The Spirit that Guides Us
The Slaughter house
Though I did not like the Bell View trips I would never think of making my feelings shown whenever Papa came to wake me. These trips meant I had to be awoken sometimes by 3: 30a.m, in preparation for our long walk to greet the boat man along the banks of the Rio Grande.
It was Papa’s job as a butcher that took us on these early morning excursions with the purpose of buying live animals. Papa was licensed to purchase and butcher goats, pigs and cows. On the purchase of cows, Papa had a weight restriction to his license. The weight restriction on cattle meant we could purchase any size cow. However, for the purpose of our butchering, only a specific weight class of the cow was allowed. This translated into us having been allowed to butcher nothing much heavier than a calf.
We raised our own goats and pigs however our most productive years would still fall well short of our butchering needs for the market. For every ten pigs we sold at the market we may have sold one goat.
The scarcity of goats was not a matter of availability it was mostly because Papa’s largest clientele were buyers of pork. Mutton was an occasional treat to his customers. Being very expensive, mutton, when available was usually reserved for special events such as weddings and holidays or the occasional special Sunday meal. One reason for the high cost of mutton was due to the difficulty butchers had in getting a profitable return on the purchasing of goats. Unlike cows and pigs, the goat’s live weight was not easily estimated. This difficulty of weight estimating exposed us as well as all other butchers to the unpredictability of profits after sale of the meat.
In all my trips with Papa I can remember only one purchase of a cow’s calf. Of the many purchases we made that was the one time I remembered being scared of an animal.
Our early morning start on the journey to make our purchases was done with purposeful intent. We started early because making the return trip home with the live animal was a slow and sometimes difficult task. Avoiding travel under the heat of a mid day’s sun was absolutely crucial. Our travels were timed in such a way as to allow us the coolest of weather for the purchased animal’s long journey, usually back to our farm. On rare occasions we would travel by bus to make a late evening purchase. If successful the animal would be left in the care of its owner and we would return on the following Sunday morning to complete the transaction.
Late evening transport of animals would be reserved exclusively for trips that were less than an hour’s travel. On rare occasions we would travel directly to the slaughter house with the animal. On these occasions the animal would be housed there for a day or at most two prior to slaughter. On occasion when we had made multiple purchases, we would hire a small truck to transport the animals. This was an expensive option and was usually avoided. We would travel the entire territory of Portland to make purchases.
Jamaica is divided into Parishes of which Portland is one. Parishes are like States and or Provinces to you. Many a time you hear your friends speak of how their parents would jokingly state that they had to walk five miles to school in horrid conditions. This was not a joke to me. I was one of many young children who would first walk miles to do very difficult chores in order that we would have the privilege of walking those five miles to school. I however have never had to walk more than three miles to any of my schools.
Many children walked the journey starting from various locations between Fellow Ship and Port Antonio each school day, a distance of five miles. To this very day if you visited that area you would still see children walking those same distances. Papa could not read nor write. I was his translator and scribe on our trips to buy livestock. Almost all our transactions were done in cash. These transactions were called buying on foot. An on foot transaction meant once we walked off the seller’s property with the animal all responsibilities became ours. Papa was very good at transporting live animals.
Over the years many butchers had lost everything on these transactions. Why: Because they attempted to rush the animal too quickly in the heat resulting in the animal’s death.
Any serious errors in judgment on our part when guessing the weight of the live animal would result in our losing money. We would know exactly the extent of our losses once Papa was finished selling the meat in the market. An early indication of our pending losses would first be noticed just as soon as the animal was butchered and cleaned. Having properly cleaned the meat it would be inspected by a government meat inspector. The inspector having stamped the meat with a passing grade it would remain hanging for at least one hour allowing complete draining of any small amounts of blood residue.
