My father is a butcher. He doesn’t have a potbelly or drape strings of sausages from his hands. He doesn’t have a mustache or wear one of those little straw hats, either. He does boast that he could skin a cow at the age of 10, can strip the meat from a carcass down to the bones and can season ham and bacon to perfection. Like his father before him, who started the Leona Meat Plant in 1963, he’s been in the family meat business his whole life. There was no question who would take over the shop once my grandfather retired.
My Dad and Uncle became managers of the place in the early 80’s.
Since I was old enough to remember, I’ve known what the inside of a cow looks like, the way a pig twitches as it dies, and that there are exactly 50 cocktail wieners to a pound. Often we’d watch as people came to drop off animals for the slaughter: cows, pigs, sheep, and on rare occasions, even ostriches would stare blankly from behind the white slats of the holding pens. Whenever friends came over, the visit always included a trip down to the shop, where they’d gawk in amazement at the sides of beef hanging in the cooler, the cow heads in the bone barrel out back, and the puddles of blood that got washed off the kill floor. But the fact is, the blood stains on my Dads’ white apron and coat never deterred me from giving him a hug. I accepted that fact that my Dad cut carcasses all day, that the dog licked his shoes clean some nights when he came home from work and that the knives in our kitchen were always sharp. Being a vegetarian is something that I’d never be able to do with an honest heart. A summer job, a steak on the table, a topic for my college entrance essays: the meat plant served as a backdrop to my youth.
I don’t remember how old I was the first time my Dad asked me to help out in the shop, but I remember it involved measuring bits of cubed beef into one-pound bags. At first, I was pretty impressed with my new post. The oversized butcher coat and apron that I wore swathed me in white and I felt important. But after ten minutes of grabbing the chilled meat chunks and fumbling them into their plastic receptacle, I was — to put it gently — over it. My hands felt like they were going to fall off, and the smell of raw beef gave me a taint of nausea.
Working at the meat plant never did regain its novelty. From 5th grade on, my brother, sister, cousins and I spent our last day of school each year in one of the plant’s coolers doing what we came to refer to as “clamming.” Around the beginning of June the town Vets Club would have their annual clam bake and would order all of their mollusks through the Leona Meat Plant. The gritty clams came to us on a truck in bushel bags of 400 or so, and it was our job to dump them out, wash them, and bag them up by the dozen in little white cheese cloth bags so they could properly bake. While the rest of our class was out enjoying the first hours of summer vacation, the Debach kids were stuck in a meat cooler freezing our fingers trying not to cut ourselves on broken clam shells.
In December, it was ring bologna: we’d have to grab it off the racks where it cooled after coming out of the smoke house, and then cry-o vac every ring. If we needed money, if Dad needed help, if Mom wanted us out of the house, we’d work at the meat plant. There was always something to do, and if you couldn’t find anything then, as Dad used to say, “you can always slice bacon!”
During high school, in order to afford a class trip to England, I made the jump from part-time help to full-time employee when I agreed to work for the entire summer in the retail part of the plant. Somewhere between counting out Hormel Cocktail Smokies and slicing the chipped beef I decided that as soon as I could help it, I wouldn’t ever have anything to do with this place again. I saw butchering as a dirty, smelly, vomit-inducing occupation. One so unglamorous that I was embarrassed to tell people what my Dad did for a living.
Still I couldn’t seem to erase the Leona Meat Plant from my identity. During move-in day at college, my roommate gave a silent stare in the direction of the cardboard container of books I’d just plopped on the floor. They were in a huge box that I had taken from the meat plant and that had probably – in its initial incarnation – housed a rib eye or a top round.
“Is that blood?” my new roommate asked me. I looked up from unpacking and confirmed that yes, it was blood, and that no, it wasn’t human. My Dad was a butcher. Move-out day from the dorm gave me an even harsher reminder of my past. On the afternoon that my parents were to come get me at school, the family car happened to be having some motor trouble. Even in my relief to be leaving college for the summer, I was mortified when my mother and father arrived outside my dorm in a refrigerated meat truck. The “Leona Meat Plant” insignia and Hereford cow slogan shone boldly against the minivans and SUVs of the other “normal” families.
I transferred to a college out near Chicago; a good 15-hour drive from home and from the family business. I came home less often, talked to Dad less often, and little by little, managed to conceal my charcuterie roots. Throughout college I tried not to think about the butcher shop and how the only time I could spend with my father was to put a white coat on and work beside him. How in high school, my friends got to work at the pool while I swept floors and bagged liver. I let fade from my memory how many times I’d slipped on the bacon-greased floor and the near-fatal incident of getting hit in the head with a swinging meat hook.
