Bigger, Faster, Taller: Dubai’s Coked-Up Landgrab Into the Future

Tonight, here’s how it feels.

It’s balmy, with a faint breeze. Standing at the base of the Atlantis Hotel, on the tip of Palm Jumeirah island, I can see red and white lights dotting the skyline. Construction cranes. It’s near midnight, but work in Dubai never stops.

I make out the contours of the $4.2 billion Burj Dubai, set to be the world’s tallest free-standing building (jutting out of the world’s largest mall), somewhere in the vicinity of 2000+ feet – though at this time, the final height is still a state secret. If word got out, someone would invariably start building something taller. It’s happened before. In fact, work’s already begun on rival Nakheel Tower down the road. When completed, it’ll be more than a kilometer high – 3280 feet – and have five microclimates.

I’m here – as are 2,000 Hollywood and Bollywood notables (including Robert de Niro Quincy Jones, and Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra), plus captains of industry, a smattering of royals and, naturally, Lindsay Lohan and her off/on girlfriend, Samantha Ronson, although lesbianism is officially not recognized in Dubai – to witness the grand opening of Sol Kerzner’s $1.5-billion Atlantis Resort and the man-made island it’s built upon.

The world’s most expensive hotel crowns Palm Jumeirah, the self-appointed eighth wonder of the world. You may have heard about it, this 11-square mile, $3 billion project created by clawing up 3.2 trillion cubic feet of sand from the ocean floor and power-spraying it into the shape of an Arabian date palm. It’s the smallest of three palm-shaped fake islands. Last week, the region’s most expensive piece of real estate sold here, a penthouse that fetched $3,000 per square foot. Even Donald Trump was impressed, and he’s the one who sold it.

This party is a crowning achievement, a manifestation of Dubai’s explosive growth, an anachronism in the wake of Wall Street’s turbulence and tanking oil prices, and a middle finger to a western world in economic freefall. It’s a $20 million debutante ball for an entire city-state.

The fireworks alone cost $4 million, and that’s why everybody’s staring up at the sky. The story (everyone here has a version of it) goes something like this: When Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum – Crown Prince of Dubai, the man who birthed the Palm and whose family owns every other grain of sand in the emirate – saw the fireworks for Kerzner’s other, much smaller Atlantis Hotel (in the Bahamas), he demanded to see whomever was responsible. On the spot, he commissioned Long Island’s Grucci company to create the fireworks spectacle for the Palm’s debut. When Phil, the genial Grucci paterfamilias, asked if his highness would like any special pyro effects (palm-shaped bursts? sky-writing in Arabic?), the Sheik had only one request: Make it the biggest fireworks show in the history of the world.

And because of that, and the glittering crane-lights, and the trays of dates wrapped in 24-karat gold leaf, when the sky over Dubai ignites with 11 miles of fireworks exploding in perfect unison – easily visible from space, indescribable from the ground – I think, damn. Dubai’s going to make it. Maybe New York won’t, maybe Tokyo and London won’t, but Dubai will. This crowd has seen it all, yet they’re erupting in shrieks and incredulous laughter and even a few stupefied tears. Dubai’s going to make it. All that attitude, nothing left to prove.

Of course, this was back on November 20, 2008. A month later, the Atlantis will pull the plug on its own New Year’s Eve fireworks at the 11th hour – shells in place, wired, ready to go – because such excess might look bad, given everything that’s happened. On February 12 of 2009, the New York Times will publish an article called “Laid-Off Foreigners Flee as Dubai Spirals Down,” describing how scores of expats who’d left everything behind to pan for gold in Dubai are driving to the airport, ditching their Jaguars and getting the hell out, back to London and Sydney and Johannesburg, in hopes of evading debtors’ prison in the Emirates.

They’ll also finally announce the Burj Dubai’s final height: 2683 feet, as tall as the late Twin Towers stacked on top of each other. As for the one-kilometer building, construction is suspended until further notice.

But on this night, none of this has happened yet. Tonight, Dubai is a beacon of hope and 11 miles of fireworks, a place with the money, freedom and balls to make its own rules. Remember when the world saw America that way?


Next time you’re at a party, try telling people you’re going to Dubai. Eyes widen. You might as well say you’re having dinner with J.D. Salinger, or bought a seat on that first commercial space flight with Richard Branson. People have heard stories, crazy stories, cockamamie tales of hotels made of solid gold and air-conditioned beaches. And you’re going to get to see it all with your own eyes.

As I click away a month’s rent for a ticket to the second-largest and most progressive of the seven United Arab Emirates, I have vague notions about the place that seem true but actually are not (booze is illegal, women get jailed for wearing pants); and others that seem preposterous, but are actually true (no holding hands in public, falcons cost $250,000, there’s a man-made archipelago called “The World” and Rod Stewart offered $33 million for “Britain.”).

