On Red Meat and Mortality

By Matt Swartz

The other evening, I visited a newly-opened grocery store. The marketing and signage made it clear to me from the street that its intention was to compete with Whole Foods. I pulled in hoping that its strategy would be price competition, rather than an escalation in the arms race of foodie esoterica that has recently gotten so obnoxious (“I wanted some gluten-free pine-nut-based energy snacks with acai berries in them, but the only ones I can find have soy isolates in the ingredient list! Thanks, but I can’t buy these. I care too much about my family!”)

On the whole, my expectations were met. The innards of the store were filled with healthy snacks at inflated prices, much like a Whole Foods, but all the important deals are on the outside edges of a grocery store anyway: produce, dairy, bulk dry stuff and meat. These were wholesome and reasonably priced, so much so that I intend to return regularly. But I had an interaction at the butcher’s counter that stayed with me.

At the butcher’s counter, I could see that they were doing everything right. My powers of description aren’t anywhere near equal to the shiny redness and thickness of the steaks, marbled, stacked high, and priced cheaper than I’d expected. On the wall behind the counter, various marketing blurbs were written (did I mention how good ALL of the typefacing on this store’s advertising looked? Painstaking effort had clearly been taken.)

One of the blurbs was styled like this: “ask me about _______ .” “Me” was clearly the butcher, so I asked him the scripted question. He paused for a moment, considering, I suppose, that we were of  similar age, build, social class, and level of grizzeledness, and went off script: “Oh, they have a big speech I’m supposed to give you, but basically it just means we massage the cows before we kill ’em.” We MASSAGE the cows, before we KILL THEM.

I bought two steaks and left, but on the drive home, I realized that in his parting words, I’d found an ace that I could keep (apologies to Kenny Rogers, of course). It is a natural fact that every one of us is going to die, and we don’t know when. Luxury deadens our awareness of this looming fact, in the same way small acts of conscientiousness (Buy grass-fed! Buy organic!) lead us to imagine that we can delay it. But neither change facts. On a day we don’t and can’t plan, we’re going to be led down the chute, and when we get to the bottom of it, whatever massages we’ve had recently will be utterly beside the point.

My drive home took me past what I think is the oldest cemetery in Columbus, Ohio. I looked over the stone fence into the  tree-filled, shadowy resting place of those now, some of them, nearly 200 years dead. Some are marked with crosses, some with obelisks, and a few, signage informs me, aren’t marked at all. Those people ate grass-fed and organic, and I suppose if they’d had health care plans they liked, they would have been able to keep them. But they’re gone and forgotten.

I’m a Christian man; I have hope for the next life, and for that I’m thankful. But what I don’t have, what nobody has, is control over this day or that one. Our mortality is a fact that bears reflection. And when a meat cutter at a yuppie grocery store can spur that reflection, it’s been a good day.