big Quantity, where young men had dreams about twelve eggs and a single loaf of bread feeding the entire armed services.
After mastering Big Quantity, the trainees advanced to the mess halls. Here my father was assigned to groups of twenty hungry men, whom he would feed breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week with unwavering regularity and dedication. But as in Small Quantity, feeding was a secondary goal. The first: be careful not to torture your boys with stomach cramps.
From Fort Riley he was shipped off to Camp McCauley, in Austria, a facility once used as a Nazi airbase, not far from Ebelsberg, one of the largest and most modern SS camps during World War II. Inside Camp McCauley’s barracks and halls, meticulously polished wood floors shone like glass, and the air, smelling of disinfectant, shocked my father’s lungs. He was assigned to a mess hall serving twenty-five hundred ravenous troops. Twenty-eight cooks worked every shift, and each shift lasted up to a day and a half.
Breakfast prep started at three in the morning and required fifty cases of eggs—cases, not dozens; my father doesn’t remember how many dozens comprised a case—hundreds of gallons of coffee and milk, now-legendary amounts of biscuit dough and pancake batter, fatty heaps of bacon, sausage, potatoes, butter. Breakfast was served until eight, but lunch prep started at seven sharp. During that one-hour overlap, the kitchen became a confusing frenzy of pancakes and pork chops, hash browns and meat loaf, with overlapping shifts of cooks and clean-up crews battling against a hunger-driven clock. He worked until six in the evening, nearly twenty-four hours after he started his shift, then collapsed on his cot in the barracks, too tired to shower away the layers of grease and sweat.
I could stop his story there, at the former Nazi airstrip, and easily conclude that his training in the army was more grueling than all my combined physical labor over the past twenty-five years, beginning with my first job mowing the neighbor’s lawn in punishing summer heat. As a teenager I endured the dreaded burgers-and-fries rite of passage, but the demands were slight compared to those of Camp McAuley’s mess halls. Later, during a college year in London, desperate for pocket money, I waited tables at Wellington’s, which served “good” steak and kidney pies. Three or four nights a week I took orders, chopped loads of carrots and potatoes, polished wine glasses, mixed drinks and cleared tables, but in retrospect the work was light compared to my father’s duties in the pre-dawn chaos of breakfast prep. Late at night, after finishing my shifts, I felt sorry for myself for having to work as a waiter in a country where restaurant patrons were philosophically opposed to tipping; but in the morning all was forgotten when I woke to my schedule of literature courses and coffee hours.
In the army my father had enjoyed dealing with all those tons of food, but the meats especially captivated him. The moist weight in his hands felt satisfying and essential. Meat occupied a central and primary position: meat and potatoes, not vice-versa. In those days a cook first had to decide what meat to prepare, and then everything else followed. My father secretly relished his small power in choosing the meat for his soldiers, then turning the bulk delivery of beef or chicken into a main course that sustained the masses, at least until the next meal. After leaving the army he decided to become what is commonly called a “butcher,” although that term is often misunderstood and misused. A butcher, strictly speaking, works in the slaughterhouse where cows, pigs, and lambs meet their grisly fate and then are skinned, gutted, drained, beheaded, washed down and packed for shipping. For millennia, this process was a hideous bloodbath, now made slightly less messy thanks to technology. Butchers kill. A meat cutter, on the other hand, is the white-coated man or woman who slices, grinds, trims, fillets and packages meats in the local market, although most of these procedures now are completed before the meat reaches the gleaming supermarket. Today, a meat cutter’s principal job is to place the already cut and packaged products into the display cases or provide special customer service—removing trout heads, cracking crab, grinding extra-lean hamburger or, if the cutter is truly dedicated, as my father was, stuffing a turkey for Thanksgiving. His profession was meat cutting, not butchering. Not the taking of life, but the transformation of flesh to food. Yet when I was growing up, he was known in our neighborhood, and by his customers, as the Butcher.
In the hunter’s paradise of Upper Michigan, my father had skinned and cut up deer shot by family or friends. The large, lovely animals were carved up on the garage floor or down in the cool basement, away from the children. The chunks of fresh meat were wrapped in extra-strength aluminum foil, then stored in oversized freezers; some of the meat was hung to dry for jerky. Although he took part in this rite, he never participated in the hunt. He could never have shot the life out of any living thing. While growing up, my sister and I kept dogs, rabbits, and chickens as pets, but in reality they were my father’s pets, not ours. He loved the animals more than we did, and he did a much better job of taking care of them. One spring, his favorite brown rabbit (which had grown accustomed to an early morning delivery of fresh vegetables to its cage) died. My father sat on the back porch and cried. This seeming contradiction, his dual role as animal lover and butcher, is one of the grand ironies of his life. But haven’t we all witnessed similar contradictions in ourselves? I have a picture of him in a Japanese deer park, surrounded by the large-eyed animals he once carved up for hunters, offering them dried pellets, his expression unambiguously blissful. I now understand that it was not easy for him to slit the smooth belly of a lifeless buck.
