Andres O'Hara-Plotnik


Of Meat and Men

There’s a story of a group of cows that escape from a slaughterhouse in Omaha, Nebraska in the middle of the day.  The police captured five in a church parking lot, but had to corner the last one in an alley. Some of the slaughterhouse workers were on a cigarette break at the time and saw what happened. The police surrounded the terrified cow, had it up against a wall, and shot it to death. The next day, the story was told and retold, the workers disgusted by the scene. This story starts the book Every Twelve Seconds by Timothy Pachirat, a political scientist who went undercover as a slaughterhouse worker for six months. How odd, Pachirat writes, that employees of a slaughterhouse, where 300 cattle are killed an hour, would be disturbed at the sight of a cow being killed on the streets.

But there’s a reason for that, Pachirat says. Most people working in the slaughterhouse don’t see animals being killed. Slaughterhouses operate on isolation. Just as the location is removed from the rest of the city, most of the jobs within the slaughterhouse are geographically isolated from each other. The workers who shoot the cow with the airgun are separated from the ones who cut its carotid arteries and jugular veins. They are separated from the workers who strip the hide, who cut the ears, who hang the livers. The animal moves through a series of chambers in the slaughterhouse as it is disassembled, but each worker only has one view into the process, in endless repetition.

I considered a slaughterhouse to be a place of routine and mechanical efficiency, but its human aspect is far more interesting. The spaces are intentionally separated, but personal routines breaches these boundaries. There are separate lunch rooms, bathrooms and showers for the “dirty men” – the ones on the kill floor- and the “clean men”- those who butcher and sort parts. Yet the dirty men frequently use the microwave in the clean men’s lunchroom, because they eat lunch earlier and there aren’t enough microwaves on the dirty side. The inspectors and monitors should patrol according to a predetermined schedule. But in areas that are very cold- like the liver room- or have a particularly bad smell- like the stomach room- the monitors don’t stay very long.

The design also reveals the expected gender roles in the slaughterhouse. It was not designed anticipating a woman working on the kill floor. There is no dirty women’s shower or bathroom. The one woman working on the kill floor uses the same facilities as the women on the clean side, which invalidates the purpose of these separate facilities.

This is a fascinating book, written with tremendous detail. It feels that nearly every action, movement, feeling and smell is conveyed. You sense the wet cold of the liver cooler and smell the nauseous odors of blood and vomit.

This book is also an interesting contrast to the way food, especially meat, is reported on.

The attention of food in the media, including an interest in the butcher, is markedly different. Tom Chiarella apprenticed as a butcher for a year in Indianapolis, writing an article for Esquire about his experience. He finds that the key to selling meat is finding out not what their customers want, but what they need. The butchers have an air of expertise that comes from years at the craft. While the slaughterhouse revolves around separation, isolation, and death, the butcher is a place meant for food and commerce and life, a place that connects people.

There’s a skinny kid they call Joe Mack. Sturdy, tanned, sometimes wears a little rope necklace, who favors a golf shirt under his apron and keeps it tucked in. Barely two years in, he takes classes at night. His father is a meat supplier, and maybe for Joe Mack this is a kind of apprenticeship. There is no part of the job he won’t do, though he does nothing so well as work the counter, where the women poke into their own small line in front of him. He speaks politely and slowly, he broadens his smile with every answer so it’s broadest as he finishes, at which point he bags the meat and offers to carry it to the car. “Meat makes people happy,” he says. “Women like it when you don’t get in the way of their happiness.

But these butchers are not enamored with their self image. They understand what their role is, and what it is not. The manager at Kincaid’s, Shawn, tells Chiarella “And you gotta remember, this isn’t the killing floor.” He tilts his head on his huge neck, wipes the tips of his fingers on the breast of his apron, and holds a paw open in a gesture to the whole place. “That is a rough business right there. Right here, we’re a long way from slaughter. A shop like ours is an intermediate step. We humanize things a little.”

Concealment is important issue for Pachirat. Mark Bittman writes that he “now intends to work on those issues as they relate to imprisonment, war, torture, deployment of drones and other sophisticated weaponry that allow impersonal killing.”

He could just as easily find these issues in the lives in coal miners, vegetable pickers, or oil well diggers. These are the places that provide the bedrock for the society we live in today, whether we like it or not.


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This entry was posted on January 19, 2013 by in Food and tagged , , , , , .
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