2.28.2010

Experiment: Meat Packing

It's 5:45 am and I am in the parking lot of the Deseret Meat Packing Facility in Spanish Fork, Utah.

It's dark, starless. I am finishing up my Luna bar and tying my tennis shoes. Jared is rubbing sleep from his eyes. At 6:00, about the same time we have finally gotten warm, we leave the car to enter the plant. It is still dark outside, but inside it is weirdly bright, Pantone 1215. Tall tropical plants, gold nameplates, chairs that don't really get sat in much. The waiting room kind of looks like a mid-90's dentist office.

Or it's what we presume is the waiting room, no one is waiting on anyone.

"Hello?" we ask. Nada. Then comes a woman, Joan, who is the volunteer coordinator. We are some of those volunteers. We have volunteered to pack meat. Actually, I have no clear idea of what we have volunteered to do. I am here out of 70% curiosity, 30% desire to give service. I couldn't let this opportunity pass me by. How often are members of the public allowed entrance, let alone physical work-opportunities, inside a meat packing plant? Not often, I'd venture. And I intend to muckrake (a la Upton Sinclair), or at least use giant garden-variety pitchforks to rake apart slabs of cow. Just wait, it's coming.

Joan starts to explain the rules. They are all reasonable and unsurprising.

No chewing Gum
No jewelry.
No sandals.
If meat falls on the floor, don't pick it up. It's contaminated.

She exhorts us to read the rest of the rules "THOUR-ougly." We pick up the laminated yellow sheet and take turns. 16-point font. Nothing memorable.

Before we're allowed access to cowtown, we have to step into the clean room for orientation with one other guy with a football build, Courtney. It's here we are suited with our white lab coats, embroidered with Deseret Meat on the breast. We get our hairnets. We get our mandatory earplugs, but I pass, and slide them into my white coat pocket like they're cards I'm trying to hide in a poker game. I don't want to miss a thing. Need all of my senses.

On our way out of the clean room, we each take a turn dipping our sneakers into a vat of some liquid chemical disinfectant. (One of the accounts I worked on for awhile was for animal biosecurity, so I know, or think I know what I'm getting into.)

And then, without any real fanfare, we're in.

We were told to dress warm, and this is why: the whole facility is set at a cool 40 degrees. Gotta keep that beef fresh.

The place is a vision to behold. It's aluminum grey, and looks really, really clean. Well, except for those giant sides of cow cadaver gutted on meat hooks.

The concrete floor is polished and stark, except for little puddles of blood here and there, Pollock-style. Even these somehow look sterile.

Our guide walks us to our station, through a few small rooms, and I try to stall as much as I can to scan the activities of each room, but our guide walks briskly. I don't blame him, it's cold.

"Okay, wait here."

We're left alone, in what appears to be the largest room, the heart of the factory. There are 30 or so industrious workers (what time did they get here?) about their duties. A few guys furthest from us are using pitchforks to transfer chunks of meat out of a giant cardboard box into a smaller cardboard box. All meat products appear to be wheeled in and out in giant cardboard boxes lined with plastic tarps. This seems a bit weird.

The most surprising thing about this place is that it doesn't really smell. Sure, it's got this mild warm smell, the way a grocery-store meat counter sort of smells, but really, it's nothing to throw up about. It's also sort of got that acidic disinfectant smell about it, which pairs nicely (or at least, tolerably) with the meat scent.

A loud beeping starts, like a truck backing up, and behind us a garage-door-looking device pulls in towards the ceiling. This must be where they make sausages. You know those moving clothes racks at the dry cleaners, that spin around and stop at your item? This is what the sausage machine looks like, but instead of blouses and trousers, there are rows and rows of empty sausage casings. They look a little bit sad in their deflated state.

The man who's shoveling the filling around looks a little bit sad, too. He has his lab coat on, and over that he's wearing a bloody butcher's apron. He has a hairnet and a mouthnet to keep his beard in check. That's the other thing, about 75 percent of the men working here are mustachioed or bearded. And that there little detail, is totally living up to my expectations of a meat packing plant.

He's shoveling, yes, with a huge steel shovel, sausage meat from a coffin-sized trough into a funnel shaped device that is connected to the dry-cleaners machine. Then, another series of beeps and the garage door falls down to the floor, and my voyeurism comes to an end.