After his honorable discharge my father enrolled in the Toledo School of Meat Cutting. He never talked about his training at the Toledo School, and I never knew the name of the school until his retirement day, when I asked. It had never occurred to him that this might be interesting information, and it had never occurred to me that meat cutters learned their profession in an academy that charged tuition and issued diplomas. Back then, in the Midwest of the 1950s, a young man attending the Toledo School of Meat Cutting was proud of his affiliation. “I had to study, and after studying I had to work in the meat store,” my father told me. “That’s where we learned how to be a professional.” Now, if pressed, he displays a nostalgic pride when speaking about his six weeks spent studying in Ohio.
Pondering my own formal schooling—college, graduate school, law school—I realized how parochial my attitude has been toward education not traditionally considered “higher.” I was the first to attend college in my family, and there was never a doubt that I would take any other route. Once immersed in college life, my world simultaneously shrank and expanded. I would never become a meat cutter or a hair stylist—or, to put it another way, I would never learn the correct way to cut meat or hair. One weekend in my freshman year, I went home and told my family, over dinner, about a discussion in philosophy class. My professor had stood before us and asked, “What is yellow, really?” At home, my far-out college story was received with eye-rolling consternation. This is what they teach you at that big, pretty campus? This is what your scholarships are paying for? My mother and father were dumbfounded. Would I ever be able to pay the bills and keep myself decently clothed? Had my father’s head-rubbings gone to waste?
After arriving at the Toledo School, the first item my father received was a book. “Our first assignment was to read the whole book,” he tells me. “No knives allowed until we were done.” This part of his story surprised me—that a student at meat cutting school was required to read a book before angling knife against flesh and bone. I imagined something else: lectures and demonstrations, followed by try-it-yourself sessions. I saw, in my mind, my father’s hands gripping knives and saws for the first time; I did not see him poring over texts, immersed in words and diagrams. Yet he and the other students had to finish a book before they were permitted to go anywhere near the tools of the trade.
After reading his book, he received a set of knives, but that still did not qualify him for the perilous testing of a blade against chilled meat. In his profession, knives are almost sacred, and members of the cutting guild learn to treat them with reverent caution, for with one minor slip they can injure, maim or kill. One must establish respect for the knife before removing it from its sheath. And contrary to common wisdom, sharpness is not the primary reason for careful handling; dullness is. The impatient and determined cutter tends to force the instrument, and with that stubborn force comes an increased possibility of injury. One evening years into his career, my father was supposed to be working the late shift when my mother received a phone call from a hospital. His unsharpened boning knife had slipped, plunging blade-first into his abdomen. Luckily, it had not penetrated very far into his flesh, and had missed puncturing a major organ. When he came home from the hospital in the early morning hours, we gasped at his stitched-up belly and clothes soaked with dark blood, darker than the beef or pork blood that usually stained his smock. Many years later, nearing retirement, he put his hand in the way of an electric saw, which sliced off the soft padding of his left thumb. Seeing him for the first time after the accident, I recoiled from the hand that once rubbed my head for good fortune. A tough, gruesome scar was forming over the wound but the healing tissue did little to conceal his mistake. A small portion of him had been turned inside out, exposing a raw reminder of our mortality. Today his thumb remains disfigured, the area where skin and muscle were cut away still appears tender, freshly burned. During visits, I notice the scarred digit at least once a day, and I am reminded of his life behind the meat cases, the air chilling his lungs, thirty-two years worth of meat passing through his hands.
After receiving their knives, the Toledo students spent the next three days learning to use a butcher’s steel to properly sharpen their new tools. Only then were they allowed to carve. “After teaching us how to sharpen our knives,” my father said, “they taught us how to break a side of beef.”
Does the average person—let’s say the average meat-eating American—know which part of the cow’s body is the filet mignon? A mouth-watering flatiron? In the supermarket of America, we gladly distance ourselves from the gross anatomies that provide our prime rib and rack of lamb, but to become a meat-cutter the student must intimately know the whole animal and thoroughly understand how its body parts relate to one another. My father had to dismantle an entire side of beef with a single knife, and recognize each type of cut, every bone, organ and muscle mass. One of his teachers would walk into the classroom and throw a slab of meat on the butcher’s block. “What’s this?” the instructor sternly demanded of the class, then chose a student to specify its origin.
