In Which I Read About Meat

On Wednesday night, I shared the stage with a hunk of dead cow. This was somewhat unusual for me.

The event, Livestock, was billed as a “literary and literal conversation of killing our dinner,” and was hosted by the Art Institute of Portland’s International Culinary School. The highlights of the evening included a demonstration of cow butchery, readings about experiences with meat from three local authors, beef tasting, and and Q&A session with a butcher and various farmers. I was one of the authors, though I felt the term slightly outsized for me.

I saw the submission call and sent in a short essay that I wrote a while ago about seeing eels getting slaughtered in Japan. Somewhat to my surprise, I was accepted, and was to read my essay aloud, along with two other authors, while the butcher took apart a side of cow before a crowd of wine-sipping onlookers.

When I got to the event (which is in it’s first year) I was sort of nervous. I hadn’t read any of my own work aloud since college, and was trying to psych myself up for it. Seeing who the other two speakers, were, though, kind filled me with equal parts excitement and dread. One was the poetry editor of the Portland Oregonian (who also teaches at PSU) and the other was Emily Chenoweth, an actual published novelist who has written one book under her own name and a number under pseudonyms. Then there was me.

On one hand, I was completely thrilled to be on stage with them. The organizer had decided that my essay was just as nifty as the stuff from the actual, published, credential-bearing people. On the other hand, I felt like I was severely outclassed by the “real” authors, and my heart began beating in earnest, looking for an escape route from my chest. That I was reading last did not help matters, (though I was sort of also thrilled about that).

The crowd filed in, the butcher got the cow flank ready for cutting up, and various plates of hors d’oeuvres and bottles of wine were available for consumption. I was way too nervous to eat or drink anything. The first author, the Oregonian editor, took the stage, and I started listening to what I had to share the stage with.

She was great. She wrote a wonderful, touching short essay about going hunting with her father. This was NPR quality stuff- good stuff that actually jerked a few tears out of the crowd. I was nervous. The novelist was next, and absolutely killed. She was witty, funny, and had the entire audience in stitches while reading about misadventures with bacon. The butcher even had to put down his various knives and take a moment to regain composure. This woman was funny.

I thought to myself “Well, fuck. I’m not touching or funny. I’m just sort of purple-prosey, metaphor-laden and weird.” I think that was the point, though. All of our pieces were very different, and I suspect that the organizer wanted a diversity of styles at the event. When the novelist finished, I stepped up, my heart pounding and…

And calmed down. As soon as I was up there, as soon as I started reading, I was at ease. People, much to my delight, were into it. I read all about witnessing public eel slaughter, about attitudes towards meat in Japan, and about how I ate some kind of odd things while I was there. My mention of eating an entire sparrow got an audible “eww!” from the audience. I was reading my own work, and the crowd was reacting positively to it. I can see how open mic stuff gets addictive.

After I was done, I felt relieved, and the editor said that she really liked what I’d written, and gave me some advice about selling it. I thanked her, and downed a glass of wine. The rest of the evening was an informative Q&A with the butcher and a few farmers about what goes into raising and preparing beef, and different sorts of meat were presented for a tasting.

I stuck around to answer a few questions from people (“Did you really eat a sparrow?” was the most common one, “What’s raw horse meat like?” was the other) and chatted a bit with a chef who’d spent a fair amount of time in Southeast Asia eating weird stuff. I left the event and abuzz.

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