I have been thinking a lot lately about my past; trying to figure out why it took over four decades for me to make the connection and go vegan.
It was only my third day at the freezing works when I took a wrong turn on my way to the cafeteria. Three men were walking towards me, overalls, faces, hair all drenched in blood. Clearly headed for the showers on their way from the kill sheds. I could hear blood squelching from their gumboots.
For a moment, I couldn’t breathe for shock. Then, just as quickly, a thought whispered from behind the horror. Don’t worry, it’s just the pigs. I could feel myself start to relax, but the tense faces of the blood soaked men stopped me from speaking. Something had happened. What I never learned. We all just nodded grimly to each other in acknowledgement. I turned back towards the cafeteria.
Don’t worry, it’s just the pigs. For three days I had been standing on line in a cold, sterile warehouse, knife in hand slicing through sinew, shaping fat, hacking at excess rind on piece after piece after piece after piece of pig. How many pieces passed through my hands? Who knows? At the time, it didn’t seem relevant standing there in silence hacking away. I looked at the other women around me on the lines, all cloaked in white overalls, logo on the left pocket, hair squashed up into white caps, white gumboots with a thin blue stripe, standing all shift on a concrete floor, gloved hands and knives flying.
They were nice these women, friendly. Sometimes they’d stop and give me tips on how to hold my knife, where to cut. I was getting better. Three days and it was already starting to feel like second nature. At smoko and lunch they would invite me to sit at their table – coffee, greasy food and cigarette smoke (still in the 80s) – they would laugh and chat about their families or what they were doing on the weekends, ask me personal questions, tell jokes, tease each other.
Don’t worry, it’s just the pigs. Once I had the hang of moving the knife and felt like I was fitting in, it was just boring. I didn’t think much about where the objects I sliced at had come from or where they were going. Vaguely, I understood I owed my job to more ham processing in the lead up to Christmas, but mostly I just felt grateful to have work. Now I could pay the rent due at the end of the week.
At the end of each shift, I joined the queue at a small caravan window by the Office. When I got to the head of the line, the woman at the window used a ruler to run through my name on her clipboard. She handed me an envelope of cash and a payslip. I headed off to the station to catch the train back into the city.
Don’t worry, it’s just the pigs. I tried to sleep on the train; I’d been up since four, but each time I closed my eyes I could see the blood soaked men, hear their gumboots squelching. Yet, still it didn’t connect the blood and the objects I sliced. I started to think about going to the beach at the end of the week. I’d be able to afford the booze now. I patted the white envelope in my pocket reassuringly.
When I finally got back home, my friend was leaning against the chipped linoleum bench in our bomb-site kitchen, drinking my tea. For three days he’d been over worrying anxiously about my karma. I cared more about my disappearing teabags than my karma. Either way, he was here with news; he’d got me job working the grill at a local American-style ‘50s milk bar. They even had a jukebox still playing Elvis. I told him I’d take it. I could sleep in till ten.
I never went back to the factory.
Why did slicing bodies at the freezing works injure my karma, but not frying thin cured slices of the same bodies on a grill? At the time, I never cared enough to ask.
I spent about ten years working in kitchens – meat, eggs, fish, dairy. I learned to cook, slice and serve it all. I even spent several months working in the butchery. Giant sides of beef hanging from sliding hooks in the cool room ceiling. Slicing through bone with a band saw. Expertly cutting and shaping flesh, not really noticing the red blood smears as I whipped off the knife. Always I focused on the job at hand. Consulting the board as I prepped the right cuts.
I was trained to think forward. What would the chef need the meat for? How would it end up on the plate? What would people experience as they ate? What would they smell, see and taste? Not once did I look backwards, back down the line to the animals drenching men in blood as they hacked, cut and stabbed. I was trained well by my culture and my profession.
Don’t worry. It’s just the pigs.
Why did it take me 46 years to start worrying about the pigs?
These days I work in an office typing words onto a computer screen. This morning someone left a bowl of plums on the table for me to pick at all day. I had a kebab for lunch full of salad vegetables and falafel. I’ll go home tonight and cook tofu and vegetables. Yet, still the new found connections disturb me daily. People talk to me about animal food. I see them eating all the time – cheese, ham, cakes made of eggs and milk. A giant burger dripping with ground flesh, grease and cheese stares down at me from a billboard, or flashes across my computer screen. The smell of sizzling fresh fills my house as those still in denial make dinner.
Don’t worry. It’s just the pigs. It’s all around me, but still I have the luxury of choice. What about before? This was how I made a living. How would I have got through a shift if I had started to make the connection? What about if I’d had children, people depending on me to earn them a living?