A jockey-sized man approaches us (Moustache). He informs us that we'll be packaging hamburger patties.

"You got fast hands?" he asks me.

"Pretty fast."

He points me toward the right-angle meeting point of two machines. The funnel machine and a machine that looks like it makes giant bubble wrap. Upon closer inspection, this bubble wrap is just the bottom half of the hamburger patty packaging. I'm instructed to put the stack of four patties shot out by machine A. (funnel machine) into these little plastic dimples, which are then fed through B. (sealing machine) and come out store-ready on the other side. Easy enough.

Jared is evaluated for size and strength and put to work at a meat trough overflowing with ground chuck. He shovels meat onto the candy blue conveyor belt, that runs upward and dumps the meat into a giant funnel. "An escalator for meat!" I say excitedly to my co-worker, who is the only other female in this whole joint. She is also way too old to be working here. I ignore tact and ask her age.

"84."

!!! 84 year-old lady in a meat packing plant. Mind blown.

By now it's 6:30 and I'm raring to get started. I'm told that we're waiting to get the machine warmed up. The funnel machine that presses meat into patties and separates each patty with a square of wax paper. If it's not warm, it won't press the meat out into circular patties, it'll just mush them up together.

The Technician (Moustache) makes small talk with me.

"I bet you were surprised when your husband signed you up for this, huh?" he chuckles.

"No way, I signed him up."

"Well, hah! You've got a lot of moxie!"

"That's not the first time I've heard that," I boast.

I turn around and excitedly mouth "'moxie!'" to Jared, who is obediently wearing his earplugs.

Ga-runk. Ga-runk. Garrrrrrrrrr. The machine starts to hum.

"Feel this," says Technician Guy.

He motions for me to put my hand on the side of the machine, which I notice is labeled "MEAT HOPPER." Sure enough, it's pretty warm. Go time.

Jockey-man nods to Jared (Beard), who picks up the shovel and starts loading the meat.

And what do you know, hamburger patties start coming out along the belt. It works! So simply, too! Not like the Rube Goldberg gig I'd imagined/hoped for, but really quite simply. The first 300 or so stacks of meat come out clean and I quickly start filling them into the plastic. They come at me at about a 5-second interval, plenty of time when you've got such fast hands, meh heh heh.

The 84-year old is doing quality control, inspecting the patties for irregularities, making sure they only come out four to a stack. I am dutifully filling the plastic circles with meat, occasionally turning around to make a "look at what we're doing!" face to Jared. He's hunching up his shoulders from the cold, only really enjoying his task because he knows I am mine. But every once in awhile when I turn around, he goes into these overblown muscle-man poses with his shovel. Hot.

This is easy. I am a cool cucumber.

I am mentally humming Factory Girl by Whiskeytown (fantastic song btw) and imagining what my life would be if this were my FT job. What I might do to relax after work, who I might be married to? I am imagining this is all happening in rural Illinois, like probably the near the Quad Cities. Probably like Moline. The routine of this patty packaging task is perfect for this kind of romantic dreaming.

About 20 minutes in I start seeing some problems. Not with my alternate fantasy-life, with the task at hand.

The patties are coming out 3 to a stack. I'm not sure why this is happening, but the 5 second delay still allows me to grab an extra patty from a different 3-stacker and pile it on the first to make the full four. It's a little bit rushed, but I can still make it happen before the whole sheet of plastic casings goes to the next machine to be sealed. Quality Control lady is unfazed, so I don't mention it.

Then they start coming out 5 to a stack, then with extra wax papers between each patty. Some patties are malformed and falling apart. Bwah!

I am trying my best to get all the patties correctly configured before the next one comes, but there is some definite bottlenecking and I'm forced to set some aside on the small metal shelf I've been given. I look to QC lady for guidance.

"The machine's lost its heat," she says without looking up.

She continues inspecting my work. So I continue to work, shoving sort-of formed patties of four into the pockets as fast as I can. At this point, I'm more than a little stressed. The beef doesn't stop coming! And believe me, when it comes to conveyor belts, you do not want to get behind. It's a little bit like that I Love Lucy episode where she and Ethel freak out when they can't package the chocolates fast enough. But unlike their conveyor belt troubles, I can't just pop the product into my mouth and keep going. At least with not getting really really sick.

"Can we stop this for a sec!" I shout at her. She can't hear me. She can't read lips either it seems. I hold up my hand in a "stop" motion, eyebrows raised.

