NOTE: If you’re vegetarian, and this topic offends you, I’m sorry. But it’s the best way I know to illustrate something about Italian life that I’m extremely grateful for. Small-scale food production. What I’m about to say may not be true of the grocery stores here, and it may not even be possible in countries the size of the U.S. But there’s something here, that should be considered.
Once a week or more, the neighborhood butcher shop, Marnini, receives a delivery. A white truck pulls up. A portly man in a slightly stained white coverall slides out of the driver’s seat, opens the cargo doors to reveal several sides of beef hanging in a row, throws one over his shoulder, and hauls it into the butcher shop.
Inside the shop, the butchers (a middle-aged man and his father) and perhaps an assistant, begin the process of “processing” by cutting it into pieces that will then be cut—on order—into the different cuts that the Italian household demands. Filetto. Controfiletto. Tagliata. Fiorentina. Etc. (Cuts of meat vary from country to country, cuisine to cuisine.) If one wants filet mignon (filetto), one specifies the thickness and quantity, and it’s cut to order. Ditto for anything ground. How finely ground do you want it? How many times? Do you want it mixed with something else? Do you want it shaped into patties? How much do you need? Your order is prepared, placed in waxed paper, foil, or a decorative wrap, and put in the bag. No sitting between layers of polystyrene and plastic wrap.
You may be squeamish about the topic of butchery, but if you’ve ever seen any films about the mass production of meat products in America—(Linklater’s Fast Food Nation among them)—you’d find this process more clean, more honest, and much more reassuring. From the arrival of the truck to the moment of placing your order, much of the “processing” required to prepare your meat, is the process you see with your own eyes after you’ve placed your order. There are no mammoth, warehouse-filling, bacteria ridden machines, spinning perilously at high speeds, threatening the limbs—in fact, lives—of badly treated illegal aliens.
This is an issue of scale, choice, and cultural preference. This is about keeping things extremely close to home, in their neighborhood. Italians still—and I hope this continues—like to see the people who prepare their food face to face. This isn’t just about chatting, it’s about accountability. It’s about human scale versus corporate scale. And everything about the human scale is much more humane.
What fabulous pictures! And what an excellent argument. I guess you’ve heard in the last few weeks about our recent chicken-and-egg scandal here in the U.S. It’s a far cry from the tiny “poultry farm” I grew up on–in quotes because I have an old yellow “photograph”–actually eight old yellowing snapshots, glued together side to side in order to create a panoramic view–of someone, probably my grandfather, out feeding a small flock of chickens under a tree in their lot. This was in the ’30s, and I, then less than six years old, remember sitting on the back steps from the back porch, behind our kitchen, witnessing the process of my grandfather and his helper behead the chickens with an axe. At that age, I was fascinated to watch each freshly beheaded fowl then tossed out to flop around on the grass for a few seconds before its nervous system realized that it was out of business. Then each chicken was dipped into an ordinary old galvanized bucket full of very hot water so that its feathers could be plucked easily, and it could be “dressed”–an odd term to my five-year-old mind, because a dressed chicken was thoroughly nude and hardly recognizable as the creature it had once been, its innards removed, cleaned, the edible parts wrapped with the chicken, and the entrails disposed of. But when this task was completed, the next step in the process of being a poultry farmer was to deliver the dressed chickens and probably a dozen eggs apiece to each of my grandfather’s customers. I know that I made those rounds with him at least once, because I still have a vivid recollection of sitting alone in the passenger seat of the black Model T (was that it?) truck and watching as he carried the package up onto the front stoop, rang the doorbell, and delivered it with friendliness and care to the woman who answered the door. This was NOT modern poultry farming: every chicken had its own spot on the roost in the henhouse, as I recall they could go at will out into the fenced henyard (the technical name for this space I no longer remember), and they lived a well cared-for chicken’s life until they were required to fulfill their destiny. It never occurred to any of us in those days that we might better be vegetarians. The careful husbandry of a small, clean and well-tended but unsophisticated poultry farm just outside Richmond, Virginia, with some space and freedom for its animals (nonetheless destined for the dining table), enabled my grandfather to house three generations of his family in one big frame house, provide a good that benefited his neighbors, and send both my father and his sister to college. It was a very happy time.