February 3, 2005
A couple years ago, a friend of mine raised a steer that she auctioned off at the local fair. I happened to drop by her house the day of the slaughter. Much to my surprise, the steaks I enjoyed so thoroughly did not look nearly as appetizing while in their freshly butchered state. An image of steaming hunks of twitching, red flesh has seared a permanent brand in my mind, and greatly decreased my protein intake for the following months. Why, after such a traumatic experience, would I ever want to revisit this situation? Curiosity, I suppose. Unable to drive that image from my mind, I will build upon it, and learn about the process and the meat that I eat. My trip to the abattoir is a good example of the opportunities given to Cal Poly students through its “learn by doing” motto, and by employing this motto I was able to watch a slaughter firsthand.
So, suited up in a hard hat, hair net, and apron, I studied the Four foot steel saw hanging above me, its hundreds of shiny little teeth grinning beneath a monstrous motor. Above the saw was a mass of twisting metal, weaving its way across the ceiling. Below was a damp concrete floor, freshly sanitized. The man before me wore a white coat with a yellow apron, and appeared to be the head butcher. He wore an easy grin with a glint of mischief in his eye as he was calmly explaining to me how he was about to stun an 800lb steer with a stun gun, and then plant a bullet firmly into its skull. He disappeared through the side exit to perform the arduous task, leaving me inside, nervously eyeing the steel door. My heart pounding, my hands clenching my notebook, I waited. The door shifted, and then began to thud on its hinges, hinting at the struggle occurring beyond it. With intensifying reverberation, the sound of the slamming door filled the room. A shot was fired, and my eyes snapped shut; my mind refused to picture the fuzzy black steer. Peeking out from under the rim of my hardhat, I gazed at the rising steel door. Falling through the opening like a lump of jell-o was the steer, landing sideways, eyes wide open, hooves flailing, still moving. The butcher fired another shot into the head of the steer, a rare occurrence since one shot is usually enough. Finally the creature was dead. Immediately its leg was encased in a large metal chain, and by this it was lifted off the ground and suspended in midair. Blood dripping from its nostrils, its tongue hanging limply from its mouth, the steer swung slightly. Its throat was slashed twice with a hefty knife forming an X. A fountain of blood spurted from the wound, and as the steer’s blood drained, its tail drooped. A smell invaded my nostrils. This scent was the raw smell of meat mixed with large quantities of blood, a warm smell, intensely nauseating. By this time, the steer’s tail lay flat against its back, its legs still moving, ever so slightly. The staff energetically began to spray the blood down the drain, its bright red a contrast to the dull gray of the floor.
I watched as the two butcher students removed the bright yellow tag attached to the steer’s ear, #321. Next, without hesitation, the senior butcher skinned the head, starting at the crown, and working in front of the ears. He made his way across the nose and around the chin, the glaring white of the skull reminded me of porcelain. Simultaneously, a student butcher enthusiastically sawed away at the lower arm joint of the steer as if it were nothing more than a stump of wood, the girl happy to be getting such hands-on experience. With a snap, the arm was removed and tossed into a nearby waste bucket. The head was now completely skinned and the tongue still intact, visible below the white teeth. The head slipped from the student butcher’s inexperienced hands, hitting the floor with a resounding thud.
“Heh heh, this is too much fun to be work!” laughed the senior butcher, lifting the head from the ground and placing it on a stand not three feet from my grimacing face.
The meat inspector sauntered over to the head. He was a short man, hunched over from years spent bent over tables, studying beef. His weathered eyes examined the cow skull before him. He beckoned me closer to the twitching head, its nerve endings still sending messages to the absent body. He explained with a kind smile that he was checking the glands in the temples for any signs of disease. Expertly slicing into the cranium, he deemed the steer safe for consumption. I reluctantly studied the skull and the underside of the head, eyeing the bisected esophagus. Two large smooth white knobs caught my attention. I was told that this was the atlas, which protects the spinal cord at the base of the brain.
I was distracted by the decapitated body, which was being lowered on its back onto a stand. The senior butcher made an uneven incision from the upper chest all the way down through the stomach, and he used this as a beginning point to skin the steer. He ran his blade along the membrane, detaching the hide where it met the red flesh. He began with the forelegs, working his way down the ribcage, as easy as peeling an orange. He said in a large factory, they use a single machine to rip the skin off of the carcass in one whole piece, and save the hide for leather products; here however, they throw the hide away. I watched in awe as the student butcher saws off the back legs with more difficulty than she had with the front legs, and tossed them into the same wastebasket. Large hooks were attached to the stubby forearms, and lifted the carcass into the air once more.
The skin was removed from the steer’s back, and it fell heavily onto the floor. Then the butcher dragged the hide out of the building, leaving a smear of red blood in its wake. The butchers sharpened their knives and chatted in preparation for the next step. A deep slash vertically down the underside of the steer, revealed the shiny, soft, round organs encased within. These were removed swiftly into the wastebasket, nearly filling it. A long, tongue-like object was identified as the spleen. Next, the chest cavity was emptied, producing the lungs, which were inspected for tuberculosis, and the heart, which was nearly the size of my head. The plump, fatty ring that surrounded the heart, like the one found on this steer, was called the corona and symbolized good health. A shriveled corona signals illness during the steer’s lifespan. Finally, the kidneys were removed, revealing a clean, white ribcage beyond the internal organs. After an hour, I had finally begun to visualize the body before me as meat, rather than as animal. Lucky for me, because the next step of the slaughter would have been unbearable had the carcass still resembled its original state. The butcher stood upon a platform that raised and lowered about 4 feet at the push of a button, and took hold of the monstrous steel saw I had nervously eyed in the previous hour. Beginning at the crotch of the steer up near the ceiling, he kept the saw level and sliced precisely down the spine as the platform lowered him back towards the ground. The steer was now cut in two. After this, some method began to appear from the mad mass of metal enveloping the ceiling. The metal was actually an intricate pattern of rails, on which the hooks supporting the steer were attached. The two halves were pushed along these rails to the other side of the room. The waste basket was taken out the back door, its wheels etching tracks in the smeared blood left from the carcass. Thankfully, the blood was promptly sprayed down the drains, erasing the evidence. The carcass, now reduced to two hanging slabs of meat, was being further tested for disease while the butchers cleaned up. Next, it was pushed to the scale. The first piece weighed in at 408lbs, the second at 406lbs. I was impressed that the cut could be so centered on such a large piece of meat. Finally, the carcass was pushed into the giant freezer where it would await another round of tests to be held on the 14th day. The door shut behind it and I inhaled sharply, very anxious to be outside and away from the sickening smell that still filled the room. The blood on the floor was almost entirely erased while the blood on the walls had yet to be removed. The head remained on the stand, still at last.
The windows revealed the green landscape beyond, peaceful and bright, a subtle breeze winding through the branches of nearby trees. The outside world seemed surreal as I stood in that abbatoir, or was it the abbatoir that was surreal? After witnessing a complete slaughter, I was somewhat proud of myself for not running from the room. However, few events in life compare to the relief I felt as I broke into the familiar warmth of the sun. I now understand where my steak originates, for better or for worse. Cal Poly’s “learn by doing” motto has presented itself in multiple ways thus far, and this may be the most shocking way yet. I consider this method to be highly effective, and this hands on experience, though brutal, was a once in a lifetime opportunity that I will never forget. In the wise words of Edward Gibbon, “I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience.