x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

In pursuit of mass production of food, we escaped our roots

Slaughterhouses don’t usually make people smile, but watching a goat elude its pursuers made me happy, writes Deborah Williams

The other day, as I drove through the renovated intersection at Mina Zayed and inched my way along to the traffic lights that mark the new road connecting Hamdan Street with the bridge to Saadiyat, I saw a goat.

Scampering across the empty lot between a series of low-slung buildings that comprise the public slaughterhouse, the goat was clearly trying to escape his destiny as someone’s dinner. Several men were running alongside the goat, waving their arms in an attempt to herd it back into the building.

I wish I could tell how the escape attempt ended, but the light changed and indignant drivers behind me started honking.

I don’t generally spend much time thinking about goats, or any livestock for that matter, but that goat has stayed in my mind, a fleet-footed reminder of what happens before the meat ends up in the butcher’s window.

When we lived in Manhattan, I did my shopping at the Union Square farmer’s market, where I regularly bought lamb merguez sausages from the woman my son called “the sheep lady”, because she also sold sheepskin rugs. He was too young to understand the connection between the sausage and the sheepskins, until one day he asked me how they made sausage. I asked the “sheep lady” to answer his question, fully expecting the explanation to turn him into a vegetarian, but her careful answer about how lambs lived – and died – didn’t bother him in the least.

I shopped at the farmer’s market because I could find organically-raised meat that didn’t cost a fortune, and because I liked supporting small farmers rather than giant meat-producing conglomerates. Don’t call me a “foodie”: I dislike restaurants where the menus extol the pedigrees of the meat on offer or wax rhapsodic about the tender care lavished on the carrots. It always strikes me as odd that many of the people who want that level of specificity about their food do not actually get their hands dirty growing things.

In a further irony, economies of scale dictate that local products grown humanely on smaller farms cost more than, for instance, the beef raised on massive cattle ranches, butchered in giant automated slaughterhouses and shipped all over the world. By working on this large scale, we’ve separated ourselves from our roots, from that which sustains us. We don’t always know where our food come from. Supermarkets bulge with products created in labs.

Food comes swathed in “hygienic” plastic wrap. Those cello-wrapped packages are convenient, I know, but make it difficult to know what you’re really getting. The grapes look pretty but aren’t ripe. The meat has a bad smell. The tomatoes taste like dust.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a big fan of civilisation. I’d be very unhappy in a world without antibiotics, indoor plumbing, iPhones or Pellegrino Pompelmo. But, sometimes, it seems as if in pursuit of being “civilised”, we’re creating cities that are the equivalent of prepackaged food.

Soon, everything will be sealed in glass office towers or enveloped in labyrinthine malls. The meatpacking district on Manhattan’s far west side, for instance, is now the site of five-star hotels, couture shops and locavore restaurants promising locally sourced beef, even as skyrocketing rents force the meatpacking plants to close up shop and leave town.

As cities sprawl, the messy things like vegetable markets and abattoirs – the places where things get made, the places that are about process rather than product – get pushed ever further out of sight.

That’s why I can’t stop thinking about that fast-moving goat. At one time, I suppose, the slaughterhouse was on the edge of town, but then the town became a city and its boundaries expanded past the slaughterhouse. Now the slaughterhouse marks a point in the city, where old buildings are coming down so that new towers can go up.

Inevitably, it seems, the towers will close in altogether and the slaughterhouse will be relocated to less desirable real estate. But for the moment, Abu Dhabi has not fully sealed itself off. There are still places, here and there, where the city remains intimately connected to its roots. After all, when was the last time you saw a goat scampering through a mall?

While it’s true that slaughterhouses don’t usually make people smile, watching that goat elude its pursuers made me happy. As far as I’m concerned, it escaped the stew pot and has become the free goat of Mina Zayed.

Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi