I have many, many vivid memories of my childhood – perhaps even an absurd number of vivid memories. And among the most vivid was the day Johnny LaChappelle showed the neighborhood kids a cow’s eyeball that he had somehow gotten his hands on. It was floating in some type of clear liquid, in a screw-topped jar. And it was fascinating.
I can’t recall precisely where he’d gotten it, but I think it was something about a visit to a slaughterhouse he’d made with his father. (Maybe it was some sort of male bonding thing. Johnny was the youngest of five kids, and the other four were girls – two of them (“the twins”) were our sometime babysitters.)
Frankly, a floating eyeball wouldn’t have been considered all that creepy and weird to kids who were raised on the gory iconography of Catholicism. Just about the time we were seeing the eyeball, we’d seen the mummified arm of St. Francis Xavier, which toured the world in a glass case, and which all the little angels at Our Lady of the Angels had to kiss. Mummified arm under glass! Yum! Lip smacking good!
So none of the kids in the ‘hood would have been particularly grossed out by a cow eyeball. Maybe if Johnny had unbottled it and hurled it. But he was way too nice a kid.
Anyway, I’m guessing that, in the 1950’s, there was at least one slaughterhouse in Worcester, Massachusetts. As far as I can tell – thank you, Google – there are now none, the nearest one being in Athol, way out there in remote Worcester County.
And it’s not just Worcester that no longer has places where they can, say, get a cow eyeball for their kid.
In 1967 there were 9,627 livestock (cattle, cal, hog and sheep) slaughtering establishments in the U.S. That same year, Congress passed the Wholesome Meat Act, requiring producers to use a USDA-inspected facility if they sell meat across state lines. A mass consolidation of the meat industry followed. Today, commodity meat is dominated by large companies. Just four companies sell about 85% of America's beef and the pork and chicken markets are similarly controlled by huge corporations. By 2016, there were only about 1,100 federally inspected meat and poultry slaughterhouses in the country….Of those approximately 1,100 facilities, 215 large slaughter establishments (defined as 500 or more employees) produce about 75 percent to 90 percent of the country's volume.(Emphasis mine. Source: Bloomberg)
From what I’ve read about meat processing plants, that Wholesome Meat Act has a lot of wiggle room in it. Not to mention that they’re dangerous and unwholesome places for humans to work. Conditions may not be quite as terrible as they were when Upton Sinclair exposed those conditions in The Jungle. But the Wholesome Meat Act did its number on slaughterhouses. Other than any reservations you have (and if you think about it, you’ll have plenty) about the food industrial complex, I don’t imagine there are too many tears being shed about the decline in the number of slaughterhouses.
But on the high-end of the meat biz, the restaurants that do the farm-to-table thing, there aren’t enough slaughterhouses to bonk the noggins of all those grass-fed beef, or wring the necks of all those free range chickens.
The whole thing is turning into something of a foodie crisis.
Imagine the folks at New York’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns, which raises its own meat for their restaurant.
How foodily serious are they about meat?
At one point during a recent meal, a diner's candle was extinguished and poured over plates as a sauce, because—surprise: The candle was made of beef tallow.
Needless to say, folks like this want to take some care when it comes to how their meat gets from farm to table.
Despite ever-increasing customer demand for noncommodity meat, there aren't enough slaughterhouses to keep up. It's a major hitch in the supply chain—keeping supplies down, prices up, and making the already grueling job of farming even harder.
Stone Barns considers itself fortunate in that they only have to drive an hour and 15 minutes to get to a slaughterhouse. Many other places have to drive up to four hours one-way to get their farm animals “processed.”
The smaller local slaughterhouse complain that they’re over-regulated, and have to deal with the same level and kind of regs that are more appropriate to the large factory-style slaughterhouse. So they’d like the USDA to back off. I suspect they have a point, and that – especially the ones that work with the beef-tallow-candle style foodies – the smaller outfits already take greater care with their slaughtering.
Perhaps when the current administration is finished brining back coal mining, they can bring back the slaughterhouse.
Think of all the swell jobs!
Think of all the kids they can make happy with eyeballs under glass…