the story of hamburger.

April 16, 2015

So, a few posts ago, I wrote about how my parents ended up making a life in Missouri. I essentially said that they moved to Missouri from California shortly after they got married, and that’s all there was to it. But, of course, there is more to the story. As there always is.

What I didn’t mention is that after five or six years in the Ozarks, my parents moved for two years to Dumas, Texas, where they worked in the meatpacking plant in the nearby town of Cactus. I grew up hearing stories about Dumas and the meatpacking plant. My dad still has the mesh glove that he used to have to wear while on the job. As kids, it was an object of curiosity for my brother and me; it was heavy, strange, smelled awful (even now, over 30 years after my parents left their work at the meatpacking plant, that smell has never gone away), and looked like something straight out of a horror movie.

When my mom and I were road tripping on our way back home from California, we planned to stop for the night in Amarillo, Texas. Dumas is only about 45 miles north of Amarillo. I was so curious to see this town that I had heard so much about, and my mom thought it would be interesting to see how things had changed. My dad encouraged us to make a quick trip up there. So on our last morning of our two-week road trip, we headed north out of Amarillo to Dumas and Cactus, and I finally got to experience a bit of this part of my parents’ history.

Around the time my parents decided to move to Dumas in the 1970s, my dad’s uncle was an executive with Swift, a large American meatpacking company (which is now owned by JBS, the world’s largest meatpacking company, based in Brazil), and he had been transferred to Dumas. On a visit to the relatives in Missouri, Uncle Ken told my parents that the meatpacking plant in Dumas was hiring, and that they could make good money working there. (This was true. According to PBS, wages in American meatpacking plants in the 1970s were, on average, almost as high as wages in the manufacturing sector, when adjusted for inflation.)

My parents weighed their options. In Missouri, jobs were scarce, especially jobs that would allow them to make enough to build a house on their newly acquired land. It seemed like an offer they couldn’t pass up.

So the move to Dumas was strategic. They both accepted jobs in the meatpacking plant. These were not administrative jobs like my great-uncle’s–they worked on the slaughtering floor. And my parents got to see firsthand exactly how most beef makes its way to American tables. As a kid, my parents fed us beef, but when it came to hamburgers, they would always buy the ground beef that comes in Styrofoam trays and is covered with cellophane, which is ground fresh in the meat department of the grocery store; they would never buy the ground beef that comes packed in a plastic roll, even though it’s always less expensive. “I know what goes in that,” my mom always says, shaking her head. As a result, I’ve never bought it, either.

As we drove through Dumas, my mom started telling me more and more stories about their life there, things I’d never heard before. And I was so fascinated that I knew I had to turn her words into an interview post here on the blog. I’d read a bit about what goes on in meatpacking plants (supposedly it’s one of the most dangerous jobs in America), especially in Fast Food Nation (which you should read right this second, if you haven’t already; I read it in college and forever changed how I see fast food, even though I admit I still eat it sometimes. Some excerpts about American slaughterhouses are here). But it’s different when the stories come from your own mom.

Here is what she had to say about her time working in the meatpacking plant.

“Your dad and I were both working in Missouri. I worked at the sewing factory over in Thayer, then I got a job at the bank. Your dad was doing odd jobs, working in the sawmill, doing different things like that. There weren’t a whole lot of jobs, but we had bought land and we wanted to build a house. His Uncle Ken was pretty big in the Swift company at that time, and he got transferred to Dumas and bought a house there. So one time, Ken came back to Missouri to visit, and he told your dad that we could get a pretty good wage in the meatpacking plant…really good money for the time, or to us it was. So your dad said he’d come down and take a job there. So that’s how we ended up working in the meatpacking plant. Dad went first, and I went down a little bit later.

“When you first got there, on your first day…well, there wasn’t really any orientation or training that I remember. There was no training. You just went in after you got your job assignment, after you passed preliminary screening or whatever—and that wasn’t much, as I recall. And they gave you a robe…an apron, a mesh apron…they gave you a guard to put on your left hand; they gave you a mesh glove for your left hand. On that first day, they dressed me all up, or, you know they dressed us all up, all of us that were starting that day—and they gave me the apron and a white butcher’s smock. And they gave me gloves, because you get real cold—I was on the fab floor, which they kept at 32 degrees, or maybe a little bit lower, you know, to keep the meat from spoiling. And as you walk in, you had a helmet, and you had big rubber boots, and a chain around your waist. I had all this on me, and on the chain I had a carrier for my knives, and then they gave me a ceramic sharpener and a steel sharpener. That’s what you used to keep your knives sharp during the day. And they gave you no training on how to keep an edge on your knife; you learned that yourself, after practice. And every night you had to turn in your knives; they had your name or some kind of number on them or something so you could pick it up the next day. And there was a knife room, and there they would keep all those knives there after they sharpened them for us. Now, I know that’s dangerous…I mean, if someone got really mad at somebody it could have been bad.

