Real Struggles: The Vegetarian Butcher

Graphic by Sarah Farb

Last year in an article called The Case for Minimum Wage, I praised Cineplex for all the life lessons I learned after 1.5 years under their employment. So imagine my surprise last May when, despite my glowing review, Cineplex didn’t want me back. In fact, not a single one of the fresh resumes I distributed in search of a summer job even resulted in an interview. I thought the whole point of subjecting myself to McGill was to make it easier to get a job, but apparently I was a lot more hireable with only a high school education and a smattering of babysitting experience under my belt.

I had nearly resigned myself to an income-less four months of re-watching The Office until one fateful morning when, for better or for worse, I got a call from my local butcher offering me a job. If it was any other of the many positions I applied for, I would have quickly and gleefully accepted. However, as a diligent vegetarian for over six years, I was faced with a tricky dilemma: Should I go deliberately jobless and be called lazy by my friends and family in the name of ethics? Or sell out, abandoning my principles for the prospect of a perfectly good pay cheque? Either way, I was doomed to perpetrate a deadly millennial sin, so I decided to throw my morals to the wind in exchange for 14$/hr and a redundant 40% discount on steaks.

Apparently I was a lot more hireable with only a high school education and a smattering of babysitting experience under my belt.

I tried to approach my new job with a positive attitude, but it did not take long before I could no longer suppress my vegetarian disgust. My butcher served cooked meat in addition to the raw meat, the most popular dish being the rotisserie chicken. Before this summer, even I could admit they looked pretty tasty, their crispy Sriracha skin glistening as they spun slowly through the licking flames. But now, after the things I know–the things I’ve done–I can barely look in their direction.

I have defiled brined chicken corpses, impaling them with a spit and slathering their cold wet bodies with Sriracha the colour of blood. As if the chicken hadn’t been degraded enough, someone would then ask me for a half chicken. Unable to refuse, I’d tenderly place its lifeless body upon the cutting board and raise my knife. “I’m so sorry,” I’d whisper under my breath as I untied its poor little chicken legs and chopped him down the middle with crack as loud as my breaking heart. The only thing that would have been worse than suffering through this whole ordeal would be eating it afterwards, but luckily that horror was saved for the customer.

It is one thing to hate your job, but it’s another to hate your job and be really bad at it.

Like any disgruntled employee, I often dreamt of quitting. I frequently felt the powerful urge to stand outside and denounce the meat industry and all its environmental faults for all the butchers to hear. I came very close one day when, upon opening up the meat fridge, I shrieked at the sight of three hanging pig heads staring straight at me.

“How could you do this to us Ella? Think of our wives and children!”, wailed  their glassy, lifeless eyes. I fled their betrayed gazes and waited to see whether I would vomit or resign first, but thankfully I did neither. An empty bank account would not erase the things I had seen, and I could never go back to the way things were after being an accomplice to the death of so many cute animals. I stuck it out until the end of the summer and traded my dramatic exit for a civil two weeks’ notice. I walked out of there like an unaffected employee, instead of as the traumatized vegetarian that I was, now faced with the task of escaping a dark past.

It is one thing to hate your job, but it’s another to hate your job and be really bad at it. I was lucky it’s not customary to include your dietary restrictions on your CV, and there is no way my manager would have hired me if she was aware of how hopeless I would be at my work. I am all too aware of the irony of a vegetarian working at a butcher (why do you think I’m writing this article?) but it is depressing to continuously be reminded how ill-suited you are for your own job.

I don’t know what about my boney arms and pasty complexion made the customers think that I consumed enough protein to give them plausible meat recommendations, but apparently when you work at a butcher shop people expect you to know these sorts of things. I was often asked what cut of meat was the best, which was difficult to answer given that they all look disgusting. With a bit of experimentation, I eventually discovered that when I didn’t know what I was talking about, “juicy” was a very convincing adjective to enhance my uneducated opinion. I don’t understand what it truly means or why it’s such a desirable quality in a steak, but whenever I was asked why filet mignon is more expensive that rib-eye, inserting the word juicy somewhere in my response almost guaranteed an understanding nod from the customer. Little tricks like this helped me keep up the appearance of a carnivore, although deep down, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was a fraud.

For four months, I spent my days in an overly air-conditioned room full of body parts. It seems like a strange, ambiguously metaphoric nightmare. I mean, I likely spent more of my precious, fleeting summer days with dead pigs than with my friends! Even though the bleach-stained aprons were surprisingly flattering, and all the practice wrapping with butcher paper translated very well to wrapping christmas presents come December, I don’t think I can stomach reapplying next summer.

It seems like a strange, ambiguously metaphoric nightmare.

Interpret my story as you will. Is it a comment on the unreasonable depiction of lazy millennials given the current job market? A cautionary tale about following your dreams in order to avoid an ethical dilemma like mine? An epic about a girl overcoming the ick-factor of dead animals to become an active participant in the economy? Whichever it is, I hope it speaks to you in some way, because now that my pay cheques have been eaten up by samosas, this article (and some unsolicited knowledge about the inside of chickens) is what I have to show for my summer of moral ambiguity and gore.

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