The Smell of the Slaughterhouse

For the first half of my life, I was squeamish about blood and guts. It was a source of embarrassment to me, growing up playing ice hockey, when the smallest sight of blood would topple me to the ice. But all changed when, at age 21, I butchered my first animal. The smell of it, while foreign at the time, was pleasant to me when I experienced it again, walking through Russia’s largest slaughterhouse, Miratorg, recently.

In 2001, I was working on an estancia (livestock ranch) in Argentina. The 100,000-acre property sat high in the Andes Mountains, a three-hour horseback ride from the nearest road. The remoteness required the residents to be as self-sufficient as possible. We grew a large garden and kept a herd of goats for meat. Sure, there were cattle everywhere, but those were the estancia’s paycheck.

I did not look forward to killing my first animal. But the morning came when the boss assigned me to help Luis, a gaucho my age, slaughter a goat.

Me, riding a horse in Argentina. Photograph courtesy of Eliseo Miciu

Bell, riding a horse in Argentina, where he slaughtered his first goat. Photograph courtesy of Eliseo Miciu

Like in many parts of the world, Argentines slaughter goats by knife. Luis sharpened his on a whetstone, then kneeled over the goat. I stopped him. I wanted to do it. He showed me where to insert the knife so it would cut the jugular. As the blood seeped out, Luis showed me how to twist the head back, causing the vertebrae to spread, then slip the knife between the bones to sever the spinal cord. The goat went limp. The whole procedure took one minute, but the real work of butchering had begun.

Over the next half-hour, we dehided, gutted, and quartered the animal. I’d expected the inside of the goat to smell putrid, but it smelled humid, like the inside of an atrium. The organs were deep colors, a sign of how rich they were in nutrients. Luis cutaway the liver and kidneys—the butcher’s reward. Later, he would cook them in a soup, which he would invite me to eat.

All week, that smell of the slaughtered goat stuck in my nose, unpleasant only because it was foreign. It affected the flavor of everything I ate, the taste of the meat. “Delicious” isn’t the correct word, but it was strangely appealing.

In the decades since, I’ve butchered livestock and hunted game animals to feed my friends and family. I prepared the meat and given it as a gift of sustenance. I accept responsibility  for having taken life to sustain life, as well as the smell memory.

A meat quality expert and the plant's quality control manager walk through a cooling chamber where carcasses chill before going to the meat processing line.

A Russian meat quality expert and the Miratorg beef plant’s quality control manager walk through a cooling chamber where carcasses chill before going to the processing line. Photograph by Ryan Bell

I’m not alone. Flavor is our brain’s construct of sight, taste, and smell. Add the complexities of how scent triggers memory, and a mixture of sensations become a unique flavor to each person.

The brain can be trained to have a positive association with a given flavor. We are surrounded by acquired tastes, like coffee. And it’s happening again, as we rethink the flavor of ugly food. It just takes practice, and a series of good experiences to override the bad.

I wonder if that’s what happened to my brain with practiced butchering. An animal’s inner workings are no longer gross, but a reminder of my years spent working as a gaucho in Argentina, as a cowboy in Montana, or while hunting game across the American West. The smell of freshly-dressed meat triggers a response in me to anticipate healthy and tasty food. And that alchemy comes together on the fork.

Lower quality cuts of meet are sorted and ground into burger.

Lower quality cuts of meet are sorted and ground into burger at Miratorg. Photograph by Ryan Bell

How surprising, then, that on Miratorg’s killing floor, located in the land of Ivan Pavlov, I was having a positive response to the smell of a slaughterhouse. It helped that the plant operated under the best practices we’ve developed to date, because I’m sure that the response would’ve been different if I had walked through a plant in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. But here, in this one, it smelled like that powerful moment when animal becomes food; when we replace the word “muscle” with “meat;” when humans benefit from a steer’s ability to turn grass, water, and sunlight into protein.

We started at the back of the assembly line at Miratorg, where the meat is cut into parts, but as we reach the front, that smell disappears. It’s replaced by the odor of living cattle (which, as a cowboy, I still enjoy). One by one, a steer walks into a chute where a Miratorg employee centered a bolt-action stun gun on its forehead and fired. Here, the earthly being begins its transformation into burgers and steak. I walk past the chute and through a door to where a set of corrals and alleyways bring cattle from Miratorg’s feedlot, in the distance. The journey between the two, my translator tells me, was nicknamed “The Green Mile.”

Tricked by Trope

On my trip back to the hotel, my driver swerves around a semi truck labeled “Miratorg.” This company has brought to fruition what was once a dream of the Soviet food industry: creating a conveyor belt of food between the countryside and the city. The irony wasn’t lost on me that it did so by copying the American food industry.

Also not lost on me was that I had just played out a trope in food writing. In books, magazines stories, and newspaper articles, writers go on quests to follow an ingredient, such as beef, up the supply chain to its source. The niche’s lineage traces back to The Jungle. Together, they’ve improved the slaughterhouse industry. But the pitfall of trope is when motifs get repeated, such as the putrid killing room floor, as if by reflex, even when it no longer holds true.

A light scanner determines the quality of a side of beef. The light flashes for a moment, and then the carcas continues down the line, where a worker stamps it with the appropriate grade: Prime, Select, or Choice.

A light scanner determines the quality of a side of beef at Miratorg. The light flashes for a moment, and then the carcas continues down the line, where a worker stamps it with the appropriate grade: Prime, Select, or Choice. Photograph by Ryan Bell

What was true in Sinclair’s day is, at best, an exception to the rule today. Is it time to let the slaughter industry off the hook for past misdeeds? Or does the slaughterhouse trope serve the important role of holding the industry to an ever higher standard?

I don’t know the answer. But I do believe these portrayals tamper with a reader’s perception of taste. If beef was properly raised, humanely slaughtered under appropriate sanitary conditions, why not put it on the same level as the 4H steer butchered in the pasture?

To bring my tour of Miratorg’s slaughterhouse full circle, I ordered one of their steaks that night at the hotel restaurant. As I cut into the meat and raised the fork to my mouth, I was ready for the alchemy of flavor to take hold. And it did.

(This piece is the second half of my experiences during a Russian slaughterhouse tour. Here’s the first piece.)

 

Ryan Bell is a Fulbright-National Geographic Fellow traveling through Russia and Kazakhstan. He’ll report about food topics for The Plate, and his travel adventures for Voices. You can also follow him on TwitterInstagramFacebook, and Storify. His project website is Comrade Cowboys.

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Continuing the Discussion

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    […] (Note: Learn more about Russia’s slaughter industry in a series I wrote last week for The Plate. Part One and Part Two.) […]

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    […] (Note: Read about Miratorg’s state-of-the-art slaughter plant in a series I wrote for The Plate: Part One and Part Two.) […]

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  3. (Part Two) The Smell of the Slaughterhouse – Comrade Cowboys

    […] We started at the back of the assembly line at Miratorg, where the meat is cut into parts, but as we reach the front, that smell disappears. It’s replaced by the odor of living cattle (which, as a cowboy, I still enjoy). One by one, a steer walks into a chute where a Miratorg employee centered a bolt-action stun gun on its forehead and fired. Here, the earthly being begins its transformation into burgers and steak. I walk past the chute and through a door to where a set of corrals and alleyways bring cattle from Miratorg’s feedlot, in the distance. The journey between the two, my translator tells me, was nicknamed “The Green Mile.” (Continued on National Geographic…) […]

    April 1, 2016110:37 am