MURDER AND CRUELTY FREE
I started with venison, dragging vehicle-struck animals off the shoulder of the road and field-dressing them ten feet from the asphalt. There's often all kinds of trauma to the tissue from a vehicular impact, and I made it a point to err on the side of caution. The last thing I wanted was to have a customer biting into a Natural Order Murder-Free venison steak and then spitting out shards of glass from some college kid's Civic. I wasted so much meat back then.
I was also looking at the demand all wrong. All the hippies who wanted to keep the guilt of their evolutionary privilege at bay didn't need the premium cuts. They didn't know what to do with them. My business plan was built around getting there quick after and animal had been hit and doing a bit of triage, the same kind of triage the EMTs do when a kid on a Japanese bike wraps himself around a tree or gets T-boned by an alcoholic bricklayer in an F-150. If he wasn't wearing a helmet and went face-first, perfect. You've got a whole soft, unbroken body full of organs and a dozen happy people who are no longer on wait lists. If my dear doe got slammed in her front quarter, I've got tenderloins, most of the best steaks, and some roasts (sometimes it would be a biker that hit the deer, and then both the hospitals and I would make out well). If our hypothetical motorcyclist was wearing a full-face helmet but went under the tires and is now largely unrecognizable from the neck down, fear not! Corneal transplants are always in demand at St. Patrick. I became especially adept at running my fingers down the forelegs of especially mangled deer to determine if I could get a decent enough cut from the shank for some Osso Bucco, an Italian specialty that is normally made with veal shanks, but which has been popular in its venison incarnation with deer hunters in this country ever since I can remember. A badly broken foreleg was no disqualification -I would trim up the cut later, pulling out all the splinters. The cracked radius in the center of the cut performed the same aesthetic signaling as the misshapen lumpiness of artisanal bread -a guarantee that the product in question came, not from a machine or a nameless, massive factory, but from the hand of a craftsman, close to nature.
The first step in the butchering process was slamming the animal in the head with a captive bolt pistol, an act that I have managed to avoid any publicity regarding (I would skip the whole captive bolt gun routine out of fear of one of the local alt-weekly 'zines doing an expose on the "Murder-Free Deer Murderer", but I have a reoccurring dream in which the stunned doe recovers from the impact of the vehicle when she's on her back -after I've cut out her anus and most of her colon- and she starts thrashing around and her hoof comes down on my forehead and knocks me out, and I wake up surrounded by news cameras, some pointed at me and some pointed at the still-thrashing deer that's managed to make it forty yards back into the forest with her own asshole swinging between her hind legs, and then one of the alt-weekly 'zines does an expose on the "Murder-Free Deer Murderer", and then I wake up). The captive bolt gun is one of the old penetrating ones where the rod actually goes through the skull and into the brain. Modern slaughterhouses use a non-penetrating model that liquefies brain tissue from the force of impact alone, but leaves the brain stem intact, ensuring the heart will keep pumping during the industrial process of butchering. This is also a requirement for kosher meat. Since I have neither industrial butchering facilities off the shoulder of Lolo Creek Road nor a snowball's chance in hell of my roadkill steaks getting certified Kosher, I prefer the peace of mind granted by that half-inch hole left between the animal's eyes. Getting the guts out of the animal is priority number one, especially if they have been punctured and are leaking septic waste into the meat, which they usually have been and usually are. My goal is to have the animal cleaned and gutted within four hours of its last breath, but I'll push it to five or six sometimes, especially if it isn't too hot out. Of course, all this is based off of sheer guesswork. I rarely have any way of knowing exactly how long ago anything died. If it smells rancid, it's off the table.
After doing this for a few months, I did a couple of interviews in periodicals of varying credibility. I played myself as a bit of a caricature, a kind of hippy-friendly portmanteau of vegetarian foodie blogger and a mad country taxidermist.
"I've worked as a butcher for over eight years, but up until recently, I haven't eaten a single piece of meat,"
I told them. Which was true, since that would be a hell of a long time to only eat a single piece of meat.
