Sometimes We Think Up Stuff On Our Own

Just overheard a pair of New York City-based financial news commentators marveling over the rise of mobile butchers. They said the concept arose from the local food movement in Seattle and is now spreading. Seattle has been very good to me, so let me say it is not Seattle’s fault that it never occurred to the commentators that in fact this has been going on for a long, long, time and sometimes out here in the heartland we (in this case two of my neighbors) think up things all by ourselves and are sometimes–even if accidentally–ahead of the curve:

The first thing you notice is the momentum. The slaughter trailer resembles a rolling derrick, all steel and cable, and as you hurtle through the swampland in the cab of the battered brown pickup to which it is hitched, the trailer feels as if it is pushing more than being pulled, its impatient weight nudging at your back even as you try to outrun it. Mack Most pushes the truck hard. The engine maintains a steady roar, the heavy tires growl and whine, changing key to the tune of the road. He brakes for corners only when it seems the entire rumbling conglomeration must surely launch itself deep into the bracken. The brakes grate, the truck shudders, the turn is rounded and the accelerator flattened once again; the tattered brown truck flaps its wooden side racks, gathers its resources and surges out of the curve. As soon as the speed levels off, the slaughter trailer resumes its nudging.

Most looks over. “Vacation day today!” He grins, wide open. His pale blue eyes are direct, unwavering even when they sparkle, which is often. “I’m takin’ off to go to the Cities this afternoon.” Later I will learn that the afternoon trip to Minneapolis is for a doctor’s appointment. Most’s six-year-old daughter is in chronic renal failure; her one kidney, taken from Mack’s older brother, who is also a butcher, is working, but there is trouble ahead.

“Vacation day, Sunday, it don’t matter. I’ve been on Christmas. I butchered one one hour after my daughter was born,” Most chuckles, his grin undimmed. “Boss called me at the hospital. Wife wasn’t too happy, but I told her, ‘Hey, most guys go to the bar!’” He cocks both eyebrows, and the grin becomes knowing.

Most was fourteen when he first began work at the meat market. “I started as a cleanup boy, and worked my way up the ladder. By the time I was sixteen I was on the kill floor.” He still works full-time at the shop; the traveling butcher role is a private enterprise. “The guy who started the mobile slaughter unit moved to Texas, so I took over,” Most says, leaning into a curve, glancing briefly at the road ahead. Now he is on call twenty-four hours a day, ready to respond to farmers hoping to salvage a down or injured animal. Not all of his customers approach him in an emergency; a certain number of his visits are scheduled. “Some folks feel better about having their animal killed where it lived,” says Most. There is no trace of irony in his voice.

Most’s part-time assistant, George, sits between Most and me. Mostly he is silent. When he does speak, it is mostly in the form of colorful interjection. “Biggest animal we ever did?” says Most, “eleven-seventy-five, dressed out. White-faced steer.”

George stirs.

“And that’s without the heart, tongue and liver.”

– Introduction from “Saving the Kidneys,” in Off Main Street

And more recently:

I was down tending the meat chickens when Muzzy the butcher rolled into the yard driving a shiny red diesel truck with a winch and boom mounted in the bed. Custom Butchering & Scrap Iron, it says on the driver’s side door. He seemed to step from the cab while the truck was still in motion, already in stride as his feet hit the driveway. I was a ways across the yard, but I could see he was long-legged and cowboy-slim. His bill cap rode high and looked big for his head. The brim wasn’t tracking with the rest of him—it pointed leftward. He was wearing a silver pistol in a black leather holster. The pistol rode loose, with the handle tipped out, and I noticed he had no fingers on his left hand.

He was stomping toward me, but he was looking down toward the pigs. The female was visible beside the feeder. “Oh, she’s nice!” he said. “That’s a good one! From here I’d say about two-twenty!” I shook his hand—the one with fingers—and walked him down to the pen. While walking I shot a glance at the hand and could see it had been patched up with flaps and grafts. Wherever those fingers went, they didn’t go easy.

“Oh, look at that big guy!” he said, pointing to the male, who had come snuffling up from the back of the enclosure. “He’s nice and thick through the shoulders. He’d be ready now. He’ll go about two-fif…no…I’d say two-sixty.” He had clambered over the gate and was right in there now, hands spanning the hog’s front shoulders, poking and squeezing some. “Dandy!” he said. “That’s great, thick through the shoulders like that.” He was looking up at me and smiling, proud as if he’d raised ’em for me. Naturally it felt good to hear that the guy liked our pigs.

“The female, she’ll go about two-thirty,” he said, revising his original estimate upward. “Yah, you could butcher ’em anytime. Give my wife a call and she’ll set it up.”

– Excerpt from Coop: A Family, A Farm, and the Pursuit of One Good Egg

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