I grew up with a brother who, since age four, abstained from eating animals and shouted things like “Meat is murder!” when he saw a plate of chicken nuggets. To this day, when I sit on a leather couch, I hear his voice, whispering, “Is that carcass comfortable?” This is not to say that I don’t enjoy eating meat, or indulge in leather accessories, but I feel a certain guilt in doing so. Imagine my surprise when, two years ago, my brother decided to work in a meat market on Nantucket for the summer. It seems that shortly after tasting his first hamburger at nineteen, he joined the throngs of meat-loving Americans, and even contributed to the industry of meat production itself, parceling out steaks to the hungry consumers of an upscale beach community. Whatever caused this massive shift in his personal ideology is a mystery, but I applied for a job at the same deli to see if I too could become better acquainted, and thus, less intimidated by meat.
In my time peddling dead animals, I have been able to see and understand the inner workings of the meat industry (at least on a micro scale). Firstly, almost everyone who worked in the butcher shop hailed from a foreign nation. The Irish did most of the hardcore butchery; the Eastern Europeans worked the sandwich counter and cleaned; the Jamaicans cooked items for the prepared foods case. The owner informed me that she finds it hard to attract American employees because most college students in the United States prefer to do internships or travel. She uses an international headhunting company to recruit young, educated employees from abroad who are interested in the food industry. Usually, these workers apply in groups, and live together in employee housing. When I first arrived, I was overwhelmed by the onslaught of accents. It took almost an entire week to remember everyone’s name and another week to familiarize myself with their accents and some of their lingo. When the costumers struggled to understand some of the employees, I would jump in and attempt to “translate.” That being said, there was one Irish butcher, who I simply could not understand. I would usually just smile and nod in response to his indiscernible grunts. He probably thought I was mentally impaired.
On my first day of work, I learned to respect the meat slicer. It has large, spinning blades, hisses like a disgruntled cat, and it will take your hand off if you’re not careful. Working the slicer is often the first job assigned to a newbie, and it is a simultaneously terrifying and utterly monotonous experience. At first, I was horrified I may lose one of my fingers (I am quite attached to my thumbs), however, crippling boredom quickly joined this fear. To operate a slicer, all one must do is place the slab of meat into the fitting and move the blade of the slicer back and forth. For hours, I simply moved my right arm back and forth, pausing only to weigh sliced stacks of meat. I stood, chained to the machine, willing myself to concentrate, counting my fingers to make sure they were all still there. By far the worst meat to slice is roast beef. Whenever an elderly person walked into the store, I was paralyzed by the fear that they might want a pound of roast beef. In order to slice this nefarious meat, I had to first cut it in half with a large butcher knife, releasing a great amount of congealed blood. I would certainly become spattered in droplets of my victim’s gore, and would smell of salty iron for the rest of the day. I speak for lowly slicer operators everywhere when I ask you to cut roast beef out of your diet.
My other major occupation in my weeks at the deli was manning the sandwich bar. Meat and hoagies go hand in hand. What better way to eat your meat than with your hands, like your ancestors did? Well, the majority of Nantucket’s hung-over teenagers seem to agree with me. Each day around noon they would arrive by the Jeep-full, sporting sunglasses to shield their eyes from the harsh summer sun. The girls would demand gluten-free wraps filled with hummus, while the boys ordered subs with buffalo chicken. After I had wrapped all their meals in white parchment paper and sent them on their way, the older crowd would arrive. A mother would order wraps filled only with bacon and ranch dressing for her children along with bags of cookies. (Is she aware of the threat of childhood diabetes?) The ancient old man would arrive with his less ancient wife and order a Blackbird (a concoction of Thousand Island Dressing, bacon, turkey, and coleslaw on rye) and watch intently while I crafted his sandwich, murmuring not-so-vaguely condescending encouragements, like, “Excellent job, dear. A little more dressing…That’s the ticket, honey.” Making sandwiches carries a certain amount of responsibility. When someone orders a club sandwich, he or she expects the ideal club sandwich, which they have conceived of in their mind and craved all morning. That’s a lot to live up to. My initial attempts at sandwich-making were dismal creations, handed across the counter with a sheepish shrug. By the end however, I had memorized the entire list of special sandwiches and could whip out forty subs in under and hour. I accrued a kind of frenzied focus, grabbing bottles of condiments and scooping up piles of meat, whispering ingredient names to myself. Everyday, after leaving the sandwich counter I would flop on the couch and try to forget all the mayhem, but specters of cold cuts haunted my thoughts.
When I wasn’t whipping up sandwiches, I would help the butchers chop up the occasional loin and assist customers in selecting meats. As someone who knows very little about cuts of meat and their qualities, I was extremely unhelpful to the less-informed customers. When men came in and asked me whether the dry aged bone-in rib-eye tasted better than the wet aged porterhouse, I simply nodded and suggested the more expensive cut. (The former costs upwards of $90 by the way.) As time went on, I became more adept at bullshitting and recommended meats to customers, which I had never even heard of, let alone tried. On my suggestion, one woman went home with a three pounds of veal links, and I am still not even really sure what veal is. The butchers would often laugh at my vain attempts to answer questions about preparation and marinades. In fact, the other employees laughed at my expense often. They would send me on humiliating missions to find non-existent things in the back rooms and put stickers on my back that read, “Special of the Day: Hadley meat. 12.99 per pound,” and laugh uproariously. When they weren’t pranking me, they were snapchatting photos of beheaded chickens to all their friends.
On another occasion, one of my Jamaican coworkers accompanied me on a sandwich delivery to the airport. He became increasingly worried and paranoid that he would be seen at the airport and I became concerned that I was harboring an illegal immigrant in the catering van. When we were walking in the parking lot, he suddenly pushed me to ground behind a trashcan and told me to stay hidden. After several moments of surveillance, he announced that the coast was clear and that we could leave safely. I demanded an explanation, discovering that his extremely jealous girlfriend worked at the airport and he feared she would see us and assume the worst (despite the fact that he was twenty years my senior and we were both wearing matching, mustard-stained uniforms). In fact, despite my friend’s best efforts, she had seen us, and she came into the store to check that I was indeed his coworker and not his illicit lover. It was quite the exciting scene when she barreled into the butcher demanding to see her boyfriend’s “new girl.” Obviously, people who work in butcher shops are bored and need to fill their lives with such humor and drama. After working there for a month, I had more than exhausted my capacity to space out and daydream and had moved on to a more drone-like state of being.
I chose to work at the butcher shop because I wanted to learn more about the culture of meat and the delis that sell them. While my brother was apparently liberated by his work in the meat market and embraced a life of animal consumption, I feel that I am now more hesitant to eat meat than ever before. Sure, I am more comfortable slicing up a dead animal than I was a few months ago, and I do still eat some meat, but my experience has altered the way I look at beef and chicken and pork, and not for the better. Instead of just feeling guilty when I dig into a rack of ribs, I am also reminded of my time behind counter. I remember the texture of slimy, cold, decaying muscle, the hundreds of sandwiches, the piles of sliced cold cuts, the various meat-related pranks pulled at my expense, and the hours spent staring at a glass counter full of meat. In one month, I encountered enough meat for a lifetime.