My relationship with meat and Meat is complicated.
I must first clarify that I love meat: meat products, meat smells, meat sounds, meat tastes.
I love the way meat looks when it’s cooking on a skillet, a grill, or really any hot surface. Which isn’t to say I don’t love raw meat. I love raw meat. And cured meat. If I could afford it—and someone could guarantee me regularity—I would eat exclusively beef carpaccio.
After graduating college, I moved to Brooklyn, and throughout the subsequent year (the 22nd of my life), meat defined my existence. This was by no means an inevitable turn of events. At this point, my life resembled that of an adult, and was relatively meat free. I worked at a highly respected PR firm, earning a good living and wearing pencil skirts. Of course, I cooked and ate meat daily. There were some days—weeks even—during which I ate exclusively corn dogs. But meat hadn’t yet become the lard that glued my life (and metaphors) together.
A month in, I quit my grown-up job and found a position preparing sandwiches at an artisanal sandwich shop in Williamsburg. I liked the work. Dreaming up sandwich specials, slicing ham, preparing flavored mayos all came very naturally to me. I was happy, fulfilled even, working in a meat-centric zone. My problems began when all of my zones became meat-centric.
There’s a special sort of shame that comes from sitting on the subway, noticing a meat smell, and realizing that you’re the meat smell. You peak inside your shirt to find chunks of smoked turkey in your bra. The worst part is, the boob turkey is just the beginning of it. You remember the three roast beef baguettes stuffed in your tote bag. You look at your hands, soft and supple from the ham juice that’s dried into your skin.
Coming home from my sandwich gig, I’d take the L to the Morgan stop in Bushwick. Once above ground and in the cold, smoky air, I’d hurry past the ominous, oddly magnificent Boar’s Head Meat warehouses, past the skinny girls in old fur coats, past the taqueria, bars the looked like old-timey salons and saloons, past the deli, past the obvious, arty graffiti. I would arrive at my apartment, thaw like a half-frozen hunk of pork butt on the kitchen counter, and open the door.
Smells of bacon, roasted chicken, and sautéed beef—all layered over one another, the smells arranged by how recent they were prepared, whether 2 hours ago or 5 hours ago—hit my nose and then my body. I succumbed to it—the inevitability of meat smell as my neutral smell.
My new roommate at the time, who I’ll call Meat, followed a gluten-free, Paleo diet, which meant, for him, that meat was to be consumed at every meal and every snack time. Since he was unemployed (and would continue to be throughout my tenure in Bushwick), all meals and snacks were prepared in our home.
I would wake to the sound and smell of ground beef, whole eggs, and coconut oil sizzling in a pan. If he thought I’d already left for work, he would blast house music as he performed his morning meat-preparation ritual. Lunch would be meat, too, typically roasted chicken, the bones of which he sucked clean and then stored in a large Ziploc bag in our freezer, to use later for broth. The excess meat fat—which he would often pour over his finished meat dish, be it pulled pork or chicken soup—would be saved, too, in jars in the fridge. Sometimes the process of saving and storing the meat fat took days.
On my way to my room, I’d dodge the glistening pans and plates and bones in the kitchen and TV room. Once I made it past my door, I’d slip off my coat and flop onto the bed. I would then systematically eat the three roast beef sandwiches I’d smuggled from work. I’d shower later, knowing fully that I’d never smell right again.
I didn’t resent Meat, at least not at first, and never outwardly. I was, however, frustrated by my friends who couldn’t understand what I was going through.
“Are you saying you don’t like meat?”
“No, I love meat, you know that. But it’s taking over my life.”
“I’m not sure I follow.”
They only understood when I invited them to my home, Meat’s cave. If he wasn’t hovering over the stove preparing meat, he was on the couch eating meat, typically watching Battlestar Gallactica or Swedish vampire movies.
My problem wasn’t coping with meat smells, plain and simple: it was the intricate layering of meat smells and textures—of all the animals, parts, and modes of preparations—mixed with the odor of old cigarettes and black pepper. It was the routine uncertainty of identifying black specks on the counter: ash, pepper, burnt bits, dirt, a bit of everything? Above all, my anxiety sprouted from the exiting and entering of my meat zones, which were sprawled about my city, separated by my commute.
At my sandwich gig, I’d often have to do what I called “birthing the ham.” Our ham, like all our meats, arrived wrapped in plastic, soaking in its juices. But the ham, unlike the roast beef or turkey, had an extra layer of protection I had to bust open with my knife: it was wrapped in twine, so tight and tiny, a grid wrapping around the whole meaty hunk. Over the sink I’d knife open the plastic. The pink, rosemary-studded juice would pour out of the package, over my hands and into the sink, at which point I’d begin the process of working the newborn out of its twine. I liked to think of this part—especially during the morning shift, when I was delirious—as cutting a bunch of little umbilical cords.
When I finished freeing the ham, I’d plop it on the metallic meat slicer and turn the machine on, waiting to hear and feel that intoxicating buzz of flesh-slicing power. I’d adjust the settings just right. One slice, two, three, four…thin disks of sweet pink meat swooned down on to my hands. I would slice the meat until we opened the shop and my sandwich crafting duties began.
At some point—and I couldn’t tell you precisely when—I surrendered myself to the meat. I even surrendered myself to the terror of being young and in the world on my own. Of being cold and tired. Of slicing a ham leg, alternating putting the slices onto sandwiches and into my mouth. Of meat parts on my person and in my home. Of Meat, twenty-eight and unemployed, as a symbol of me in the not-too-distant future.
They say that smells are the most powerful triggers of memory.
A week ago, I was sitting on the L train, on my way to visit friends who still lived in—had not yet been driven mad by—New York. I smelled meat: cooked ground beef, to be precise, with onions and seasoning. Instinctively, I gave myself a smell check. It wasn’t me. But I was 22 again, and in the kitchen with Meat. He was explaining to me, in between bites of chicken leg, that saturated fat, especially animal fat, was the healthiest thing a human could eat. He was telling me I would understand one day, once mainstream science caught up.
In the present, a tired woman across from me ate a hamburger, lifting up the sides of her coat so as to make a little room of her own.
I rode the L to Morgan. I walked past it all: the delis, the taquerias, the Boar’s Head warehouse. I stood outside the door to my old apartment building. Whatever the smell-equivalent of grasping is, I did that. No trace of pot roast or pork fat or Meat, though. Just cold air, exhaust fumes, and cigarette smoke.
Maria Yagoda is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Thewire.com, and Nytimes.com. She blogs about snacks and New York life at www.snaxandsexandthecity.com. Follow her on Twitter: @MariaYagoda.