At the kitchen table in Malden, I’m watching an online video—required viewing for the meat butchering class that preceded Fish—called “Calf Slaughter.” The class is taught by an older German man of imposing height and massive hands. He’s capped with a head of grey. He has a voice with the same cadences and lilts as Werner Herzog’s and he makes you want to impress him.
The class was held on the fourth floor of Roth Hall, the former Jesuit monastery, in a room facing east. The first sunlight would ease over the peaks of the mountains just as class started. The room felt old. You could imagine that there had been fierce arguments here about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.
When our instructor would lecture about meat, he was sometimes difficult to understand. The mind tends to turn unfamiliar sounds into sounds you recognize. I’d be taking notes, hearing a normal set of sentences: “The chuck is one of the primal cuts of a side of beef. The round is another primal cut, and its sub-primals are the knuckle, eye, top round…” etc. And then I could swear he had just said something like: “Night tracking turns nighttime to birds.” We’d often look at each other in bewilderment. Naturally, all of us loved the guy.
I pay almost no attention to the video’s credits and preamble but when the feature part of it opens, there’s my instructor, 20 years younger, brown-haired, face unlined. He’s wearing a t-shirt, jeans, and green rubber boots, and he’s stroking the head of a calf. It’s important, he’s saying, that when an animal is slaughtered, it feels no stress, no fear. It degrades the quality of the meat. And, more, the very fact of the animal’s existence means that if it dies, it needs to die humanely.
“Unfortunately, for us to eat,” he’d said in class before I watched the video, “Something—something—has to die. And that animal—or plant—deserves our respect. It demands our respect. It demands our attention. Our commitment to not waste it. If nothing else, this is what I want you learn here.”
In the video, his hands keep playing over and around the calf’s ears and neck. The animal’s eyes are both plaintive and stupid. My instructor suddenly takes a step back, pulls out a Luger, aims, and puts a bullet through the calf’s head. The video is in real time, and 25 minutes later, he has the calf skinned, gutted, and ready to be butchered.
With a lifetime of butchering behind him, when those hands—with so much dying accumulated in his fingers—touch some part of an animal, it must feel a shiver run over its flesh.