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The Peoria Packing paradox

(post, Eddie Lakin)

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I referred briefly to my recent visit to Peoria Packing in my review of the bacon I bought there, but didn't really get into the whole experience of the place itself, which is a real trip and very thought provoking.

Most Americans are pretty squeamish about meat, despite the fact that we eat more of it than any other country in the world. At this point, we are really insulated from the process. Meat is fully broken down into only the most desirable parts, fully trimmed, and ready to go from the shrink-wrapped styrofoam tray right into the pan. Or fully cooked on the plate, if consumed in a restaurant. It's been like that forever, for most of us, and we really don't think about it too much.

Until we're confronted with something different, like a European market where piles of offal or whole animals are just out in the open, for all to see. Even for someone like me, a chef who's been dealing with larger primal cuts of meat for years, these cruder, more "real" displays represent an off-putting paradox, because I find myself curiously attracted and also, at the same time, repulsed.

I think this is true for most Americans, with varying degrees of attraction/revulsion, of course, and most simply avoid the revulsion side of the equation, which results in a sad state of affairs. We've managed, as a society, to hide and sanitize the reality of meat. Perhaps that's why we eat so much of it.

A visit to Peoria Packing will cause one to ponder these things, because once you enter the butcher shop wing of this small grocery store across the street from their commercial packing house, you will be confronted with MEAT in a way that not too many Americans are accustomed to.

PP's meat section is a large refrigerated room with big long tables running the length of it. The various cuts of meat are just piled onto the tables and customers (wearing the required latex gloves) just kind of rummage through the piles until they find what they're looking for. The meat is very fresh, very inexpensive, and they carry cuts that are difficult to find elsewhere. I went specifically to get "packer cut" brisket for smoking. I also picked up some pork bellies (to make homemade bacon) and a few other things.

A lot of people have trouble handling this set-up. The online reviews of PP are mixed, with quite a few folks stating they'll never go back due to the way the meat is just right out in the open for anyone to sneeze or cough on. This is true, of course, but I didn't see this happening and I like to believe that people have enough sense not to do that. Most people do a pretty decent job of covering their mouths and not coughing or sneezing directly on me, so I'm not sure why expecting them to do the same in a roomful of meat is any more of a leap.

I think this sort of revulsion is how people deal with the fact that they are just not used to seeing meat displayed this way. It is jarring, I will admit, and seeing whole cow's feet, pig's heads, and other less common animal parts is definitely a bit of a shock as well. I think a lot of people are simply put off by the sheer real-ness of it, and so they use the "unsanitary" claim as a rationale for their revulsion, and as a justifiable reason to avoid that experience in the future.

Revulsion, however, is natural when confronted with meat. Revulsion is normal. Meat is a dead, decaying animal. It's bloody, gruesome, and serves as a reminder of our own mortality. Yet most people eat it every day. I'll go out on a limb and say that NOT feeling revulsion at the sight or thought of meat is what's, in fact, abnormal.

We're so unaccustomed, though, to this feeling, because the meat industry has done it's level best to eliminate any and all reminders of death, blood, and the idea that these are animals we're eating. And they've been very successful, with the full compliance of a willing populace, who values avoiding the cognitive dissonance of feeling both hunger and revulsion far more than it values coming to terms with our carnivorous impulses.

Up until recently, the luxury of not getting to know one's meat up close and personal just wasn't a real possibility for most people. It's only in the last hundred years or so that we've acquired this new found squeamishness, which has gotten to the ridiculous point where some people act all grossed out even by chicken served on-the-bone, or with skin. Grow up, folks.

The conflict intrinsic to eating meat has long attracted deeper thinkers. Cultural anthropologists and sociologists like Mary Douglass and Claude Levi-Strauss have written reams on this fascinating subject. It's human nature to be both repulsed and attracted by meat, and people have been dealing with it since back in the hunter-gatherer days. It's just that here in modern-day America, we've made a new art form out of figuring out ways to avoid dealing with it.

The flip side of this is the head-to-tail movement that's been steadily gaining momentum among chefs. In Chicago, chefs like Paul Kahan, Jason Hammel and Amalea Tshilds, and Paul Virant have been sourcing whole animals direct from the farmers who raise them and utilizing all of the various cuts, including the organs. There is no better way to pay tribute to an animal that has been slaughtered for food, these chefs say, than to ensure that nothing goes to waste.

These chefs feel it's their responsibility to close the awareness gap created by the commercial meat industry, and they're bypassing it entirely by going direct to farmers, buying whole animals, and doing the butchering themselves in their subterranean restaurant prep kitchens.

So the head is used to make pâté, the cheeks to make guanciale or braised for ravioli filling, the neck for coppa, the bellies are cured for bacon, and the feet used for cotecchino or for their natural gelatin. Blood sausage, tripe, and kidneys are making a comeback among foodies.

Before you wince and get all squeamish, stop and think for a moment that the bacon you enjoy is also attached to lungs, a heart, a head, and feet, and ask yourself what happens to all that stuff once you've eaten your ribs and bacon. If you're not a vegetarian, animals are being killed to support your meat habit, and if you're not eating anything but the prime cuts, you're wasting big chunks of the animals that were killed to feed you.

The Reader's Mike Sula did an extensive piece called The Whole Hog Project (scroll to the bottom and check out the reader comments to get a taste of how strongly people feel about the subject) which documents the paper's purchase of a rare mulefoot pig, and follows Dee Dee's (yes, they named it) life over the course of a year and a half, culminating in its slaughter. It was a fascinating and courageous exercise in journalism which cut right to the heart of America's schizophrenic relationship with meat, and it was recently nominated (along with Mike Gebert's Sky Full of Bacon video podcast that accompanied the Sula piece) for a prestigious James Beard Award.

It's extremely thought-provoking stuff, and it's a subject that most people would prefer to avoid thinking about. But it's also perhaps a subject that we must consider more often, considering our love/hate relationship with food, the growing national obesity issue, the extent to which we consume highly processed foods and fast foods, and the myriad other ways in which we're all dysfunctional in our relationships to what we eat. Myself included--I'm certainly no exception.

I'm not claiming, mind you, that I have the answers here, or that a visit to Peoria Packing will solve all your problems. But I do think that burying our collective heads in the sand and continuing to buy grocery store trays with shrink-wrapped beef tenderloin and BSCB is the exact wrong thing to do.

So, instead of mindlessly purchasing your animal proteins from the grocery store, take a trip over to PP and check the place out. Bring your kids and do your part to kind of de-mythologize the process for them, and start closing, if only by small increments, the awareness gap that the meat industry has spent decades building in their attempt to try and insulate us from the inner conflicts that are inherent in being carnivorous.

I was actually somewhat concerned that it might bother Henry, my four year old son, who made the trip with me, given that, in many of the books we read him, piggies and cows are cute barnyard animals that talk, sing, or drive the school bus. But it didn't. After we got back, my wife asked him what he liked best about the place and he said, enthusiastically, "the pig heads!"

So there you go. This little field trip can be an opportunity to start grappling with these deeper issues of morality, mortality, and animal rights, or you could just look at it as a good, cheap option for bulk burgers, hot links, and ribs. Either way, Peoria Packing is worth a visit. Don't forget to bring a cooler.

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