26 January 2012

Hanging Meat and Sharpened Axes

How does a person cut up an animal? It’s a cultural thing. In America they do it in secret. In Azerbaijan they do it on the roadside, with axes.
This man, lovably, wanted to know if he should put on his white butcher’s coat. From the look of it, the coat was worn only for photos. We were standing on a muddy sidewalk next to a fetid gutter, looking in through the open front of this man’s shop. Granted, it was around forty degrees Fahrenheit, which is about the same as the inside of a refrigerator – but meat isn’t treated the same way here. Butchers practice their craft proudly, in the open. The cutting of meat isn’t treated like a vice to be ashamed of. Packaging doesn’t exist. To buy meat is to buy a piece of an animal, often still steaming with life.
The strange difference between this kind of display - overt savaging of tissue and bone - and the American version - secretive and sanitary - isn't what is produced but the attitude towards cleanliness. In the west, we're terrified of food and meat. It's perceived as automatically dirty, almost sinful by default, and the people who work with it are supposed to hide the worst of this filth from our consumer's eyes. In places like Azerbaijan, where refrigeration (viable electricity, in some places) is rare, to eat meat is to accept a level of dirt and risk. There's no clean water, the facilities have dirt floors, the flesh will be contaminated whether you can see it or not.
We came across this man on the road from Lankaran to Lerik. We pulled over and asked if we could take his picture – he nodded, but didn’t stop working. The sheep was still limber, its head and forelegs discarded casually in the dirt. The man worked like anyone accustomed to their job - comfortably and efficiently.
The first Azeri butchers we came across were in Baku, at the Təzə Bazar. Men grabbed bloody chunks of muscle and held them out to us – “beef,” they said, or “steak.” There were hearts and lungs, cleaned tripe, trotters and testicles, brains sitting on semi-cleaned tile counters. The butchers worked – as they do everywhere in Azerbaijan – on large chopping blocks fashioned from sections of tree trunk, the bark still on.
At first, I was struck by how casually these vendors handled their products. How is it that that’s surprising? Millions of pounds of meat are cut up every day. Is every slice committed squeamishly? Is every piece parted with closed eyes? Does an employee in a slaughterhouse shudder at the sight of intestine?
In Azerbaijan, meat hangs right over the sidewalk, like burly men having a conversation in front of the store. Unwanted scraps are tossed to the dogs. Customers can touch and smell the flesh, the butchers will make alterations.
Meat is expensive here, and selling it is a proud trade. This woman motioned for us to take her picture, cleaning up her workspace. Imagine an American supermarket butcher, hidden away in the back room, working in (what we assume is) glistening sterility, his hands in plastic, his product sealed up as quickly as possible. Imagine that butcher wanting his picture taken - it seems almost like taking a picture of a mortician or a doctor, not of someone preparing food.
In the markets and on the roadsides of Azerbaijan, the butchers see this red stuff for what it is: food. I remember one man holding up a cut of beef appreciatively, palpating it a little with his red hands - "beef" he said. "No problem. Very good." His eyes were proud. What he was showing me was something he saw as tasty, like a baker holding up a pie or a grocer displaying fruit.

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