Monday, April 6, 2009

Peoria Packing Butcher Shop


I referred briefly to my recent visit to Peoria Packing in my review of the bacon I bought there, but didn't really get into the whole experience of the place itself, which is a real trip and very thought provoking.

Most Americans are pretty squeamish about meat, despite the fact that we eat more of it than any other country in the world. At this point, we are really insulated from the process. Meat is fully broken down into only the most desirable parts, fully trimmed, and ready to go from the shrink-wrapped styrofoam tray right into the pan. Or fully cooked on the plate, if consumed in a restaurant. It's been like that forever, for most of us, and we really don't think about it too much.

Until we're confronted with something different, like a European market where piles of offal or whole animals are just out in the open, for all to see. Even for someone like me, a chef who's been dealing with larger primal cuts of meat for years, these cruder, more "real" displays represent an off-putting paradox, because I find myself curiously attracted and also, at the same time, repulsed.

I think this is true for most Americans, with varying degrees of attraction/revulsion, of course, and most simply avoid the revulsion side of the equation, which results in a sad state of affairs. We've managed, as a society, to hide and sanitize the reality of meat. Perhaps that's why we eat so much of it.

A visit to Peoria Packing will cause one to ponder these things, because once you enter the butcher shop wing of this small grocery store across the street from their commercial packing house, you will be confronted with MEAT in a way that not too many Americans are accustomed to.

PP's meat section is a large refrigerated room with big long tables running the length of it. The various cuts of meat are just piled onto the tables and customers (wearing the required latex gloves) just kind of rummage through the piles until they find what they're looking for. The meat is very fresh, very inexpensive, and they carry cuts that are difficult to find elsewhere. I went specifically to get "packer cut" brisket for smoking. I also picked up some pork bellies (to make homemade bacon) and a few other things.

A lot of people have trouble handling this set-up. The online reviews of PP are mixed, with quite a few folks stating they'll never go back due to the way the meat is just right out in the open for anyone to sneeze or cough on. This is true, of course, but I didn't see this happening and I like to believe that people have enough sense not to do that. Most people do a pretty decent job of covering their mouths and not coughing or sneezing directly on me, so I'm not sure why expecting them to do the same in a roomful of meat is any more of a leap.

I think this sort of revulsion is how people deal with the fact that they are just not used to seeing meat displayed this way. It is jarring, I will admit, and seeing whole cow's feet, pig's heads, and other less common animal parts is definitely a bit of a shock as well. I think a lot of people are simply put off by the sheer real-ness of it, and so they use the "unsanitary" claim as a rationale for their revulsion, and as a justifiable reason to avoid that experience in the future.

Revulsion, however, is natural when confronted with meat. Revulsion is normal. Meat is a dead, decaying animal. It's bloody, gruesome, and serves as a reminder of our own mortality. Yet most people eat it every day. I'll go out on a limb and say that NOT feeling revulsion at the sight or thought of meat is what's, in fact, abnormal.

We're so unaccustomed, though, to this feeling, because the meat industry has done it's level best to eliminate any and all reminders of death, blood, and the idea that these are animals we're eating. And they've been very successful, with the full compliance of a willing populace, who values avoiding the cognitive dissonance of feeling both hunger and revulsion far more than it values coming to terms with our carnivorous impulses.

Up until recently, the luxury of not getting to know one's meat up close and personal just wasn't a real possibility for most people. It's only in the last hundred years or so that we've acquired this new found squeamishness, which has gotten to the ridiculous point where some people act all grossed out even by chicken served on-the-bone, or with skin. Grow up, folks.

The conflict intrinsic to eating meat has long attracted deeper thinkers. Cultural anthropologists and sociologists like Mary Douglass and Claude Levi-Strauss have written reams on this fascinating subject. It's human nature to be both repulsed and attracted by meat, and people have been dealing with it since back in the hunter-gatherer days. It's just that here in modern-day America, we've made a new art form out of figuring out ways to avoid dealing with it.

The flip side of this is the head-to-tail movement that's been steadily gaining momentum among chefs. In Chicago, chefs like Paul Kahan, Jason Hammel and Amalea Tshilds, and Paul Virant have been sourcing whole animals direct from the farmers who raise them and utilizing all of the various cuts, including the organs. There is no better way to pay tribute to an animal that has been slaughtered for food, these chefs say, than to ensure that nothing goes to waste.

These chefs feel it's their responsibility to close the awareness gap created by the commercial meat industry, and they're bypassing it entirely by going direct to farmers, buying whole animals, and doing the butchering themselves in their subterranean restaurant prep kitchens.

So the head is used to make pâté, the cheeks to make guanciale or braised for ravioli filling, the neck for coppa, the bellies are cured for bacon, and the feet used for cotecchino or for their natural gelatin. Blood sausage, tripe, and kidneys are making a comeback among foodies.

Before you wince and get all squeamish, stop and think for a moment that the bacon you enjoy is also attached to lungs, a heart, a head, and feet, and ask yourself what happens to all that stuff once you've eaten your ribs and bacon. If you're not a vegetarian, animals are being killed to support your meat habit, and if you're not eating anything but the prime cuts, you're wasting big chunks of the animals that were killed to feed you.

