The Meat Market: A (sort of) Vegetarian’s Confession
There is a highway in California, Route 5, that cuts through the desert between Los Angeles and San Francisco. There is a particular stretch of it, about 3 hours north of LA that I always forget about until the smell insinuates itself into the car, and then I remember. It’s hard not to gag a little bit, and then desperately try to hold your breath for the full 4 minutes it takes to drive past Harris Ranch, where more than 100,000 cows are crowded together to languish in their own filth before dying a miserable death, only after having lived a life pumped with antibiotics or riddled with infection. And then finally onto the supermarket shelves of America. [as a pre-post script, I did some research, and found out that the stench from Harris Ranch inspired Michael Pollan to write the Omnivore’s Dilemma. And also that animal slaughter expert, Temple Grandin has also called their slaughter operation “good”. I agree: dying is probably the best thing that happens to them.]
It always reminds me of why I am (basically) a vegetarian. On one end of the scale, there is the horror of commercial farming and the miserable lives of the poor cowsies. On the other hand, keeping the chemicals, hormones, and antibiotics that they are fed out of my own mouth is also a good incentive.
Neither of those things prevents me from nibbling on an occasional chicken leg, or my mouth sprouting saliva uncontrollably at the smell of bacon frying. But generally, not knowing where the meat has really come from, what the conditions of it were, how far it has had to travel to get to my plate (even when it a label says it was grass-fed and happy) is enough for the mental and moral effort to be way too much to bother with. I like veggies just fine. They come in pretty colours.
But the other day, I walked into the Meat Market in Great Barrington MA, and almost cried with joy. And listen, I’m not a crier. I didn’t cry in Life Is Beautiful, and at my friend’s wedding last year, I was standing behind the groom’s mother during a particularly moving speech, heard her sniffle, wipe, and say “not a dry eye in the house, huh?”, but then she turned around to see my desert of a face. But the Meat Market almost made me cry.
Not only is it a beautifully designed place (rustic open plan), but on the back of the signage boards hanging above the counter, there are 3 words painted for the staff to always see: Community, Quality, Integrity.
And it’s obvious that all three twist and wind through the meat they sell, the food they serve, and the way they interact with the community. All the meat is sourced from local farms in the area. Jake, the butcher, invited us into the meat locker and talked about curing meats, how to use different parts of the animal and let me basically stand in there taking mesmerised photos until I realized that I was 1) freezing, and 2) standing alone amongst hanging draperies of carcass. But I was enthralled.
I can’t really explain why a weird feeling of euphoria took hold of me in there. It was my own little version of the last scene from Lost. This happy, weird, reunion/awakening in some ambiguous holy place. I could just tell that the meat was good. That it came from happy places, was treated well, died honorably, and didn’t travel more than 50 miles to get to its final destination. I had absolutely no hesitation in ordering the pulled pork sandwich, and Fionn was stunned when he saw a small rim of moisture well at the insets of my eyes.
It was that good, and I was that happy.
So I guess I’m not that hung up on the mere fact of an animal dying. Morally, I can muster an objective sense of injustice, but primally, I want the meat in my face. The Meat Market is the only place I think I’ve ever been to where I didn’t just feel okay about it (I still feel like I’m being pick-pocketed or rubbed with lubricant or something when I buy meat at Wholefoods), but I felt great buying it from the Meat Market.
‘We’re all artists, it’s just that some of us shouldn’t exhibit.’ Just because everybody can do it isn’t to say they should. I get very annoyed when people say to me, ‘We can crowdsource!’ No, we can’t. Anybody can do it? No! I don’t think they can. Everybody can dance, everybody can sing, everybody can play tennis, everybody can kick a football: Are they any good at it? No, not necessarily. I went to art school. I trained, I tried, I had to work at it. I think the idea that you can just pick up a pencil and do it is nonsense.
People are humble and frightened and guilty at heart, all of us, no matter desperately we may try to appear otherwise. We have very little conviction of our essential decency and consequently we are more interested in characters who share our hidden shames and fears.