Tell it on a mountain: Staring down dinner

By Rachel Slajda

This is the fifth in a biweekly series following the journey of a Northeastern student studying abroad in Perugia, Italy.

Part of the beauty of Italian food is its fresh ingredients – but they aren’t always beautiful to look at.

The fruits and vegetables, out of season, are pockmarked with little ruts and spots and sores. The eggs come with feathers still stuck to the shell. Bacon and prosciutti are sliced off a giant severed thigh while you watch and wait for your fresh meat.

I was infatuated with this simple declaration that, yes, food comes from somewhere! It does not manifest itself, pre-sliced and wrapped in cellophane, in the fluorescence of a supermarket. This, I thought, is incredible! I felt so above the Americans, with their sterile processed foods of unknown and perhaps unknowable origins.

The butcher’s shop immediately deflated my arrogance. I took in the thick, dry scent, the salted legs hanging from the ceiling. I took in the red, glistening meat inside the case with barely a flinch.

But then I saw the whole chickens, all body parts still attached. The chickens’ heads were there, necks curled beneath their slimy bodies, skin raised like pox where the feathers had been plucked. Their eyes were still there, disturbingly empty.

At every butcher shop there are the brains and pieces of liver and intestines. Everything is slimy, gray or dark red, piled high and wet on shallow white trays. Shapes of blood-red meat are skewered and ground, rubbed with seasoning, arranged in filets and chunks and sausages.

I’ve seen whole rabbits skinned and, it seems, still bleeding in the bright lights of the butcher’s case. Their fur is gone, and their tails, and their floppy ears. But the sign stabbed between their ribs has a simple drawing, the head of a bunny, so sweet and innocent and reproductive.

In Perugia’s covered market I saw a head – just a head – of some huge cow or steer (or sheep or goat: How would I know?) skinned and sitting gruesomely among the chunks and pieces of the rest of its body.

Lobster is the closest thing I had come to this before this trip. Hell, we boil the things alive after picking them out of a tank, still writhing. But lobsters don’t bleed, and I’ve yet to see herds of them grazing by the road or licking food pellets from my hand.

We avoid confronting animals face-to-face in America, and at first all the murder evident in the Italian butcher shops was too much. Give me my boneless chicken breast. Give me my meat that does not resemble the animal it came from.

But I still look every time I go for more thinly-sliced chicken. I scan the case, my eyes leaping from meat to meat, and under the bodies of the chickens. I’m drawn to the gore, the rawness and reality that this thing I am eating was alive, perhaps just days ago, and the only reason it was conceived was for its eventual death and my immediate consumption.

Every time, I stare at the gross reality as I walk to the back of the shop where the chicken breast is kept, almost hidden behind the whole carcasses of hens and roosters as if the butcher is ashamed. I break my eyes away from the bloody but neatly organized spread to struggle to order, chopping my Italian as the butcher slices the chicken from the fat and cuts it into paper slices. His hands are probably clean but gloveless; the knife he uses was sitting on the counter when I arrived. His white smock is marred with stains, blood, salmonella. He wraps my prize – awarded for courage in the face of extreme cultural differences – in paper and rests it on the glass while he takes my coins. I carry my raw meat like that: no leak-proof saran wrap, no plastic, no styrofoam. When I walk out I’m still looking, still challenging the piles of skinned bunnies to a staring contest.

I know that if I can’t stand the sight of dead animals, I don’t deserve to eat their meat. Fortunately I can, as long as they don’t look back.

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