A recent visit to a New Zealand meat packing plant was impressive, interesting, and a walk down memory lane. This first post is mostly about the memory lane part…
I was raised in a Veal Slaughterhouse & Meat Packing Plant in New Jersey
I don’t mean that I lived in one, but my father owned one and I spent quite a bit of time in a veal slaughterhouse in New Jersey. That’s three nouns, any of which all by itself might make someone cringe depending on their politics and preferences and such. Veal. Slaughterhouse. New Jersey. Add them together and it is difficult to imagine a less idyllic environment to visit your father at work. Set it in the 1980s before the modern animal rights and food safety movements really took hold and, well, it’s what I knew so it all seemed normal. My father and grandfather and so on grew up similarly.
My father, the 4th generation in our family business ran the abbatoir. And when I was very young and the business was small, he actually did the slaughtering … and as a young child I apparently used to hang out on the kill floor with him and watch him slaughter livestock.
At age 11-14, I worked in the slaughterhouse during the summer in the mornings. Not sure if I have formed my own mythology about those days, but I remember my job functions as follows: the first summer was spent with a hose in my hand. I bounced back and forth between the holding pens in back where I would hose the shit off of live calves and the room next door where I would hose blood off the inside of the body cavity. The next summer I held a hose again, this time rinsing organ meat on the kill floor drain table. The latter two years I was mercifully moved to the packing area where I helped bag, cryovac, label, box, and move meat cuts. The mercy in this move is only apparent in retrospect. I don’t think I minded the dirty work and I certainly didn’t know any different.
Those days formed my work ethic. There are few jobs that are stinkier and dirtier than hosing shit off calves. And, few jobs are colder or harder on the hands and face than stacking boxes in a -10 degree freezer. My father paid me for my work and expected me to work just as hard as anyone else. The only break I was given was that I was allowed to leave at lunch, when my mom picked me up to take me to the beach. You can look at it as favoritism, but keep in mind that I was younger than the legal working age and most certainly the youngest plant worker by a margin of many years.
It has been 20 years (7 of which I didn’t eat meat) since I have been in a slaughterhouse. Recently, I toured an uber-modern facility in New Zealand, not knowing what it would feel like or whether I could handle the sight of it. I knew however that I wanted to see everything. Apparently, many visitors don’t want to see the actual kill floor, but only want to see the boning room where primal cuts are broken down into retail and food service cuts. I wanted to see it all.
New Zealand facilities are reputed to be among the world’s most hygienic, humane and technologically sophisticated. That reputation is for good reason.
In the coming posts, I will try my best to articulate what it is like to be in a slaughterhouse in the first place, but will also explain why New Zealand is the class of the world in terms of animal husbandry and meat processing.
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