The summer after I graduated from college, I moved home. Confused and daunted by the prospect of choosing a career path, I opted to work at the one place where I knew I’d always have a job: Leona Meat Plant. But this time I wasn’t bagging chickens or wrapping ground beef. I worked in the office, answering calls, chatting with customers about whether or not they wanted their pork shoulder cut into steaks or left as a roast. But, I started wondering what on earth I was doing with my life. So, I left.
In May 2008, I packed my bags to come to New York City. Initially, I was swallowed by the excitement of living in New York, a new job, a new social circle. But upon each successive visit home, I’d be met with a father and former boss who never ceased to remind me of what I had left behind. It wasn’t until I’d been in a place where my identity was no longer defined by the butcher shop that I realized there was something more to it I’d been missing.
I was tapped on the shoulder with this realization on a summer visit home. It was about two months after I’d moved to the city. On a hot and muggy July morning I took my Dad’s invitation to come down to the pasture to help herd our grazing beefers from one end of the field to the other so they could eat fresh grass. Traipsing behind Dad in over-sized muck boots and dodging the occasional cowpie, I watched as he opened one gate and closed another, talking to the cows in a half-serious voice. He laughed as they literally ran into the pasture with fresh grass. He was so invested in it, these were more than just animals, this was his and my Uncle’s pride and joy. And that’s when it hit me: maybe this butchering thing wasn’t just the bloody mess that I saw on the killfloor. Maybe there was something dignified about it. My Dad knew this trade inside and out; from the cows’ favorite type of clover to how to properly tie-up a crown roast. My Uncle too. They’ve perfected their craft over their entire lives, and the skills that they have are not only rare, but foster a tradition that began before sustainability became a commodity. I came back to the city after that trip with the notion that there was something more to what my Dad did, and that it was honorable.
I took every opportunity when I came home to be around the process; whether it was moving the cows, or looking at the fresh sides of beef hanging in the cooler. On a snowy night just before Thanksgiving, my eagerness to learn more brought me back to that muddy cow pasture. The snow blew across the thin spotlight beam and illuminated the pasture before me. My Uncle and Dad yelled muffled orders to each other as they herded a hearty group of cows through a gate and to the 1200lb. bale of hay that awaited them. The rowdy bunch eagerly stepped up to the mound of food and began grazing, ignoring the blizzard that dusted their thick winter coats. The men looked on like proud parents.
I followed my Dad into the meat plant where he and his brother eagerly inspected the beef killed earlier that day. In a small walk-cooler with sterile white sides and a cement floor, they focused their attention on the 6 sides of fresh beef hanging on the rusty steel rail.
“They’re filled out nicely…this one looks really good…nice cover on the shoulder…I bet we could get at least $1200 for him.” It’s a language I’ve heard all of my life, but that I still don’t understand. Or rather, one that I never chose to learn – that of killing, meat and making money. I pulled off my glove and reached out to touch one of the chilling carcasses. The waxy, congealed flesh was lukewarm and sticky under my hand. A hard coating began to form in the cooler’s chill, almost like an orange that’s been peeled and left out. With talent fostered by years of experience, my Dad and Uncle can read these lines of fat and muscle as a map. In humility and earnest, they practice their craft; not to be noticed or capitalize on a growing food trend. But as a living and way of life.
I returned to the city jaded. Not by the meat plant I once resented but to the “scene” around me. In my hip Brooklyn neighborhood, weekly butchering classes were attended by hundreds of eager city dwellers and a white meat apron was the new black. Meat specialty shops sprung up, with a novice meat cutter behind a sturdy butcher block, casually wielding a cleaver and moving slow enough to pose for the photographer in the room. But did these “foodies”, these “rock star butchers” heralded by The New York Times and the food blogs know what it was to shoot a cow? Had they ever loaded boxes of beef until their back muscles gave out?
Now I’m coming to terms with the “slaughter daughter” that I am, with the fact that only because of the long days my Dad spent on the kill floor was I afforded the opportunity to go to college, or the connections in New York; the very places I practiced hiding my identity. My father may not be making the front page of any paper, or the buzz of the butchering blogosphere, but he practices his craft because it is what he knows, and knows it well. He’s not concerned about anyone watching. And I can now honestly say, neither am I.