The Reader's Mike Sula did an extensive piece called The Whole Hog Project (scroll to the bottom and check out the reader comments to get a taste of how strongly people feel about the subject) which documents the paper's purchase of a rare mulefoot pig, and follows Dee Dee's (yes, they named it) life over the course of a year and a half, culminating in its slaughter. It was a fascinating and courageous exercise in journalism which cut right to the heart of America's schizophrenic relationship with meat, and it was recently nominated (along with Mike Gebert's Sky Full of Bacon video podcast that accompanied the Sula piece) for a prestigious James Beard Award.

It's extremely thought-provoking stuff, and it's a subject that most people would prefer to avoid thinking about. But it's also perhaps a subject that we must consider more often, considering our love/hate relationship with food, the growing national obesity issue, the extent to which we consume highly processed foods and fast foods, and the myriad other ways in which we're all dysfunctional in our relationships to what we eat. Myself included--I'm certainly no exception.

I'm not claiming, mind you, that I have the answers here, or that a visit to Peoria Packing will solve all your problems. But I do think that burying our collective heads in the sand and continuing to buy grocery store trays with shrink-wrapped beef tenderloin and BSCB is the exact wrong thing to do.

So, instead of mindlessly purchasing your animal proteins from the grocery store, take a trip over to PP and check the place out. Bring your kids and do your part to kind of de-mythologize the process for them, and start closing, if only by small increments, the awareness gap that the meat industry has spent decades building in their attempt to try and insulate us from the inner conflicts that are inherent in being carnivorous.

I was actually somewhat concerned that it might bother Henry, my four year old son, who made the trip with me, given that, in many of the books we read him, piggies and cows are cute barnyard animals that talk, sing, or drive the school bus. But it didn't. After we got back, my wife asked him what he liked best about the place and he said, enthusiastically, "the pig heads!"

Henry, 4, surveys the carnage


So there you go. This little field trip can be an opportunity to start grappling with these deeper issues of morality, mortality, and animal rights, or you could just look at it as a good, cheap option for bulk burgers, hot links, and ribs. Either way, Peoria Packing is worth a visit. Don't forget to bring a cooler.

31 comments:

Anonymous said...

Wow! excellent piece as usual. you wonder about the people that work there. the ones that have to do the dirty work. i bet it messes you up a little in the head. (tsj)

Bea Elliott said...

This does little to nothing to expose what "meat" is all about... or the animals whose lives were taken to procure it. Visit the slaughterhouse. Only then are you sure to identify with the animal. This vision of rows and rows of dead flesh (or carnage that you wished to say) is quite santitized in its own way. Void of life, void of truth. It is incomplete. It fails to show us that these pieces of flesh had eyes that saw... and perceived the world. It fails to show that these beings were sentient. Want "real" connectedness to truth? Take your son to see the pigs heads attached moments before the elecro-shocking. I don't know that he would find them that amusing during that go-around.

Actually, this whole open meat store presents itself as just one more version of the myth that animals are "food" and that it is ethically fine to kill them for such. Without knowledge of the killing and of the death - it's still only a fantasy of what the public wishes were true.

E L said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Bea. Actually, if you watch Mike Gebert's video (linked in the piece), it does include a visit to the slaughterhouse and the chefs do talk about identifying with the animal.

The points you raise are quite valid and conscientious eaters should certainly remember that these were sentient beings that romped, loved their mothers, and enjoyed being outside in the sun. (At least outside the factory farm system, where animals are allowed such 'luxuries').

I do believe that there are options besides being a callous, unfeeling monster and becoming a vegan. There has to be a middle ground.

I certainly understand why folks make that choice, but it's not for everyone. My piece was intended to make people begin the process of considering some of the issues you raised.

Oh, and just one more thought for you to "chew on"; animals like cows and pigs would not exist if they were not being raised for food. If there were no demand for their meat, they would quickly become extinct, just as the mulefoot breed nearly did.

As the folks who now raise mulefoot pigs to sell to restaurants noted, farmers don't raise zoo animals. They feel that we have to eat these animals in order to save them.

Cows and pigs both outnumber humans, in terms of sheer world population. If you think about it, becoming a food staple for humans is just about the best thing that can happen to a species. There's a symbiotic relationship there that ensures that people will never allow the species to disappear.

Bea Elliott said...

Hello... and I think you miss my point. Of course slaughterhouse videos are available everywhere on the internet. I was speaking of the up close & personal view that one should be exposed to... not just the chef's second hand experience of the event. Say for instance, your son. You took great pleasure in his amusement with the pig's head... but that really is only half the story, isn't it? Adults are similarly spared the whole of it by the impersonal view of "footage" rather than "reality".

And of course you can see why if one views the slaughter of an innocent animal for a "food" that is not "necessary" is "murder"... there is no "middle ground". It's not like we're trapped somewhere without thousands of other compassionate choices... But as you said, these are choices not everyone makes.