When my father recounted this scene, I remembered a story about a professor of medicine who presented a similar challenge to his students. He walked brusquely into the classroom, tossed a segment of human organ on the desk of his victim, then asked for a description of the specimen. If the unwitting student said, “It looks like a piece of liver,” the professor severely reprimanded: “Don’t try to identify it until you’ve objectively described it!” He had wanted a methodical account of the size, color, texture, and shape, not a label. The lesson supposedly taught that systematic observation led to accurate identification, a premise that has guided science, scientific integrity, and indeed much of Western thought. I pictured my father standing at the butcher block, holding a portion of cow or pig, turning it over and over as he described its musculature and hues, the warmth of his hands dissipating into carrion.
This is how a professional breaks a side of beef:
While the meat hangs from a ceiling hook, you use a hand-held electric saw to separate the hind and front quarters. With a freshly sharpened knife you then cut the hind into sections known as retail cuts—round steak, porterhouse, T-bone, sirloin steaks. The front quarter yields the short ribs, briskets, chuck roast, rib roast, and all the trim that goes into hamburger or perhaps a hearty stew. In the front quarter you also find the dross: soup bones, dog bones, kidney suet, the less desirable bits and pieces my father calls junk meat. At home, we ate bowls of rich soup made with large knobby bones boiled until they looked polished. We threw handfuls of rice and cans of stewed tomatoes into the broth, and my father, reaching into his memory of army recipes, chopped up yellow onions, carrots, and sometimes chunks of ham, dumped everything into the liquid, liberally salted the pot and let it simmer for hours. He liked to stand over the stove, watching the bone meat melt into the soup, inhaling the savory aroma that clung to the kitchen air.
It took him three weeks to learn all the cuts and to break a side of beef correctly.
The most difficult part of the cow, from a meat cutter’s perspective, is the liver. Weighing about twenty pounds, this mammoth conduit of bile is slippery and slimy on the exterior, making it especially dangerous to cut. In his first attempt to slice a liver, my father’s knife slipped and barely missed cutting off a couple of his fingers. The liver slid off the butcher block, landing in the layer of sawdust covering the floor. Everyone laughed, of course: a whole slimy liver breaded with wood shavings, ready for the frying pan. My father laughed, too, but the blunder had deeply shaken him. He had almost lost his fingers before starting his career in earnest. And then what? How would he cut meat without all his fingers? What would he do for work? After forty-five minutes of clean up, picking and scraping off the coat of sawdust flecks, he wrapped the organ in cloth to form a grip, then sank his knife into the stubborn tissue.
At the Toledo School he progressed from beef to pork to lamb, a sequence without apparent logic. Unlike cows, lambs arrived intact except for their heads. First he had to remove the legs. While sawing them off, he reminded himself that this was no longer an endearing farm animal with a soft wooly coat—it was now only an icy approximation of a formerly living creature, slung before him for the purpose of a class exercise. Gripping a leg in one hand and the saw in another, he tricked his brain into seeing something other than a lamb. Surely his animal-loving heart had to shut down. How did he anaesthetize his emotions? How could he have continued with the limb-breaking, the visceral ripping-apart? I imagine that he underwent a radical de-sensitizing similar to a medical student’s transformation in anatomy lab. Is that so different from what many workers do to get through a day’s labor? At one time I tried to convince myself that my heavy, tedious casebooks were not actually books—they were a strange species unrelated to the novels and travelogues I read hungrily before entering law school.
From mammals to fowl: my father moved on to chickens, which arrived whole, plucked, and, back in the early days, relatively free of hormone injections and chemicals. After maneuvering the big animals, dealing with chickens was a cinch. He reached into the body cavity and pulled out the insides, washed the bird thoroughly, then chopped it up into pieces familiar to the consuming public—breast, wing, drumstick, thigh—that we rarely associate with the feathered whole. Gizzards and heart were set aside for separate packaging. Chickens were a smooth operation: quick, satisfying results, with little stain to his smock. In an hour he could fill the poultry case.
One year, my sister and I received eight newly hatched chicks for Easter. For the first week they lived in an empty aquarium on the floor in the kitchen, with an overhead light keeping them warm. Everyone adored those chicks, my father most of all, but to my parents’ dismay they marked the beginning of my vegetarianism. Suddenly I was protesting the meat and eggs put on the table, outright rejecting the steaks and ribs my father had cut at the store. While our chicks huddled in the aquarium, the breaded chicken breasts frying noisily in hot Crisco became, for me, repulsive. Surely children who grew up on farms could cope with playing among the pigs one day and sending them to market the next. Surely they could emotionally disengage from a pet that might end up as breakfast bacon. But I had never set foot on a farm, and until the chicks arrived I never had a pet that was also a staple in the American diet. The chicks chirped while the breasts sizzled and popped in oil. I couldn’t handle it. Soon the odor of cooking meat—any meat—turned my stomach. I winced at the wedge of prime rib pooled in red juices on my plate and refused the hamburger grilled medium-rare over coals. At nine or ten I preferred, Bartelby-like, not to eat the meat that quite literally put food on my family’s table.
