He asked me if I was squeamish.
“No,” I paused a second longer than I should have. “No, I’m not,” I finished.
“Alright, be here at eight,” he said. “I’ll have the saw all ready to go.”
When I pulled myself out of bed at 7 a.m. the next morning, my eyes were still soldered shut with the dreams of my four-hour slumber. I reached my arms above me, let out a yawn and accepted that I really had to go. Pigs were waiting.
I wondered why someone would choose to be a butcher. And I wondered even more why I chose to spend my morning learning about what they did. Being a butcher was not on my career list in the slightest. And yet my intrigue as a self-proclaimed foodie propelled my curiosity.
When I reached the meat counter, heads of three pigs greeted me like my Barbies do when I venture into my childhood toy box — decapitated.
Attached to the ceiling above us, dried prosciutto chunks, hams and various other meats hung with tags tied by twine, reading “Not for sale.” The hanging meats looked far less appetizing in appearance than the marbled pinks, reds and whites that collaged the case in front; they were dried out, browning and had crumbles from their breakdown dusting their exterior — the epitome of dry-aged.
I watched the team of two butchers methodically chisel fat from their pieces of art. I thought about how easy they made it look and also how much I used to wish that that was what I could do to myself at age 15.
After a thorough run down of the meat and cuts, I, naturally curious, began to wonder what they do with the unusual parts of the animals, like the ears and eyes. The butchers had stressed they try to make as little waste as possible. It was a question I later regretted.
The butcher explained that she boils the pig heads whole causing the parts to decompose and form a congealed substance. Then, she molds it into a bundt cake shape and sells this as a delicacy called “head cheese.” I asked to see it.
She offered me a slice of her creation after sensing my curiosity. I hesitated, certain I could see pieces of an eye and Crisco-like fat, and then placed the moist brown slice on my tongue. In an attempt to not taste it, I pushed it to the roof of my mouth, closed my eyes and swallowed the whole thing at once. It tasted so strongly of salt that it made my mouth dry. However, I wasn’t surprised that I had eaten the slice because of what it was made out of — it’s rude to turn down something someone else makes — I was surprised simply by the fact that I ate it. Three years ago I didn’t eat food. This trip to a butcher was not about the job. It was a test.
In my first year of high school, I would do anything to eradicate calories from every meal. I became an expert mathematician, constantly adding up calories and determining how much I needed to cut to insure I consumed 3,500 less than my basal metabolic rate would burn that week. That amount of calories not eaten equaled one pound lost. There was a time when I knew how many calories were in an average sized single baby carrot (it’s 1.4 in case you’re wondering). I made sure there were only had five in my lunch and would throw away any extra carrots my mom had added as soon as I got to school. I would slowly eat the carrots, moving the debris around in my mouth and convincing my stomach it was full after I finished the last bite.
My mom and I fought because she just wanted it to stop. She wanted me to turn it off and start eating normally again. But anorexia doesn’t work like that. It isn’t activated or deactivated — at least not quickly. No, anorexia controls the brain like a cruel puppeteer. I couldn’t stop because it told my brain I didn’t want to stop. My mom and I fought because she thought it was easy, but I knew it was hard and I wasn’t sure I had the energy to fight it.
Food is an interesting bear, burdensome to those who have it and to those who don’t. I hated food. I hated it because I lost control of it. I hated it because it caused so many problems. I hated food because I still didn’t feel beautiful even after I stopped eating it.
As the butcher told me his qualifications for the meat he purchases and sells, he said he could tell when an animal was poorly fed because their muscles weren’t well developed.
“It’s like a malnutritioned person,” he said. “The tenderloin along the back is too small.”
I knew that three years ago my muscles wouldn’t have fit his standards.
A year after my formal diagnosis, which my parents first met with denial and then concern, I sat in my pediatrician’s office shivering because I had no body fat to keep me insulated. My pediatrician walked in as I nervously bounced my knees up and down. She gently put her moisturized hands on them to keep them still, knocking the bones together.
I knew I would be weighed at this appointment so I wore the heaviest clothes I could find; this included wearing long underwear beneath my jeans. The scale tipped at 89 pounds. I continued this method of wearing heavy clothes for quite a while, hiding behind my layers and the heavier numbers to avoid my mom’s eyes laden with bags of exhaustion and sadness. My mother’s visible pain didn’t affect me. Ultimately, I didn’t believe any of the comments she would say about my weight or my health — she wasn’t a doctor, how did she know?
“Paigey,” my doctor started, trying to slice the silent rope of tension between my mom and I. “You have to stop this.”
She continued to explain that because of my weight I was at a point where I needed to be careful of my heart. It was being overworked and fast movements could have serious consequences. She also told me if I persisted to deny myself food, I would not be able to have my own kids. A crack traveled down my vertebrae and in reverse motion the hairs on my arms and back of my neck stood up. I cared less about the potential of my heart stopping when I walked up stairs — I wanted to be a mom someday.
I knew at this point, my mother would not rest until treatment worked and the threat of death was retired. She wouldn’t let the disease win. I should thank her more often.
Not eating became easy — I had become immune to hunger. Then when I started treatment and eating again, after months of ignoring the growls, forcing an entire meal into my stomach was harder. I could visualize the organ, shriveled and prunish from lack of use, having to stretch out for the entire serving of roast beef I had consumed. It hurt. I would make dimples in the skin on my belly after I ate, measuring how far I could push in with my fingers and feeling intangible pain as I could push less and less — I was full.
Today, I clamor in my kitchen working to make food pretty, making sure spinach leaves are blanched just enough so that they’re soft but still as vibrant as the greens still attached to the earth. There’s seldom a day I don’t bookmark a recipe and explore the never-ending food blogosphere. The difference between now and then is that, although the voice is still here, it’s much more quiet now and I know how to not listen.
That day at the butcher I thought about how much I actually enjoy steak and wondered why I ever stopped eating it. Had I continued believing less food is more, I could have been dead like the cows whose parts were all over the butcher’s space — certainly less gruesome, but just as dead.
I expected to go to the butcher and have some sort of revelation. I expected to figure out how my relationship with food changed. I expected to find confirmation that the voice was really gone. I expected to feel better. But when I stepped outside of the shop and realized the air carried the thick smell of a recent rainfall and no longer the smell of cold cut meat, that was the only change I felt.
I didn’t feel uncomfortable and I didn’t feel guilt for what I did in my past. I didn’t really feel anything — it was all just meat to me. But perhaps that was affirmation I was looking for.