The meat being weighed after having hung for at least an hour would reflect a more accurate butchered weight. It is at that time we would know with some degree of certainty our financial situation. On very rare occasion the meat inspector would declare the meat unfit for consumption. This single act of the inspector would spell disaster for that butcher. While I have seen it happen to a few butchers it has never been Papa’s and mine fate.
At the end of a losing transaction Papa would say to me “we will have to buy a little extra oil for the dumplings and bananas cause there will be no meat for a while”. I would simply respond, “Johnny cakes will be just fine.” He would rub my shoulder just before putting his cap on my head, smiling all the time and life in my world would be perfect again.
For many years after arriving in Canada my worst dreams would end peacefully only after finding my Papa’s cap in my dream, placing it on my head at which time I would immediately awake.
Once in awhile when we really needed to make a deal and not wanting to waste our long journey to the seller’s home, we would agree to purchase by weight. At these times I would become a most valuable assistant to Papa. Receipts would have to be signed and a stamp placed on the receipt in order to make everything legal. The customer would agree that we would butcher the animal and have it weighed. The head, feet, belly all internal organs such as heart, liver and kidney would be ours as payment for the labour of butchering and preparing the animal for the market. These negotiations would be my responsibility.
The animal would be weighed at the conclusion of the butchering process, similar to live purchases. This weighing would of course exclude the parts previously mentioned. The customer would be told when we were butchering that they could come and confirm the weight. Most times I would be taken into the trust of our customers to be their agent at the slaughter house.
Butchering meat for the market would begin on Tuesday evening in preparation for Wednesday morning’s market. This process would continue each day for the next day’s market until Friday afternoon in preparation for Saturday’s market. The smaller customer demand for meat from Wednesday morning to Friday morning would require unspoken cooperation between the butchers. This arrangement would prevent any one butcher from having excess unsold meat.
These unspoken arrangements would mostly occur between the older more experienced butchers. Because of the unpredictability of supply, butchers could sometimes end up with multiple animals for butchering during the same week as a result of successful buying trips. They would, with limited amount of discussions, agree to absorb the cost of feeding and housing one or more animal, avoiding too much supply for a small midweek market. They would wait instead on the higher demand of the Saturday market to lower their inventory of live animals. In the same manner that we had a license to butcher lower weighing cows so too did some beef butchers have a license to supply smaller weighing pigs.
These arrangements were extremely delicate issues. When respected, it allowed the more senior butchers and holders of these special dual licenses to make an income in times when either beef or pork was scarce. This process also served as a way of introducing the younger butchers into a complex market place, with limited financial risk to themselves and/or their young families. One such lesson would be evident during the busy Saturday morning market rush. Papa had some customers that required a small amount of beef on Saturdays. This being the busiest and best market for the individual butchers, they would not dare butcher outside of their main license.
Early Saturday morning, before the arrival of the first customers, Papa could be seen busily negotiating with one or more beef butchers for his small supply of beef for those mornings’ customers, so to would the beef butchers. Those having customers requiring pork would be negotiating with their particular pork supplier for meat. By doing things in this manner, each butcher would better serve their customers in the extremely busy and overly crowded Saturday morning rush. During the midweek market with its less customer base and a much more relaxed environment, customers would be required to deal with the individual butchers of whatever meat they required.
Disrespecting the butcher’s code at anytime could cost you dearly. Every year and with the issuing new or the transferring of butchers licenses there is always one who fails to show the required respect. A particular case that comes to mind was that of Ramney. He was one of three new butchers that would be in the market for the start of the New Year. One was a transfer of ownership of an old retied beef butcher.
Ramney was one of two new pork butchers. Within his first month in the market Ramney had managed to anger just about every pork butcher at least once. As the senior pork butcher in the market it was Papa’s responsibility to deal with this problem. That time arrived one Friday evening at the slaughter house.
Ramney had recently purchased a very large hog against the advice of his senior butchers. The owner of the hog had been turned down by at least two other senior butchers because the price he demanded was most unreasonable. Not for Ramney however. Ramney would soon discover why the previous two butchers had refused to make the purchase.
After butchering the hog, Ramney with the assistance of the helpers cleaned and then opened the animal. What Ramney found and the two more experienced butchers, already knew was what awaited him inside the animal. Ramney discovered awaiting him inside the butchered animal was several layers of fat that, in Papa’s words, “Could have floated the Titanic!” Had this happened to any other new butcher, the brotherhood of pork butchers would either hold back on multiple kills for that day or at least make an offer to each take a small portion of his kill for sale at their stall.
That Saturday morning at the market, Ramney stood alone at his stall. He watched as each customer walked up to his stall and walked on by, choosing instead to buy the more than plentiful supply of much leaner pork. Papa had two kills on supply that Saturday morning so too did a couple of other butchers. Sometime just before 11:00 am that morning someone delivered a bag of salt to Ramney’s stall. Nothing was said by the delivery man however Ramney knew he would be selling salted pork for the next several weeks. It would be sold at less than half the price he originally paid for the meat.
Salted pork was not sold in the butchers market; however it could be bought from any of the many vendors outside the market that supplied such things. The slaughter house was a most interesting place. It was a long, single story, rectangular building with both side walls missing. It had many stalls that ran the width of the building separated by concrete barriers that stood about three feet in height. The width of the building was approximately 20 feet while the length was approximately 50 feet. Several of the stalls had a very thick metal ring in the floor. These particular stalls were very narrow, serving as the butchering areas for cattle.
The particular cow to be butchered lead by a rope tied around its neck would be directed into the narrow stall. The rope around the cow’s neck would be threaded through the metal ring on the ground and pulled very tightly. This process would force the cow’s head downwards within a few inches above the floor. Once secured in this manner a very skillful butcher would approach the cow with a long narrow specially sharpened knife.
He would either approach the cow from the front or at times from the side. When approached from the side it would be while standing in the stall next to the animal. A butcher would never approach the animal from the side from within the same stall. To do so would almost certainly result in serious, possibly fetal injury to the butcher. By standing in the next stall it avoided all possibility of the animal falling on or causing injury to the butcher.
With a single downward stroke the butcher would stick the knife into the nape of the cow’s neck causing the cow to fall instantaneously. Within seconds the cow would be completely immobile. With limited blood flow from the neck wound the butcher would approach the cow from the area of its head and slit the cow’s throat.
The cutting of the throat would drain the blood, now flowing rapidly from the incision into the specially built drainage channel. Once the heavy blood flow had ceased, the cow would be hoisted by its hind legs, to ropes which had been tied and suspended from the ceiling. The ropes were strung through large pulleys specially mounted on the ceiling for this purpose.
The many workers that made their living at the slaughter house would proceed with the cleaning. For their helpers, cleaning a large animal such as a cow required very precise timing and strong relationships between the workers. They were handling very sharp butchering knives and working very fast.
They would start with one butcher, first making the main incision from the upper most groins of the cow and continuing down to intersect with the cross cut at the throat. Just a short distance from the slaughter house was a small but fast moving stream.
The blood from the slaughter house ran into the stream and the stream eventually made its way to the sea, traveling a distance of about two miles beyond the slaughter house. Many of the workers at the slaughter house lived just a short distance across the narrow stream.
For Papa and other butchers of smaller animals, things were a bit different. The stall for hogs and goats were wider and did not have a floor ring. They had instead side bars that served the same purpose. The side bars were use to tie the rope that limited the animals movements. The act of butchering small stock was a lot more labour intensive.
The animal would be untied and held on its back perfectly still by several workers. The pig’s mouth would either be tied or held shut secured by one of the workers. The securing of the mouth would usually be the responsibility of the butcher. Papa, using a much shorter knife than the one used by the cattle butchers, yet equally narrow and specially sharpened, made a single insertion into the throat.
Unlike in the case of the cow, death was not as quick with hogs after the insertion. If done correctly no additional cross cut would be required on the animal’s throat. New butchers would often request the assistance of the more experienced to make this insertion. The workers would not release the animal until all motion had ceased. Pigs were not as co-operative with death as the cows were. If released to early they would simply get up and attempt to walk away.
The shorter knife used by Papa was absolutely critical for butchers of small stock. If the butcher used the wrong length in butchering knives he could damage the animal’s internal organ. Damaging the wrong organ during the butchering process could render the meat unfit by the time you got to the opening of the animal. There remained one most critical act in the cleaning process and that was the removal of the liver upon opening of the animal’s chest cavity. Attached to the liver was a bitter gal or what you know to be the appendix. If you should accidentally cut or damage the bitter gal causing its poisonous fluid contents to fall upon the meat, the meat inspector could order the meat destroyed.
After the butcher is satisfied the animal has bleed out sufficiently the animal would be made ready for scraping. This process would require the pouring of boiling water on its body and scraping away the hair. The pouring of boiling water on the skin was a well learned skill. If the water was poured too long on any one area or; if you took too long to scrape the area which was treated with the boiled water, the skin would begin to cook and removal of the hair would become your nightmare.
After successfully removing the hair, the animal would be hoisted by its hind legs and just as in the case of the cow the workers would commence with the opening followed by the internal cleaning. An incision very much in the same manner of the cow was made to open the animal.
Upon removal of the organs, the tripe would be sold separately to one of the female vendors that worked at the slaughters house. These vendors would clean, cook and transform the tripe into sausages or many other varieties of meat products for specialize taste. The head along with the heart, liver, kidneys and long liver, would all be made ready for sale with the meat. However all internal organs, including the trip would be placed on a special table. They would remain there until such time that the government inspector places his stamp of approval on the meat.
The butchering of goats and lamb differ from both cattle and pigs. The butcher would make a single cross cut to the throat of the goat or lamb for quick release of the blood. The butchered animal would be immediately hung up by its hind legs and allowed to bleed out. Upon completion of the bleeding a single incision would be made starting at the upper most section of the groin and continuing down, stopping only after intersecting with the cross cut at the throat.
A skillful combination of cutting into the skin where it touches the meat without cutting the meat whilst pushing the meat away from the skin would result in the slow but systematic separation of the skin from the meat. Had you seen the cleaning of the cow, this process of separation of skin from meat would be identical. The skin would most often be sold to the vendors of tripe.
The vendors would either hang the skin to dry, later to be sold to tanneries or scrape it, cleaned it, dry it and sell it to the local shoe and bag makers. A very specialized group of vendors would clean the skin soften it over a period of days in special spices then finally making a meat delicacy to be sold in the market. At the end of the butchering day, Friday evenings only, there would be a large cooking pot with food complimented with a side order of freshly butchered roasted meat. All cooking and food preparation was done by the workers. The butchers would take turns each week providing the meat to be roasted. I always look forward to that time of the day with great anticipation.
There were three other friends my age that regularly assisted our dads on Fridays. We were never disappointed after the long wait for this special dish. When beef was on the menu issues of my religious restrictions as a Sabbath keeper whose doctrine disallowed the eating of pork were never to be of concern. However when the butchers of pork were the donors of meat, Papa would not say a single word about my eating roasted pork. He would however almost always tell me, “What you eat today will not be my headache tomorrow!” I knew while closing an eye to the workers sharing roasted pork with me, he would never want to raise the ire of my Auntie.
The workers whilst teasing me about my eating of pork yet not wanting to raise the ire of my Papa would not be the ones to allow word of my religious indiscretion to fall upon the ear of my Auntie. At the end of the market day, our purchases that were done by weight would result in the greater amount of the proceeds from the sale going to the owner while the remainder would be ours. This was rarely a profitable deal when you factored in our labour but Papa would say to me “this will allow us to eat for another day”.