Although he did not say it, my father was crushed. In desperation he tried cooking meats more thoroughly, hoping the absence of blood might turn me around. He gave me smaller portions and concocted elaborate brown and white gravies to mask the offending entrees. He suggested white meat instead of dark, but to me it was all the same. My refusal to eat meat was a colossal disappointment to him, tantamount to turning away from everything our family stood for—the Midwest, hard work, simple sustenance, tradition, survival. My strange rejection of meat was a rejection of his livelihood, a betrayal of his pride in providing for us.
One summer, a woman in our neighborhood circulated a rumor among my playmates: “They eat well because of all the free meat the butcher gets!” It was a terrible thing for a child to hear; it was untrue, and yet the gossip persisted. I encountered the presumption often—that we benefited lavishly from my father’s position, devouring free steaks and prime rib nightly. Yet he never took anything that he didn’t pay for, except once a year during the holidays, when his company gave each employee a turkey, or when he’d occasionally take a few bones that would have gone out with the garbage. The bones were for our dogs (which admittedly were the happiest pets in the neighborhood). But then any customer who asked for dog bones usually got them.
After six weeks of carving his way through a narrow portion of the animal kingdom, my father began a full-time assignment in the Toledo School’s retail shop, where he learned the art of selling to discerning customers. Like any other food commodity, meat doesn’t sell if it doesn’t look appetizing. In the retail shop, my father had to become a salesman with a window-dresser’s aesthetic. In those days, before the reign of heat-sealed plastic trays, the fresh cuts were placed in large steel pans, lined up in refrigerated cases. Liver and offal sat in trays deep enough to hold the sea of blood and juices. My father learned how to alternate pans of lamb, pork and beef to achieve a contrast of shades and textures, for optimum display appeal. For a touch of color, he added bunches of fresh parsley between the pans, which were kept fully stocked and neatly aligned at all times. (Cost-cutting measures eventually required plastic greens in place of parsley.) The meat case presented a classic retailing challenge: to transform fragments of dead animals into objects of desire, to make one’s mouth water for a product that, hours or days earlier, was bound by cowhide. It was a daunting task. The old-school butcher had to master his knives, but he was also something of a village artisan charged with pleasing the eye before the palate. On shopping trips with my father, I watched him pace up and down the meat department floor, scrutinizing the displays, looking for oversights–a T-bone steak with too much fat remaining, a lack of greens (real or plastic), empty trays, and, most offensive of all, any meat whose color did not suggest the strictest standard of freshness. He often left the house to check on a competitor’s store, and returned with either a glowing appraisal or utter disgust. My mother suffered through this market-as-mistress syndrome. If my father was nowhere to be found, if he suddenly disappeared from our motel during vacation, we knew where to look.
The Toledo School also trained my father in the art of meat-cutting diplomacy, whose central tenet was and is, “the customer is always right.” He trimmed fat if requested, ground a new batch of hamburger on demand, boned chickens, emptied and flushed turkey cavities, chopped off fish heads out of view of children, sliced ham just a little more thinly. Besides offering these technical courtesies he was called upon to display an always-agreeable case-side manner, even if his customer was less than pleasant—or honest. For the woman who returned with a perfectly cleaned bone but no receipt, complaining the meat had been tough, he offered a full refund. “Can you believe she had the gall to stand there and wave a bone at me?” my father said. “I mean, a bone with not a speck of meat on it?” He gave away his own recipes for stuffing and stews, and he was known to roast a customer’s turkey in the store’s oven. For those who were clueless in the kitchen, he seasoned prime ribs, marinated kebabs, breaded pork cutlets. When his customers came back to thank him, they paid their highest compliments in stories about dinner guests who had been dazzled by a cut of meat–my father’s cut, prepared according to his own detailed, hand-written instructions.
I realize now that meat cutting and cooking were forms of meditation for my father. Under the bright lights of the cutting room he focused solely on the task before him, preparing a slab of beef for consumption. After positioning the meat on the butcher block, he examined it, lightly pressed his fingers into the firm, cold mass and then inserted his knife. He placed the cuts in a pan or, if a customer was waiting, wrapped them immediately in clean white paper, the same paper he often brought home for us to draw and paint on. At day’s end, he thoroughly cleaned the butcher block, swept and hosed down the floor, sanitized the saws and trays before storing them in their proper places. In keeping with the army’s drill, cleanliness reigned above all.