“Anyway, on that first day, they took us through the plant…I tell you what, the smell’s unbelievable when you go in there. As they were taking us to the fab floor, they took us past the kill floor, and you look to your left on the kill floor, and there’s men in wader boots, in like, you know, fishing wader boots, and there’s blood up to their hips. Those cows come down a ramp, alive, and they get knocked in the head somehow to stun them, and then they get a chain and get around their back legs and pull them up that way, and they slit their throats and they bleed out. Thank God, I was never on the kill floor. So anyway, they take us past that, and the smell is horrible, but you get used to that smell. And they take us into the fab floor, and as you walk down into the fab floor, you could see everybody working on lines along these different conveyor belts, on both sides of the belts. And everyone had a different job. And you have to go up some steps to the floor, the floor is the height of your shoulder. It was about as high as my shoulder. So the workers are elevated on this platform, way up there, and there are steel bars all the way around the floor, and as you walk in, you felt like you were entering prison, because they turn around and they see you’re new, and it’s like in the prison movies, and they start yelling and screaming and taking their knives and hitting on those steel bars with the backs of their knives and going, ‘Woooooo!’ And you go, ‘Oh, crap. What have I got myself into?’ The first day was really an experience.

“So then they take you and put you on a small job. They give you these knives, they’re like, little round motor knives, little disc knives, with blades in ‘em, and they put you on some carcasses, and they have you get off the bad meat. The good meat goes down the line and the bad meat goes on another belt. They show you briefly what the bad meat is—they don’t give you really good training, like, ‘This is bad, this is really bad, this is good.’

“Anyway, for the first couple of days, how they start you off is they put you next to the big carcasses, and they give you this thing like a handle with a round motor blade; it spins, and you kinda shave off the bad parts of the carcass. You clean up the carcass a little bit, as a training job, to get you used to working with the meat, with knives. And then they put you on an actual job. And after awhile you can put in bids; you can start to bid on different kinds of jobs if you want to move to a different job for more money. When I left the meatpacking plant, I was in packing. Packing was at the end of the belts. After they all got done doing their jobs on the meat, it would come down the line, different cuts of the meat, and you would do that air wrap to seal it and put it in boxes. That’s what I ended up doing before I left, but before that, for most of my time there, it was me and this other girl, and we were on what they called the chuck line. And there were these 20 or 25-pound pieces of meat–big pieces of meat–and they’d come down the line and my job was to grab the chuck with my meat hook and cut out the tenderloin on this chuck–it looked like a little cone–and then flip it out on the belt. And also, my job was to take off bad spots and put it in the scrap belt, or if there was a chuck that had abscesses on it, we were supposed to take the whole chuck and take it away, off the line. We didn’t just try to cut out the abscess; they did something different with those.

“That was a good piece of meat I had to cut out, that tenderloin…that’s why when you came to work or left, you had to check in and check out; they watched you come in and out, because there were people who would try to steal different cuts of meat, because there were good pieces of meat like that. That tenderloin was a nice piece of meat there. It was known that sometimes people tried to steal the meat.

“But like I was saying, there was just me and this other girl. She was on the other side, and there were between 25 and 40 people working on this belt. Most of them were men, and they loved messing with us; they loved watching us get mad. And at the beginning of the chuck belt, there were de-boners down there, people that de-boned parts of the chuck, and stuff. Everyone had a job on that line. To make us girls mad, they would hold up all these pieces of meat, these chucks, and wait until they had a good pile, and then they’d push ‘em all up out onto the belt, and then they’d hit us all at once. A couple of times we tried to keep up, to make it look like we could really do it, like to say to them, ‘You’re not gonna put us down!’ But after a few times of that, we just said, ‘The heck with it!’ and we just let ‘em all go down the line. We got so mad…they’d have to shut down the line. But that’s the beauty of working with a bunch of men in a position like that. You get a potty mouth—I’m not gonna lie, you get a potty mouth—but you also…you know, we’re talking about blue collar guys. You could get madder than heck at ‘em that day, and cuss at ’em, and the next day, they’d see me and be like, ‘Hey, Emma! What’s going on?’ You know? Yesterday’s over. They forget, it’s gone. No hard feelings.

“And there were very few white people that worked there in the meatpacking plant. Very few. So here we could go into this other discussion about immigrant workers and the undocumented workers that come over here to try to make a good living for themselves and their families, and that was back thirty-some years ago…there were lots there. And how many white people would go do that work? If you went into that meatpacking plant now, I betcha there’s maybe one percent white people working in there. I’m guessing they’re almost all Mexicans. Mexicans and Vietnamese, although probably the Vietnamese aren’t there so much anymore. But in the seventies, there were quite a few.

“Like I said, it was definitely an experience. I met some interesting people. I wouldn’t be surprised if the majority of them were undocumented workers. So, you know I’m sure there are ‘illegals,’ as they say, that are here that are not good people, just like there’s not good people everywhere. But all I saw were the ones that are really trying to make a living, trying to support their families. I didn’t see any bad. They were all hardworking people.

