Warning: may not taste good to all readers.
I may not be where I’m heading, but I’m definitely not where I once was. Every now and then I’m reminded of this. Like today. I finally decided it was about time I joined in on the savings at my neighborhood (as in outskirt of town) meat farm. I know few family members who have been doing this for years: buying a whole lamb (or goat and sometimes cow) at a farm, and storing it for consumption over a long period. It’s supposed to be cheaper than buying in small quantities from a grocery store.
So after buying an extra freezer, finding a space for it in my already crowded house (and deciding on a corner in my office), I finally drove down to a farm this afternoon. As soon as I entered the slaughterhouse, I knew I was someplace else. The stench was almost unbearable; there was blood everywhere. And everywhere immigrants; an African looking couple, couple of South American groups, lots of Asians, and John.
John is the 72 year old owner of the farm. He quickly tells me he is “not in this for the money”. I looked at him like I expected something else. That’s when he told me he was 72, “lots of my friends are down there” he says pointing to the ground. “Yeah,” I say “you have to keep busy up here to keep from going down there.” John’s face lights up like for the first time today somebody understood him “That’s what I say!” John is also the only White and American in the whole place. Before I met David.
John asked me to “go get one” and pointed to the side door beyond which I saw something moving behind a gate. This was the first time I felt the American in me move. Go get it!? I thought to myself. Who does he think he is talking to? But John was already leading the way. I followed reluctantly. “There,” he says, “the big one there is $200. Or you can get one of these ones. $180.” $180 was what he told me over the phone, and any one of those was big enough for my family of 5 (plus a visiting aunt). Then he turned around and walked out.
I stood there wondering if this old man really expected me to walk in there and grabbed a sheep. It’s been nearly twenty years since I touched a sheep, let alone pull one to his death. As I stood there debating my options, a South American guy…let’s call him “Jose” because I don’t remember asking or getting his name, and I would hate to keep referring to him as “the South American guy”…came from behind with a rope in hand. “Which one?” he asks. “That one” I say, not really caring which one. He opened the gate, asked me to close it behind him, then he went in and roped one of the sheep. And started dragging it out. Would you believe it, the sheep didn’t want to come. From the staple few yards to the slaughterhouse floor, he must have lifted the poor thing like three times just to get it to stand on its legs and move. I asked Jose if perhaps the animal knew what was up. He smiled no. I didn’t believe him.
I went back to the office and counted John $180 through the window. For $15 extra, Jose would kill and butcher it for me. Am I interested? Are you kidding me, I would pay him $50 to do the honors. Jose asked me if I was a Muslim, I told him yes and was about to tell him what to say before killing the animal when he quickly said “bismilahi”. I was impressed. He quickly bound the animal’s feet and flipped it to the floor right there near crates of live chickens. As soon as he brought the knife down to the animal’s throat, I turned around and walked out to my kids in the car.
I don’t know what I was thinking when I invited them to come take a look inside. I told them it smelled bad and that there was blood everywhere, hoping to discourage them. But kids never take adults’ word for it. Of course they wanted to go see. But one step inside, confronted with the blood splatters and stench, they decided they wanted to go back to the car. I wished I didn’t have to stay.
My, what a difference few years and miles make! I remember the day I was first asked (therefore considered old enough) to kill a chicken. I was so excited. Partly because it meant I would get the neck when the chicken was cooked. Since then I have killed my share of chickens and ducks. A goat or sheep here and there too if I remember correctly. Before today, I didn’t know I’d grown uncomfortable with killing an animal.
Back at the slaughterhouse, Jose pulled the now dead sheep up on a hook and, a slice around the feet, a long cut down the stomach, he started pushing the skin off with his fist. That brought back memories. That’s exactly how we use to do it, especially during Eid when we killed a sheep for each family member that had been to Mecca on the Hajj.
He cut the sheep in about four big pieces and threw them on a counter. His part was done. Next David cut those pieces into smaller pieces for me to package and take home. At first I wouldn’t touch the meat with more than my index and thumb. Then somewhere along the way, I was up to my arm in the stomach cleaning it out. If you don’t know anything about butchering animals, the stomach is the stinkest part of the whole operation.
Back at home, three hours later, my new freezer is packed with meat. But I still can’t shake the face of the sheep….in the staple, being dragged out, tied up, laying dead in his own blood, stringed up from his back hinds, skinless, chopped into pieces. But I don’t think my kids understand the correlation between the animal they saw in the pool of blood and their meal tomorrow. They are still American.