meat market: life in the raw

Warning: blood and raw meat ahead.
Because duh, it’s a MEAT market.

My mother can get a little obsessive about germs.

When I was growing up, we butchered rabbits, deer, chickens, and beef. She endured my father’s fascination with humanure and the resulting composting toilet in the downstairs bathroom. She fed us raw milk and froze her foraged huckleberries without washing them. She didn’t use a toilet brush to scrub a toilet (*), preferring instead to simply plunge her entire arm into the porcelain bowl and elbow grease off the unmentionables. In other words, my mama’s no wimp.

But cracked eggs, canned green beans, and raw meat—well, these are entirely different issues. Salmonella worries her conscious so much so that if she makes chocolate chip cookies with cracked eggs, she’ll write on the cookie dough’s masking taped label: Made with cracked eggs! Do not eat raw! (My brothers and I snitch the dough and stuff it into our mouths just to hear her shriek.) (Also, when I was little, she dared one of the neighbor girls to eat a raw egg in exchange for a quarter, so I guess she hadn’t yet developed her full-blown, eggy paranoia. )

While she’ll blithely scoop a film of mold that’s sprouted a-top the homecanned applesauce and then cheerily feed it to all her loved ones, she freaks if someone eats a homecanned green bean straight from the jar. “You have to boil it for ten minutes first! To kill the botulism spores!”

And raw meat, well. You ought to see the lengths she goes to. When parceling out the contents of the family-sized styrofoam carton of ground beef after a morning shopping trip, she is careful that all droplets of blood and smears of grease, either real or imaginary, get promptly wiped up. When tossing the soiled packaging into the garbage bucket under the sink, she uses the back of her hands to swipe aside the sink curtain so as to not get any meat germs on the red checkered fabric. She uses her wrists to turn on kitchen spigot. In fact, the whole time she’s working, she holds her soiled hands out in front of her tenderly, carefully, as though they are ticking bombs. And when she’s finished with the meat packing ordeal, she washes and rewashes the knives, cutting board, and counter… all with bleach.

If she saw how the Guatemalan meat vendors handle meat, she’d have an apoplectic fit.

I’ll admit, at first it was a little stomach-turning for me. The hoards of flies. The slinking dogs. The thick iron scent of raw meat that crept out of the open shops and wrapped around the women crouched on the sidewalks with their baskets of fresh cilantro and plums. Buying fresh vegetables in a meat stench fog is ever so slightly gut-wrenching.

But I acclimated. I learned how to not inhale while walking by the baskets of yellow chickens. I steeled my stomach and placed my orders and thought happy thoughts about not dying.

And, wouldn’t you know, I have actually started to luxuriate in the fresh meat options.
True, I haven’t branched out from lard, fresh chicken, and ground beef, but hey! I’m buying meat from the butcher shops! And we haven’t died!

I am covetous of the tree-sized chopping blocks. 
It would be the perfect statement piece for my kitchen, yes?
Especially if it were accompanied by a bloody ax.

When I ask a butcher for a pound of ground beef, he or she whacks off a chunk of meat, weighs it (in the unwashed scales, oh dear), and then stuffs it into the (unwashed, I’m not watching I’m not watching) meat grinder, and out drops my freshly ground beef into the waiting plastic bag.
That the butcher then ties shut with bloody hands and cheerfully hands over to me. I carefully nestle the meaty bag into my shopping bag along with the cabbage, mangoes, and greens that are now getting meat juice all over them.

The bloody hands touching everything still gets me. I try to have exact change so I don’t have to stuff a wad of soiled cash into my wallet—THIS, DEAR CHILDREN, IS WHY WE DO NOT PUT MONEY IN OUR MOUTHS—but no one else thinks twice. At my last butcher shop visit, one of the workers was standing in the doorway, hands glistening red, peacefully munching away on a hunk of cooked beef, yum.

The Glob of Something that was smack in my face the whole time I was taking pictures. 

Despite the unsanitary conditions, I actually trust the little shops more than I do the chain grocery store (Walmart). The chicken sold in the stores is a bland white, and it’s shipped in from Guatemala City, they say, though I have a hunch it comes all the way from the states, and probably even from the huge chicken farms that pepper our Virginia community. The other week, our neighbor boys ate  chicken purchased from the store and got violently ill. Since then I’m passionate about avoiding meat of the imported variety (except for bacon) (and hot dogs).

So Mom, wanna come visit? We’ll hit up the meat market together! It’ll be fun!

*I emailed my mother to make sure this was indeed true and she denied it. So I emailed my brothers. One said yes, I was right, and the other one said yes…maybe. My husband says that when we first got married, I pooh-poohed (ha!) his use of the toilet bowl brush because I didn’t grow up using one. So sorry, Mom. I’m standing by my memories.


  • taylor

    just stumbled across your blog. i am in love with guatemala and so jealous that you get to live there! i teach esl and am always nervous as i eat food that I've watched my students prepare, but oh well. my husband inspects slaughterhouses for the government…so i can guarantee that meat is absolutely NOT handled that way in the U.S. (unless done so illegally). ironically he personally is very laidback when it comes to transferring the germs he encounters to our home. i often notice blood spatters or pieces of fat stuck to his pants (he wears a lab coat at work). i put a laundry basket labeled "blood and guts" downstairs to alleviate some of the germ transfer. but anyway. such a fun post to read!

  • Michelle @ Give a Girl a Fig

    Oh…and two more things…I am the same way with meat juice…I wash my hands and everything else THOROUGHLY with Clorox spray…I use my wrists to turn on faucets…I can totally relate. And my mom didn't use a toilet brush either…her hands (no gloves)and a sponge and Comet. So like you, I didn't use one either…until I came across FlyLady and she recommended it. Now I can't imagine using anything else!

  • Michelle @ Give a Girl a Fig

    My face was in a wince the whole time I read this post. I don't know if I could do it! Although, I guess you acclimate…? I am loving reading about your experiences…:)

  • beckster

    Almost all of our childhood memories are in common! My mother was also germ obsessed about raw meat, and she scrubbed our toilets with her bare hands. I used to do that, but have veered off into using a toilet brush, but it doesn't get them as clean as a good hand scrubbing! My mother was fond of saying that you could kill anything by boiling it for 10 minutes, and we ate a lot of hand-canned food. I think that you are seeing what happens everywhere with raw meat prep, it's just that in the states it happens behind closed doors where we can't see it happening. I got some of that phobia from my mother, but it has probably served me well. But after it's cooked, I think everything is ok to eat!

  • KTdid

    I share enough of your mother's germ obsession to be duly HORRIFIED! I have a hand and food-equipment washing habit to rival a neurosurgeon prepping for work (in a 5-star hospital [in the U.S.]) Gaaa….if I lived there, I'd have to be a strict vegetarian.

    ps. Oddly enough, in the case of toilet-scrubbing, I've also used my bare hands.

  • ShelahN

    'Everyone' knows you can't get a toilet properly clean with a toilet brush…

    And btw, I think that is a heart in your face.

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