Where Meat Comes From

Posted on July 22, 2008

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I initially wrote the following piece of creative non-fiction in hopes of publishing it in Meatpaper, a neat little omnibus of meat-related writings. Its been a week and they haven’t contacted me, so I’m beating out the rush and giving up early. I might send it to Zyzzzyyvae, but the editor’s a bit of p****k from what I remember, and plus I don’t know how to spell the name and am too lazy to look into it, and so that might scew the cover letter. Anywho, lest it end its days unseen within the tombs of hardrive c:, here it be–

—actually, about two days later, they contacted me to tell me that they were going ahead with it. So it was published in Meatpaper, #6, December 2008, in an edited form—omoo

I have had freshly butchered meat twice in my life.

When I was four, my father adopted a rooster at the San Jose flea market where he worked on weekends, and it came home to live with us for a few short months. I enjoyed waking up at dawn to the rooster’s call. There was something fantastical about it to me. In our backyard you could find something that did not exist in any of the East Bay backyards for miles around. A live animal, neither cat, nor dog, nor rodent, something truly extraordinary that could not be ignored.

You can see where this is going. To my foreign-born parents the idea of having a farm animal in the yard—especially a male, with no reproductive functions to derive food from—was a comforting one that would have boasted of their status to each of their third world backwaters. Our neighbors didn’t share their viewpoint. Someone called animal-control a short time after the rooster came to live with us, and we were given a week to get rid of it. I watched my father lunge after the bird one evening. He picked it up, and twisted its neck like he was wringing underwear. And that was the end of the rooster, but not the end of the story. I remember the rest in flashes. There was a dank smell of the carcass as my mother plunged it into a pot of boiling water to steam its feathers off. The white basin of the kitchen sink flowering in iridescent slivers of color and texture. And there were the perfectly round splatters of vibrant blood on the counter and stove top. The meal, the rooster, our pet, was delicious. Food had come full circle, from the backyard to the kitchen, to my plate.

Twenty eight years later I was in Palestine, my father’s homeland, when my cousin Alia called to tell me that my father had arrived. I had not seen him for a dozen years or so by then. That tender time when he and my mother collaborated on the solving of problems (you kill it, I’ll cook it) ended shortly after the rooster’s life did. When I was eleven, after years of epic fighting, betrayals and trial separations, they broke apart at last. My father disappeared from our lives, and the rupture was so deep, and perhaps so painful that none of us—my mother or sisters—ever spoke to him again. We heard stories from relatives from time to time. He had remarried; his second attempt at child-making was prolific; he had become rich. Though I had ironically come to live in Palestine to get to know our extended family, I had hoped, somewhat unrealistically, to avoid him.

Alia told me that my father was in town for business, and that he had asked to see me, and on that very same day. I declined for a good while, but she insisted in the way Palestinian relatives do that I was obligated to meet with him, and though I struggled against the fate, in the end I found myself unable to avoid it. We met at the Manarra, the town circle in Ramallah. My father showed up in a rental passenger van forty minutes late. Motassum, his teenage son, was in one of the backseats, his head firmly ensconced in a large and professional looking set of headphones.

Shorter, rounder, and paler than I remembered, my father was old, but familiar. As I got into the front seat of the van, he reached over, hugged me and began crying, and I held my breath like a bird trapped in a cat’s jaws for a few moments, before he stopped abruptly. He began driving without a word. I turned to Motassum but he seemed oblivious, and I wondered if he really understood that I was his half-brother or if he just assumed I was some cousin in the homeland whom he could ignore by listening to his ipod. In silence, my father navigated us across the Israeli checkpoint out of Ramallah and into the Israeli controlled areas, then back through a side road into the territories—a short cut made possible by my father’s American passport and the Israeli plates on his rental van. I looked out the window, rather than face my father and his son, and stared at the infinite rolling expanse of brown hillsides that surrounded us, until we came through a small village and stopped at a phalanx of stone dwellings. This was a slaughterhouse, I was told as. As after all, this is a tale of butchery.

My father had a brief conversation with a few of the men there while Motassum, who maintained his field of disinterest, seemed to hold at his opposite pole. After a few moments, one of the men led a goat out to my father, and even Motassum could not pretend disinterest any longer. With the help of the others my father flipped the goat on to its side. A knife appeared in his hand, and he placed his heel on the goats’ neck. Though the animal’s legs thrashed, my father held it in place confidently. Without hesitation, he whispered a prayer and dragged the knife expertly across the goat’s throat, as its eye strained against its lower lid in abject terror. I had never seen my father do something so deliberately murderous in my life, outside of the rooster—that earlier kill seemed like a small deed compared to what I was witnessing now.

My father removed his foot, another goat was brought to him and the act was repeated. Afterward, he straightened and looked at me blandly as if nothing very interesting had happened. I looked at Motassum, and he finally made eye contact with me and I think that despite the fact that we had never met before that day, we were relieved to be sharing our unique shock.

The butchers and my father dragged the dying goats into the stable, and my brother and I followed. There were chairs in the open area and we were asked to sit, and while the other goats behind the stable gates bleated, the men hung my dad’s kills upside down to bleed out. We were offered tea, which we were obligated to accept, and we sat there, son and son, and drank our tea, my father talking with the men, the goats bleeding. A couple of butchers came around to skin the first animal, and I watched as they skillfully led the blades down the limbs and then glided laterally in a t-shape just above the hooves, peeling the hide away like felt, and revealing the tender, pale muscle below. The hooves remained for a few more moments like furry gloves, but soon they were separated from the rest of the limb with a few quick twists of the knife. The second goat was still bleeding profusely and its legs and neck were twitching and I asked one of the butchers, in a mix of piss-poor Arabic and English, if the goat was suffering. He laughed and answered in measured words, that the goat was very dead. My brother had taken his headphones off by then, and had begun to address me in a casual way, and he was even smiling. I meet the brother I didn’t know I had, he said, and now we’re drinking tea in a slaughterhouse.

The men carried the carcasses out after another half hour or so, and began to parse them into cuts at a butcher block in front of the house. The cuts were placed into dozens of white plastic bags, and as we made to leave, I finally asked my father what we had just witnessed. This was an Islamic ritual, he answered, that was meant to cement family ties. The meat, a side effect of the act, would be given to the poor, as customary. I looked at him, surprised that he had gone to all this trouble, when all he really had to do to cement our ties was to introduce me to my brother.

All through the drive back, my father remained silent, as if he were afraid to be either of the men that his disparate sons had come to know, and without the fulcrum of the goats, Motassum and I found we had little to talk about. When we arrived at the Manarra, I smiled and got out of the van, and asked for a bag of meat. My father gave me a disapproving look. I was used to these kinds of encounters by now, it seemed I was always doing something wrong here; but his face lightened. I guess you count as one of the poor, he said, and gave me a sack.

I cooked some of the goat later that night. I didn’t know anything about cooking such an animal, and so I laid one of the filets on a skillet and cooked it over the gas stove the way I would a minute steak and burned it horribly on one side, so that it tasted like charcoal and iron. The other side, however, had a dense texture, and though I hadn’t seasoned it, a spicy aftertaste rode back as I swallowed. I cooked another piece the next night which turned out better, and by the time I cooked the last, it was perfect.