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Welcome to Meat Country!

Roy Ashcroft

Butchers’ conferences simply aren’t what they used to be. It used to be about the meat, specifically about the cuts. That’s what he was in it for: the cuts. Nowadays, though, the industry was all show—razzle-dazzle. Last year, the Japanese had done their 197 foot hot dog, an innocuously beige python of a thing that snaked across the convention center, flashing with each successive press-photograph. This year, there were girls in skimpy aprons dancing with rubber cleavers. Next year, he imagined, he would stay home. Stay home in bed.

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Marbled is what people usually said. Said that meat looked like marble, therouge de france variety specifically. This metaphor was good, but too easy. After all, can you imagine Versailles complete with tri-tip portico and ground-beef cherubim peeking from the moldings, light bounding off the ham parquet? No, meat was not marble. Meat was more like geography to him, complete with pastel estuaries of fat, snaking into a heartland of rosy plains and purple cliffs. From chuck to shining round, from the great jowls of the north to the rolling hock lowlands, meat was topography for a real butcher’s hands. Even a relatively small carcass could provide an entire atlas of tastes and textures. Like a blind man, the butcher reads his carcass, can feel where the lacey net of fat will break and tear, knows where each joint will pop free revealing the gentle blue marrow. A true butcher does not need his knife—he could tear the body apart with his hands were he strong enough.

This is why these trade shows are so frustrating: technology continues its onward push to swallow traditional craft and grind it into something sleek, efficient, and personality-free. With the new knives it doesn’t matter how you hold your hand or follow through with your arm, it doesn’t matter where you cut as they can slice through anything. Likewise, the average mega-grocery store consumer has little or no opinion nowadays about a butcher’s skill—colors of meat are all the same to them. They don’t even bother to consider texture. Red is red, ground is ground—if it’s dead we’ll eat it.

No, he would not make the long drive to the poorly-lit, odorless convention center next winter. He would stay home and sleep in. Close to noon, when he could resist the temptation no longer, he would finally get up and pad into the kitchen to the yellow fridge which had, in a previous lifetime, belonged to his paternal grandmother. In the meat drawer he would push past tenderloin, past the links spooning in their careful wrapping, and peel one rasher off the magician’s deck of bacon, pinching the grease-cold rind between his fingers. Moving to the frosted window above the sink, he would draw the curtains with his free hand, moving them back far enough to see the field of snow across the drainage ditch, beyond the long-bare cottonwood tree. Alone and silent, he would use both hands to raise the bacon over his head, letting the light shine through.