They loved it. I got all kinds of hate from the hardcore vegetarians and vegans, the college kids who seemed to have borrowed their aggressive and evangelical aesthetic of abstinence from 1980s straightedge punk. My truck was vandalized. I had red paint thrown on me while I was wearing a pretty nice jacket, but I ran at them screaming "paint is murder" and slapping at them with the aforementioned coat, an action that both confused them and cemented my reputation as a beloved folk anti-hero.
"There's nothing inherent in vegetarianism—or even veganism, for that matter—that precludes one from eating meat," I began. "I will never eat a factory-farmed hamburger and I will never eat anything that is produced for my consumption at the expense of an animal's suffering. Fortunately, we humans can still find meat in an animal that has passed from natural causes. What's the point of having developed our frontal lobes if human evolution doesn't allow us to supersede our biological imperatives and choose to be gathers rather than hunters?"
This bit got a lot of video play, me with my work smock, gloves, and crazy hair pushing out from under the hair net. Orders tripled overnight and continued to steadily increase after that. I dialed back my media persona, but paid to have that paint-splattered jacket professionally framed, like a sports jersey, with the caption "Genius is never understood in its own time", which I attributed, correctly, to Bill Watterson, the reclusive genius behind the wonderful comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, which was the original source of said quote. It hung in the shop until I got drunk and knocked it off the wall on accident, and now it's in the mop closet, broken glass held in by the Hefty bag I've wrapped around the entire affair.
In light of the new demand, I quit focusing on premium cuts. I still saved as many of the best pieces of meat as I could, but I learned to get every available morsel from a carcass. I was getting between twenty and fifty-five bucks a pound for my Guaranteed Murder-Free Vegetarian Meat, so leaving anything (even the leanest and toughest tissue, shot through with cartilage and tendon sheathing) was bad business. I started making sausage, which was a damn tricky affair. Any decent venison sausage uses copious amount of pork shoulder or lard to get the fat content up to a reasonable level, but visions of the shit storm and fallout that would happen to me if discount porcine back fat was found in my not-so-Murder-Free sausages put me off that idea quickly. I bought fifty pounds of the cheapest venison sausage I could get from my circle of hunting acquaintances and paid a kid in a local culinary arts program two hundred bucks to help me come up with a handful of recipes using plant-derived oils. They weren't nearly as good as they would have been with real animal fat, but now we could also play up how healthy they were compared to, say, prosciutto or salami. People loved it. Even vegetarians love eating meat, and now that they were being told that there was no conflict between their beliefs and their doing so (as long as they were doing so with my thirty-two dollar Murder-Free Maple Sausage) they beat a path to my door.
The sausage allowed me to catch up to demand, and I started pricing the prime cuts higher, which only increased their desirability. Pretty soon I had a waiting list, which, again, only increased how many people wanted my meat, and how badly. I was offered bribes, some of a sexual nature. The fact that people were literally willing to suck cock for sausage, as wonderful as that idea might be, made me realize that "me" needed to be "we", and we needed to figure out a way to get more meat into our meat counter, and without pissing off all my overly sensitive, carnivorous, vegetarian customers. I hired Ryan, a 19 year old kid who'd worked at a supermarket meat counter, and paid him a couple bucks over minimum wage (because my customers were also the kind of people who would flip their shit if some asshole ran a story about my cruel and unpardonable wage slavery).
At some point I stepped back and realized how much meat I was losing to rancid carcasses. I was just getting there too late, and within seconds of starting to gut the animal I would realize that I had been working at a lost cause. I thought about branching out into dog food and making use of the rancid meat bags that way, but I didn't think the demand would cross over, and the margins seemed like they'd be a bit too narrow to bother screwing around with. I put out the word that all reports of animals meeting a natural end would be rewarded with discount vouchers, and I made some modifications to my beloved weekend toy, a 2012 Yamaha CBR1000RR. I started wearing boots all the time and threw on my riding jacket whenever a new report came in, field-dressing tools in a roll-out bag stowed right behind my ass. I cut my response time in half, and speeding tickets became nothing more than a regular business expense. As an interesting aside, most minor (and many major) moving violations will be dropped if you bother showing up in court to contest them, even if you are obviously guilty, because, more often than not, the guy who wrote you the ticket won't bother to show up. Once I got out to a carcass and knew it would be at least partially salvageable, I would send a message to Ryan telling him to bring the truck. I'd gut the deer and pack it with these portable ice bags powered by liquid nitrogen, which were an indispensable part of my rapid-response butchering kit.