At the block he achieved the unwavering concentration of a person whose work depends on dangerous tools. Focusing on meat, knife and hands, he found a personal quiet, a vast, empty space in which he contemplated the meals he wished to cook, the vacations he hoped to take, the next day’s tasks or, if he preferred, nothing at all. In the meat department, he entered a zone of peaceful transcendence, where all worry and thought were purged. At home, his wife and two children asked for his attention on their terms; he had bills to pay, and duties he did not like (and, frankly, was not very good at)–yard work, house repairs, car maintenance. With a roast in his hands, he could let go of the world.
In the gourmet meat shop near my neighborhood, the displays look nothing like my father’s cases. The proprietor, whom I’ve never seen actually cutting meat, sells pork loin stuffed with apricots, cranberries, and mushrooms; veal roast filled with bacon, rosemary, and garlic; flank steak rolled with roasted red peppers and feta cheese; strips of chicken bathed in Mexican spices. The exorbitant prices fail to rattle browsing customers—professionals in business attire stopping by on their way home from work and psychotherapists who occupy the sleek office located above the “European” marketplace that boasts separate boutiques for cheese, wine, bread, coffee, flowers, meat. They can afford the gourmet prices, but they can’t afford the time to buy plain pork loin and fix it at home. I thought my father might feel alienated by the gourmet meat case, but when I brought him there one autumn afternoon he was impressed by its striking visual appeal. Not a speck of sawdust or meat-scrap can be seen—and not an ounce of hamburger, either. Perhaps this is the type of shop he might have opened had he been born with entrepreneurial drive, a shop where highest quality meats are transmogrified by an avant-garde culinary vision.
Recently I’ve started shopping in Chinatown. Glazed red ducks hang in store windows, and heavy racks of pork drip grease over pans filled with fatty ribs, chicken feet and innards. In the butcher’s shop you can still order a whole pig, head and tail on. Although I haven’t eaten red meat in more than fifteen years, I do like seafood, and in Chinatown I buy fresh fish and crabs from a shop located in the basement of an old brick building. Down below, the owner and his wife preside over long glass tanks swarming with live catfish, lobsters, crabs, eels and turtles. On a recent visit, I saw a customer point at her choice of plump catfish. The owner’s wife climbed up on a stool, dipped a net into the water and snagged it. She slapped the struggling thing on a wooden block, and before it had a chance to flop to the floor, she whacked it once with a club. In less than a minute she had cleaned and gutted the fish—smiling all the while—and handed over the customer’s order in a plastic bag tied with a rubber band. Fishmonger, butcher, meat cutter, all in one. From beginning to end, I was in awe of the transaction, from the first dip into the fish tank to scooping out the undulating guts. Who taught her how to clean a fish, and had she taught others? Did she enjoy her job? Her smile begged the question. And why do I choose her shop in Chinatown instead of the local supermarket? The answer, I think, is simple: I am my father’s son, and despite my preference for broccoli and spinach over red meat, I am drawn to this place where the human hand works close to the vital origins of our food.
Once, years ago, while visiting my father in the meat department, my sister and I ventured into the freezer’s inner chamber, its steel walls coated with frost, the ceilings a daunting network of sliding hooks. My father closed the heavy vault-like door behind us. We screamed hello and goodbye to no one.
We screamed at the top of our voices, but no human could hear us. Inside the freezer our words meant nothing. From the ceiling hooks dangled stiff, skinless cows—they still looked like cows, even without the heads—and pigs with eyeless faces, the animal equivalent of Greek statues I’d seen in books. They seemed to hang in limbo, between distant states of breathing and grazing, and the pending (and almost unimaginable) state of cooked food on someone’s dinner table. We screamed again and dared to let our fingers touch hardened fat. The room smelled of meat and, yes, death; it was the supermarket’s morgue. We stood shivering in the frozen heaven, watching our white breath roll toward the sacrificial beings, and wondered how much they had suffered and whether their ghosts would come back to haunt us.
From the outside, our father shut off the freezer’s inner lights, and at that point we wanted no more of the game. We pounded on the door and he let us out.
What have I learned since then? That the rubbing of my head and the cutting of meat were acts of profound devotion, that a simple man has layer upon layer of complexity, that a dull blade is deadly, that butcher paper makes an excellent canvas, that a cow has many incarnations on earth, from life to death and back to life again. That the meat on our plate, like the words on this page, descends from a higher being.
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