Out of nowhere comes jockey-man. He hits the giant red button on the machine. He literally scratches his head for a minute. Then disappears.

I step away from the machine. Jared puts down his meat shovel. I leave my appointed station and go talk to him.

"Had enough?" he jokes.

No I hadn't. So we wait there for 10 minutes, then 20 minutes, then thirty. Technician guy reappears. He unscrews some nuts, screws some back in. Turns machine on, off. I guess it's still not getting warm enough. That old Meat Hopper. Good fer nothing machine.

It's only an hour and a half into our 3-hour volunteer shift, I've only got slight blood stains on my lab coat, and this situation isn't looking good. We stand around for another 45 minutes, talking to another volunteer. A rich retired guy. An odd fixture in this place. He's got elastic band booties over his wingtips. He seems to be enjoying this morning even more than I am.

"Aren't you glad we don't have to eat this stuff?" he says. "I sure feel bad for those unlucky who get that for dinner."

He motions to the microwave-sized slabs of cow whose destiny is ground beef.
(Turns out, 100% of what's packed in this plant is donated to the financially needy. Hot dogs, hamburgers, steaks.)

"You think you'll be able to eat ground beef again after being here?" he asks me.

"Probably."

"Not me. Ehhh," he shudders, turning away to look at sausage casing room. "Even worse," he points.

It's 8:30am. We've been waiting about an hour for this machine to get fixed and the romance of meat packing is losing its appeal.

"Okay, let's go," I concede. "I just wish I could have been used more."

"I'm hungry," says a very cold husband. "Let's go get an Egg McMuffin."

We find our way back to the clean room, discard our hairnets and throw our soiled coats into the laundry linen-bag.

We are about to leave, when Joan has a light go off in her head.

"Hang on." She runs out of the waiting room.

She comes back with two four-pound tubs of frozen ground beef. She hands it to Jared. She is smiling ferociously.

"Um, thanks," we mumble.

"Isn't this just for the poor people?" I whisper on our way out. "She thinks we're poor, doesn't she?"

And you know what I realize, going out into the bright 9am morning? It doesn't matter what she thinks, because we are experientially rich.

We also kind of smell.

What I have learned:

1. A meat packing plant is not that much of a spectacle. But the people working/volunteering there are.
2. It's good for your soul to have these kind of experiences. A friend gave me this book for my birthday a few years ago, and it talks a lot about having as many new experiences as you can, in fields you know little to nothing about. I know that things like this do wonders for your creative well-roundedness. That being said, if you ever get a chance to go to or work at a factory of any kind, do it.
3. I'm glad I'm not a poor person, for many reasons. One is that I don't like red meat very much.
4. There appear to be no on-the-floor volunteer opportunities at any US cheese factories. If you find out otherwise, please notify me promptly.

7 comments :

Yancy said...

I kind of really love this post/experiment. The tone. The design-driven descriptions. The whole idea of becoming experientially rich through volunteering.

Kenny said...

Phenomenal descriptions. Loved the coffin simile. I'm sharing this.

Kerianne said...

I'm so obsessed with this post. I've come back to it thrice this morning. You've been on my mind. I'm totally serious, and hopefully not too creepy, when I admit that I woke up this morning and thought of you. I was reimagining the serene look you two gave each other at your wedding reception when you were dancing. Then as I drove to work I was thinking about you two being wanting the other on their team. I loved that. I've thought about it alot. I thought how brilliant the two of you are as I pulled into work and switched on the computer to read more proof of my morning musings.

Adrienne said...

wow friends. you are really kind to me. i'm lucky to know you.

keri, that is not creepy. that is very honest and very flattering. let's get together soon.

casey elizabeth said...

yeah, this is excellent!! i can really see it in my imagination. how i love my little scientist...

G said...

A well constructed tale by an impoverish yet undeniably talented meat beggar.
-New York Times

An adventure the likes of which has not been seen since Bayard Taylor's "The Beef Hobo."
-Rope Belt

"Exquisite thoughts cooked to the perfect medium rare!"
-Veal Vagabond Weekly

* I hope your experiences become so numerous and engaging that they will find themselves bound on parchment someday for all to enjoy.

Mic and Jazzy said...

Why does it not surprise me that you volunteered at a meat packing plant.