“You know, my grandma and grandpa weren’t undocumented, but they worked with undocumented workers. They worked with migrant workers who lived out in shacks in the orchards there in California. I remember walking with my mom one day out there by the orchards, and these old shacks were over there and mom said when they first moved to California from Colorado, they lived in one of those shacks for a little bit. She said that one of those shacks is where I got broke from using a bottle. And she said she also remembers that she woke up one night and there were mice nibbling at my toes. So my grandma and grandpa, and my mom and dad, they worked hard in those jobs that most white people don’t do. And I remember working, or just kinda halfway working, when I got older. I helped a little bit, but nothing like my mom and dad did. They would help with picking prunes, and grapes, and we would play in these old wooden crates that they used. They were on their knees; some of them had knee pads and some of them didn’t. They were picking up those prunes; it wasn’t a machine doing that. I don’t know, maybe they have a machine nowadays that does that. But that’s hard work. Especially those women that pick strawberries. That’s hard work. And I’ll say again, I just got a taste of it. Two years in the meatpacking plant, and a little bit of it when I was growing up, as a kid, with my parents picking grapes…they didn’t require us to do it, but we saw them, we saw how hard they worked. They worked hard all week and they partied hard on the weekend. I’ll say this until I die, people who talk negative about ‘illegals’ and whatever…they don’t know what hard work is. Most white people wouldn’t be out there doing those jobs.

“But anyway, another thing I can remember about being in the meatpacking plant, when the fab floor shut down sometimes, a lot of us would go up to the catwalk, where you could look down on the kill floor, and watch the procedure. There were guys that were on these platforms that were held up by chains. The carcasses were up on chains too, after they’d been skinned, and they would move continually. These guys on these platforms, they had these huge chainsaws that they held kind of on their hip. They had to have good balance, because the platform would move along with the chain where the carcasses were moving along, and they would saw those carcasses in two, right down the middle. It was really interesting to watch, because they got paid the big bucks. But to watch them maneuver on these moving platforms with these huge chainsaws, it was so dangerous…it was something to see. Then you’d go to lunch, and the smell…the cafeteria was right across from the kill floor. And these guys would come in with blood all over their wading boots. You got used to it after awhile. The first day was like, ‘Okaaaaay’…and oh, the smell! But after that it was just…normal.

“Sometimes when the belt was going slow, when the chain speed was slow because maybe there was something wrong on the kill floor or something like that, and because of that our job wasn’t going real fast…when that happened, they put us to work on big vats of beef. And supposedly it’s the scrap meat that they’re going to make into hamburger meat, but I tell you, you just don’t know what’s in that stuff. There’s this one story your dad has–there was this woman who was hocking loogies in the meat; your dad always remembers that. She wasn’t just spitting; she was hocking right on the belt of good scrap meat that was going to be hamburger meat. She had a cold and she was hocking, and your dad was up in the catwalk watching the workers. He was a foreman at that time, and there were 2 belts, as I remember…one was where you put the bad meat that was going to be dumped or made into dog food—I honestly don’t know what they were going to do with it, I can’t remember—and the stuff that’s good scrap that they’re going to use to make hamburger meat. Anyway, these belts are running and he’s watching this woman, and she’s got a cold, and she’s hocking loogies onto the good belt. So your dad, he shuts everything down and he gets her out of there, and he’s going to fire her, and the union came in and said that she was doing that because she didn’t understand; she was Vietnamese. So, you know, there is no way that you can tell me that none of that got into those big vats of beef. There was no way to go back and catch all of the things like that.

“But I know we would really get ready for the FDA inspectors. I remember that. And they would inspect everything closer when stuff was being sent overseas. I remember that, too. I mean, I don’t know the technicalities of it, but I do remember everybody saying they we had to go over everything with a fine tooth comb and I asked somebody a question about that. I don’t know if that person knew what he was talking about, but he said that this meat wasn’t going to stay here in the States; it was going overseas. It was going to be exported.

“Anyway, it was very interesting and I’m glad I experienced it because, I’m gonna tell you the truth, I love my job at the bank. I love what I do. But it definitely is a different environment, and whenever I get upset, or you know, think I’ve got it rough, or think that my job is hard (which it isn’t), I think back of those poor women that worked in that meatpacking plant. I experienced it for two years, and I know my hands were affected just in those two years of working with knives. Because now when I go to stir something, like soup or spaghetti or whatever, my hands will lock up for a minute, like they’re paralyzed. And that never happened until I started working at the meatpacking plant. And the first time it happened to me is when I was working in the meatpacking plant. So if that’s how it affected me and it was just two years for me, imagine those poor women that worked there for 15, 20 years. I’m sure those women can’t work any longer than that because their hands would be ruined. They get carpal tunnel and arthritis so bad. So bad. It’s hard work. I give my hats off to any of them.”

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  • salbo

    my entire maternal side worked at the hormel packing plants in Albert Lea Minnesota. In fact, when my father came home from the War, everyone was excited for him as he and my Uncle got jobs at the packing plant. As the day wore on, they all wondered how they were doing, but day turned into night and no one came home. Story goes, they were assigned to the kill floor,, took one look, and both walked straight out the door. They spent the day and most of the evening at the VFW getting loaded.

    • http://thesamerainbowsend.com/ nicole

      sal, that made me laugh out loud!