All three Marescas knew as much about an animal as anyone could. They could judge how old an animal was when it was slaughtered by touching the cartilage, how often and what it was fed by examining the fat deposits and marbling in the meat. Pointing out a thick streak of fat in a side of beef, Joe said, "Here you can see the lightning bolt where the rancher started to feed him fast and furious at the end to fatten him up, but what you really want is steady feeding so the fat is marbled throughout."
Outside the shop were two huge forsythia bushes, bursting optimistic and sunny yellow branches. Inside, the refrigerated enamel cases were packed with bloody meat, ground meat, tied meat, and birds, whole and in parts. On the long white tile wall behind the cases, where the Marescas did their actual bloody work, was a giant mural in friendly colors, depicting a roly-poly, mustachioed butcher in a clean white apron, frolicking in a round, green curlicue fenced-in pasture, with cottony white sheep with little soft pink ears and porky, bristleless pink piggies, smiling while sniffing the yellow buttercups. The sky overhead was robin's egg blue, the few clouds were pure white, and the birds and the butterflies went about their song-filled business even though the butcher was wielding a giant cleaver in one hand, headed for one of them. To the right of the mural, hanging from pegs were all manner of hacksaws, cleavers, and giant knives.
Besides meat, the Maresca's sold canned goods, and in the spring and summer, a few of the vegetables that Mr. Maresca grew in his garden behind the shop. They were always arranged casually, in a plain carton or basket, on the floor by the refrigerated case, with a handwritten sign on the back of a piece of brown paper bag advertising the price: peas 20¢/lb.
I spied those fresh peas in a bushel basket at the end of the counter. While my dad and the guys were talking and leisurely loading the four whole dressed lambs onto newspaper in the back of the truck, I snagged a handful of them and hid behind a display case.
I love how you can snap a pea's stem and pull the string and how it leaves a perfect seam that opens easily under your thumbnail. And then you find those sweet, starchy peas in their own canoe of crisp, watery, and almost sugary pod.
When Mr. Maresca found me eating the pilfered peas, instead of scolding me, he grabbed the hem of my dress and pulled it out to make a kind of pouch into which he placed a big handful of them for me to eat, not in hiding but openly, in the sawdust-floored shop. Every time his son Joe opened the heavy wooden cooler door, I caught a good eyeful of carcasses hanging upside down with their tongues flopping out the sides of their bloody mouths and their eyes filmed-over, milky, and bulging, along with disembodied parts - legs, heads, haunches, sides, ribs, looking like something in a Jack London story. I wanted to follow him in there. I wanted to be in with the meat and the knives and to wear the long bloody coat.
That night we slept by the fire in an otherwise pitch-black meadow, five kids vaguely chaperoned by my brother Jeffrey who was well on his way to becoming a teenage anthropologist, hunter-gatherer, and naturalist. He collected the deer and raccoons that had been hit and killed out on the dark country roads and dragged them back to hang from the trees bordering the meadow until they bled out. Then he cleaned the hides, burned off the hair, saved the teeth, and scraped the sinew from the bones and dried it to make thread with which he'd sew his pants, made of deerskin and raccoon fur. I was enthralled by him and his fastidious, artful, freakish habit. And in love with his boardingschool good looks dressed down by the chin length of his hair and new habit of wearing dashikis. I hadn't totally understood, with the eleven years between our ages, that he may have also gotten into the habit of "turning on, tuning in, and dropping out," and that there was likely a psychotropic reason he could go so long without blinking. My parents hadn't totally understood this either, probably, because on that night, the night before the big party, Jeffrey was left in charge of the fire. He worked the stumps and branches into a fierce, burning domed pyre.
Excerpted from Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton. Copyright © 2011 by Gabrielle Hamilton. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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