Coda — November 24, 2016, 1:51 pm

Squashing the Beef

“There is trauma in a slaughterhouse and some seeped into me.”

I have always enjoyed eating meat. In the house where I grew up, dinner wasn’t considered complete without it. You had to eat pork chop/pot roast/chicken to be eligible for dessert.

But, as I wrote in “The Way of All Flesh,” my cover story for the May 2013 issue of Harper’s Magazine, after my first few days of work as a federal meat inspector in the Cargill Meat Solutions plant in Schuyler, Nebraska, I wasn’t so sure. Restaurants in town offered mainly Mexican fare or American. The slabs of steak, so similar in appearance to the freshly-slaughtered flesh I palpated and cut into each day, looked a little less tasty; but ground beef, often hidden inside the bun of a hamburger or tortilla of a taco, still seemed okay.

That changed a couple of weeks in. I think it was after spending some time around the corrals outdoors where cattle were gathered, awaiting their final walk into the plant, that I thought about the living cows when I thought about beef. At the plant, they were located just a few yards apart from each other. A cow took its final steps up a curvy ramp, designed by the animal scientist Temple Grandin to ease their stress by allowing them to see a couple of body-lengths ahead but restricting their view of distractions. About ten feet after the ramp ended, inside the factory’s walls, chains were wrapped around its rear legs, a bolt was driven into its brain, and it was hoisted aloft for prompt disassembly. A worker with a knife severed the carotid artery, and its blood was pumped out by its still-beating heart.

Cargill was proud of that ramp and upset when I reported what I saw with my own eyes: workers using electric prods to urge the cattle on their way. That was against policy, they said, so obviously I was mistaken.

I guess the ramps are a good thing; I’m in favor of humane treatment of animals. But as an observer I couldn’t help but wonder why exactly so much energy was expended to comfort the animals in the minute or two before their death. Doesn’t killing an animal nullify any such good deed? In the larger scheme of things, Is the three-year life experience of a cow that much changed if it’s a bit more nervous at the end, a bit less comforted? Might the ramps’ real purpose be to serve as a kind of fig leaf for the taking of a life, to comfort consumers who are starting to consider the stories behind the food they eat?

The problem with cows as a food source, perceivable to anyone who has stood near one, is that, like horses, they look at you with those big brown eyes. Seeing and smelling them reminded me of a description in E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, which we played for our kids as an audiobook on long drives:

The barn was very large. It was very old. It smelled of hay and it smelled of manure. It smelled of the perspiration of tired horses and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows. It often had a sort of peaceful smell, as if nothing bad could ever happen in the world again.

E.B. White had stood near cows for sure.

Anyway, 5,100 of them a day were “processed” at that Cargill Meat Solutions plant. The more I thought about that, witnessed it, the more offensive it seemed, the less necessary. I knew on the one hand that the demand was driven by people like me who ate beef. But on the other, I couldn’t deny that now and then I really did enjoy a hamburger, couldn’t pretend I didn’t have that appetite. This cognitive dissonance reared its head whenever the thought of dinner came up, often when I was looking at a menu. I resolved it by choosing something other than beef for what remained of my two months in Schuyler.

Until my very last evening there. My meat inspector friend Stan, in whose garage I’d drunk many a beer and on whose pool team I had played in the local barroom league, had been talking about taking me to dinner at his favorite restaurant ever since we became acquainted. With me about to leave town, it was now or never. Unfortunately, the specialty of this restaurant was T-bone steak.

As Stan and I and his wife, Josephine, ordered our dinners that night, I thought, What the hell. I’ll either gag or I won’t. They, of course, had no inkling of the turmoil in my mind. The steaks arrived. I lifted my knife. To my surprise, the steak tasted really good. I savored every last bite while at the same time wondering how that was possible, and what to do about this appetite of mine. I resolved to eat less beef, more thoughtfully. And that’s how my article for Harper’s ended.

My old life resumed. At home, my wife cooked the family favorite beef stir-fry dish that, just a couple months before, she’d told our kids to enjoy because, with me heading to work in a slaughterhouse, it would likely be the last time we had it. I’d told her then that I thought she was wrong, and reminded her of this as we ate it again.

But that was the last time.

As the weeks and months unspooled upon my return, as the pain in my wrist and arms from the repetitive motion slowly ebbed, so did my appetite for that beef dish. And most other kinds of beef. I didn’t lose my appetite for chicken (which I should have, if my principles were better aligned with my appetite). Even more to my regret, I didn’t lose my appetite for pork sausage or, particularly, bacon. Ah, bacon! But with beef it was easier, and just seemed better, not to go there. I didn’t want to picture the big slabs of raw meat I had worked with in the factory, didn’t want to look at steaks in the supermarket, didn’t want to partake of a cooked filet. And my interest in hamburger ebbed to the point where it was easier simply to declare to friends and family that I didn’t eat it anymore … though in truth a flicker of interest in it may live on in my brain stem. But I don’t go there; I don’t eat beef anymore.

What makes an appetite? Habits learned when young, I’m sure, at least in part. But habits are also subject to intellectual oversight and can be altered by social pressure and, possibly too strong a word, trauma. There is trauma in a slaughterhouse and some seeped into me. I was slow to declare I would no longer eat beef because I am wary of declaring dominion over a part of me that I do not completely rule. But after monitoring my post-slaughterhouse appetite for many months now, I think this election can be called. I do wish it had happened sooner, in time to include in the article and win friends among animal welfare activists, whom I admire. But just as Diana Ross sang “you can’t hurry love,” I’m not sure how much you can hurry a change in what tastes good to you.

Share
Single Page

More from Ted Conover:

From the August 2019 issue

The Last Frontier

Homesteaders on the margins of America

From the October 2015 issue

Cattle Calls

The vanishing breed of the country vet

From the May 2013 issue

The Way of All Flesh

Undercover in an industrial slaughterhouse

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2019

A Play with No End

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Call of the Drums

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Brutal from the Beginning

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Alps

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Last Frontier

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Last Frontier·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The San Luis Valley in southern Colorado still looks much as it did one hundred, or even two hundred, years ago. Blanca Peak, at 14,345 feet the fourth-highest summit in the Rockies, overlooks a vast openness. Blanca, named for the snow that covers its summit most of the year, is visible from almost everywhere in the valley and is considered sacred by the Navajo. The range that Blanca presides over, the Sangre de Cristo, forms the valley’s eastern side. Nestled up against the range just north of Blanca is Great Sand Dunes National Park. The park is an amazement: winds from the west and southwest lift grains of sand from the grasses and sagebrush of the valley and deposit the finest ones, creating gigantic dunes. You can climb up these dunes and run back down, as I did as a child on a family road trip and I repeated with my own children fifteen years ago. The valley tapers to a close down in New Mexico, a little north of Taos. It is not hard to picture the indigenous people who carved inscriptions into rocks near the rivers, or the Hispanic people who established Colorado’s oldest town, San Luis, and a still-working system of communal irrigation in the southeastern corner, or a pioneer wagon train. (Feral horses still roam, as do pronghorn antelope and the occasional mountain lion.)

Article
A Play with No End·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

When I caught up with the Gilets Jaunes on March 2, near the Jardin du Ranelagh, they were moving in such a mass through the streets that all traffic had come to a halt. The residents of Passy, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Paris, stood agape and apart and afraid. Many of the shops and businesses along the route of the march, which that day crossed seven and a half miles of the city, were shuttered for the occasion, the proprietors fearful of the volatile crowd, who mostly hailed from outside Paris and were considered a rabble of invaders.

Article
The Call of the Drums·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Great Kurultáj, an event held annually outside the town of Bugac, Hungary, is billed as both the “Tribal Assembly of the Hun-­Turkic Nations” and “Europe’s Largest Equestrian Event.” When I arrived last August, I was fittingly greeted by a variety of riders on horseback: some dressed as Huns, others as Parthian cavalrymen, Scythian archers, Magyar warriors, csikós cowboys, and betyár bandits. In total there were representatives from twenty-­seven “tribes,” all members of the “Hun-­Turkic” fraternity. The festival’s entrance was marked by a sixty-­foot-­tall portrait of Attila himself, wielding an immense broadsword and standing in front of what was either a bonfire or a sky illuminated by the baleful glow of war. He sported a goatee in the style of Steven Seagal and, shorn of his war braids and helmet, might have been someone you could find in a Budapest cellar bar. A slight smirk suggested that great mirth and great violence together mingled in his soul.

Article
Brutal from the Beginning·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Celebrity sightings are a familiar feature of the modern N.B.A., but this year’s playoffs included an appearance unusual even by the standards of America’s most star-­friendly sports league. A few minutes into the first game of the Western Conference semifinals, between the Golden State Warriors and the Houston ­Rockets—the season’s hottest ticket, featuring the reigning M.V.P. on one side and the reigning league champions on the other—­President Paul Kagame of Rwanda arrived with an entourage of about a dozen people, creating what the sports website The Undefeated called “a scene reminiscent of the fashionably late arrivals of Prince, Jay-­Z, Beyoncé and Rihanna.”

Article
The Alps·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Toyota HiAce with piebald paneling, singing suspension, and a reg from the last millennium rolled into the parking lot of the Swinford Gaels football club late on a Friday evening. The HiAce belonged to Rory Hughes, the eldest of the three brothers known as the Alps, and the Alps traveled everywhere together in it. The three stepped out and with a decisive slam of the van’s side door moved off across the moonscape of the parking lot in the order of their conceptions, Rory on point, the middle brother, Eustace, close behind, and the youngest, ­Bimbo, in dawdling tow.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

“What’s the point?” said Senator Tim Scott, who is paid at least $174,000 per year as an elected official, when asked whether he had read the Mueller report.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today