Ryan and I were processing and moving over two thousand pounds of finished meat every month, after branching out to elk, moose, and antelope. We also discovered a new cash cow -pork. I managed to get and old hiker drunk and pry out some information about feral hogs that spent a fair bit of time around an old copper mine about eighty miles outside the city. Every now and then one of them would fall into the old shaft, usually breaking something. The coyotes could manage to get in and out of the shaft somehow, and the bottom was filled with the remains of everything they couldn't eat. Ryan and I drove out there one day in my 4x4 and I rappelled down the shaft, installing a motion-detecting infrared webcam hooked up to the cellular grid. Every time a hog took a tumble down the hole we would race out there to get to it before the canines did. I would rappel down with a headlamp, a long hammer, and a skinning knife. I'd make a nice concave in its skull with the hammer and then slit the pig's throat so it could partially bleed out (again, Kosher processing isn't high on my list here, for a number of reasons). The first time we did it I just unhooked my rope and had Ryan winch the carcass up with that, but waiting for him to throw down my line at the bottom of the shaft in a puddle of blood got disturbing. After that, I carried a second line down, tied that to the pig's hind legs, and had myself pulled out first. When the vegetarians realized they could eat bacon again, they lost their shit.
Demand was still growing, getting out of control. There simply weren't enough game animals out there dying of natural causes, like lifted Ford pickup trucks. I did some research on electrical animal calls and bought a few all-purpose units. I set them up myself along a major forest road that will remain nameless, and slaved them all to a single master controller. The road was full of fur that first Friday afternoon, and three animals were hit. It was all Ryan and I could do to get the meat prepped and hauled off in time. The second time I tried it, a 17 year old All-American who played for the Sentinels went through his Subaru's windshield and without him they wound up losing 34-37 to Helena. Feeling rather guilty about this, I went to a trailer park with a borrowed welding rig and installed big U-shaped grill guards on the trucks of any owner who would let me, giving them each $200 and mentioning that the aforementioned road was really nice to drive, especially around one in the afternoon, no cars out, people tend to find all kinds of money out there doing that, etc. Only one or two made the trip, but when envelopes full of crisp new twenties started showing up in their mailboxes ... well, mail theft went up, but also, more trucks started showing up on the road when it was almost abandoned in morning and early afternoon (abandoned, that is, except for the dozens of deer, elk, and the occasional moose). I also had a standing agreement with a local mechanic who sent me the bill for any vehicle that came in damaged by a collision with an animal on that specific road. Being a generous and upstanding member of the professional community here, I almost always took him up on it.
I feel like I've reached a point of equilibrium. As long as I stay local, I can't really expand. I thought about ratcheting up the "mad taxidermist" vibe a bit and selling extreme locavores the idea of sausage made from car-struck dogs and cats, but people are so goddamn attached to their family pet's remains. Doing so could get me some bad press, maybe even a lawsuit. Far better to stay here, with a higher demand than I can meet. Too bad though, since I had some pretty clever ideas about using ultrasonic frequencies to lure the dogs out under tires. If only there were some way of differentiating the frequency, so that it would only draw out the big dogs, the ones over fifty pounds. It be rather wasteful, going to all that trouble just for all those Pomeranians and teacup poodles to be converted into smears on the asphalt and torn-up hides, with nothing even resembling usable meat left anywhere other than the tire treads.
Issue #6 CONTENTS
MAKE DO AND MAKE MEND
STORM CLOUD RAIN, GRAVEYARD DIRT
THE BLUE BOY
MURDER AND CRUELTY FREE
S Van Sickel
A PROPER FOUNDATION
Sean VanSickel is a 25 year old writer living in Bakersfield, CA, where he works as an English teacher. He's a former staff writer at The Runner (Cal State University Bakersfield’s student newspaper) and has been published in The Sigma Tau Delta Rectangle.
Visit him online at seanvansickel.com.