About the cows and pigs that out number us (by twice)... Yes indeed. They also consume 10 times more plant based foods than what we humans do... and make 6 times more poop. I'm no mathematician, but the return equals crap to me... (sorry).

And finally, I have no problem with animals not being born (just to be butchered), nor do I grieve for a "food animal" species to disappear. Her existence only competes with nourishment that could sustain the world. What is the saying? Live simply... so that others may simply live.

E L said...

Well, good luck with your crusade, Bea.

I tend to believe that it's not an all-or-nothing proposition, and that convincing people to take baby steps--like eating less meat or changing from factory-farmed to humanely raised meat--is worthwhile, so that's what I'm going to continue talking about.

I think arguments like yours, while valid and admirable, tend to send people running in the opposite direction more often than convince them, due to the extreme position your take, and the stridency you employ.

Bea Elliott said...

EL... I tend to believe you can't compromise the good to the bad, if so - the bad always wins.

There are several that I know that are reducing and eliminating animal products - incrementally. None are doing so because of advice to "eat happier animals".

And actually, in my "crusade", I'd rather convince one person of animal "rights" than 100 people of animal "welfare". As long as people are eating meat, they will always be in a position to yield a quick stop at BK or McD's - It's cheap and convenient. On the other hand, if one truly understands that they don't "need" meat to thrive... And that harming any animal for any reason, is not their "right"; the cellophane packages remain in the sterile meatcases... ready for the "compassionate consumer" who regrettably slips now and then...

And as far as "extreme"... sure wish you'd read my thoughts on what "radical" is:
http://beaelliott.blogspot.com/2009/03/extreme-animal-rights-radical-truth-go.html

In any case, it's wonderful that you are aware of where your animal products come from... just wish you'd give more thought as to the "why"...

James said...

I think that hog's head is smiling!.... The most tasty parts when you roast it are actually the ears and snout.

I had great fun watching a group of dcotors pulling the guts out of pigeons the other week - so squeamish that I ended up doing most of them. The still-born lambs always spooked me on the farm when I was young though.

Michael said...

The why is the same reason any other carnivore eats meat. Including the carnivores we eat.

Whoops, I guess that's the "myth" that animals are "food." A myth practiced billions of times a day all up and down the food chain.

Incidentally, Bea, I resent the Sky Full of Bacon video being called a slaughterhouse video. It's a video about meat which includes a visit to the slaughterhouse and some reasoned grappling with the experience by the people who went. That to me is very different from a shock video-- such as is often used by anti-meat groups who hope sensation will overcome reason and finish the argument for them.

Bea Elliott said...

Hello Michael... It was actually EL who made reference to the link regarding slaughterhouse exposure:
"Actually, if you watch Mike Gebert's video (linked in the piece), it does include a visit to the slaughterhouse and the chefs do talk about identifying with the animal." I was saying it was sadly *missing*.

Yes, I realize that billions of animals consume flesh every day. As I'm sure you're aware that there are whole civilizations and millions of humans who have exist on a plant based diet alone.

Goes to show: the choice is right there on our plates.

"The why is the same reason any other carnivore eats meat. Including the carnivores we eat."

Humans are not "carnivores" but actually omnivores... Closer physically to "herbivores" in our physical requirements and intestinal abilities.

And did you honestly mean to say you're eating "carnivores"? Really? You're eating tigers, lions and wolves? I think you're very mistaken... we humans are eating herbivores... "farmed, domestic" animals.

But then again, cows, sheep and pigs today are being fed fish, cows, sheep, pigs, rats, cats, dogs etc. from rendering plants that recycle such into "feed" - So abstractly, I suppose you're right.

Bon appetite!

Michael said...

You used the specific term "slaughterhouse videos" in reference to them, and my point is, in the process of filming them, I had exactly the direct experience you refer to as missing. And, frankly, I came out of it feeling that the death was a much smaller thing than the good life that these animals were afforded on the farm. Which is why my concern is more for the practical issue of making farming better than the impractical one of convincing everyone that meat is murder. Sorry, omnivorous humans aren't buying that one any time soon I can see. I'd rather put my energy and dollars behind what can happen.

And yes, I eat chickens that eat bugs, fish that eat other fish, squid that eat other ocean life, and I wouldn't pass up a nice plate of farm-raised lion from northern Wisconsin (another thing referenced in the video), just to say I did.

E L said...

pigs are basically omnivores as well, meaning they will and do, sometimes, eat meat. even if it's not disguised a la the sheep/cow feed that has been linked to mad cow.

case in point:

http://www.kurlingerfarms.com/

bacon-fed bacon!

Anonymous said...

i actually work on peoria its pretty awzum working there its a great place peoria its like my 2nd house

Anonymous said...

I think the amount of discussion on the ethics of meat consumption is testimony to the effectiveness of this piece on bringing the reader/customer closer to the source. I doubt a blog on a restaurant serving well cooked steak would produce the same reaction. Of course it's difficult in a big city to get to the farm for the slaughter. If you're gonna eat meat tho, you should be able to deal with looking the dead animal in the eye. I wish I had a yard to raise my own chickens in.

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