For the record, yes, women can walk the streets alone, though the further you get from the new parts of town, the more stern (male) stares you’ll attract. Yes, you can drink, but mostly at hotel bars (only residents can shop for liquor), and public drunkenness is grounds for arrest. As is unmarried sex, though an infamous British couple caught in flagrante delicto a short while ago wound up being deported instead of serving their three-month jail sentence. Women are technically not allowed to date: My boyfriend tells me to pack a ring that could pass for a wedding band so sharing a room won’t raise any eyebrows. There is, indeed, a boat-shaped hotel, but it starts at five grand a night. Dubai International Airport is big, but not the world’s largest – a second airport under construction will take care of that. And yes, Brad Pitt is consulting on an unnamed five-star eco-resort. It was in People.

Also, unmarried sex is illegal, porn sites are blocked, cross-dressers get rounded up and jailed, criticizing the government is a no-no. Sorry, lesbians, you officially don’t exist. Bright side: You could be male, where being gay is punishable by death.

Not that these laws get enforced much. Because the PTB know that those dropping $3000 per square foot on a condo with its own heli-pad don’t take kindly to being told how to live. So behind closed doors, in bars and clubs and the privacy of your own villa, anything goes.


From the plane, Dubai looks like a videogame, all glass and multicolored parapets and stuff jutting out at crazy angles 500 feet in the air because, you know, why not? Why wouldn’t we put a double helix-shaped glass atrium right here, on the 48th floor? It’ll be our building’s signature. We’ll call it the Burj Helix. Done!

We drop lower, and I start counting cranes. Somewhere between 25 to 30 percent of the world’s cranes are in use in Dubai. They’re the city’s unofficial soundtrack. Ten days from now, I’ll be awake in my bed in Brooklyn, freaked out by the silence. You get used to cranes groaning outside your window all night long. It’s the sound of progress. It soothes.

As we wait on the shimmering tarmac (it’s 104 degrees) for a shuttle to Terminal 3, a woman who managed to sleep (and snore) for the full 14-hour trip sets her watch to local time and inhales deeply. “Smells like New Jersey,” she announces.

Some numbers on Dubai International Airport’s Terminal 3, which opened a few weeks before my trip:

$4.5 billion: Final building cost, in dollars

16,145,865: Square footage (largest building in the world)

180: Check-in counters

160,000: Square footage dedicated to retail

13,720: Running feet of baggage carousel (approximate)

163: Models of cell phones for sale at Arrivals Duty Free

$1500: Price of a 27-oz. RÈmy Martin Louis XIII Cognac at Duty Free, in dollars. (According to Terminal 3’s Duty Free sommelier, it’s very smooth, though it’s no Black Pearl edition, which they do not carry, as purchase thereof is by invitation only at the manufacturer’s behest. A quick Googling, however, reveals you can order it through for $27,999 if you’re interested.)


Rhode Island-sized Dubai was a relatively sleepy fishing village until the sixties, when it struck oil. The whole region did. (Dubai and its neighbors became the federation of the United Arab Emirates not long after that.) But while Abu Dhabi had crazy oil, Dubai had relatively little (or about 5% to Abu Dhabi’s 95%; Dubai’s reserves will be gone by 2015), so its rulers started sowing the seeds of a post-oil economy early, like a supermodel launching a fashion line so she’ll have a career when she’s over the hill at 28.

The plan: Talk big, spend bigger, and go from backwater to global business and tourist hub as fast as possible. Okay then.


So imagine Rhode Island run by the mob, headed by a fairly benevolent papa sitting on about $18 billion of fuck-you money. He wants to turn the Ocean State into a Silicon Valley-cum-Monaco-cum-New York (with a dash of Las Vegas) and make it the travel pass-through between the Americas and Europe. To get from one to the other, you have to refuel in Providence, and hey, why not spend the night, have dinner, go deep-sea fishing while you’re at it?

In Dubai, Sheik Mo (as he’s known) heads up a ruling family with as close to absolute power as you can get in a nation with multiple Starbucks locations.

The Al Maktoums own Dubai’s airline (the world’s eighth largest), the airport, seaports, local banks, print and broadcast media, hotels and most of the world’s racehorses. (At Shadwell or Gainsborough stud farms in Kentucky, you’re on Al Maktoum land. Sheik Mo’s racehorses travel on their own Boeing 747.) Developments like the Palm Islands are helmed by Nakheel, the largest privately held real estate entity on the planet, which – surprise – is backed by the Al-Maktoums.

When you own and run everything, it’s cake to get stuff done. You can eliminate any obstacles to growth – taxes, labor laws, restrictions prohibiting foreigners from buying property. And when you run out of land, you can just make more. Imagine if Donald Trump started dredging up the bottom of the East River and had 300-foot GPS-directed sandguns working 24/7 to jet-spray a bunch of islands into existence off the coast of New Jersey so he’d have more beach for condos, and you begin to get the picture.

In the 1990s, Dubai got 30,000 visitors a year. Thanks to the Al Maktoums’ efforts (and to 9/11, after which the region’s capital stayed largely local), that number is now 5 million annually, and expected to triple by 2012. Property value increased by about nine percent in ’04 – not too shabby, but peanuts compared to the 90% surge in ’07. That’s not a typo. Not for nothing has Dubai projected a tripled GDP by 2015.

Sure, Sheik Mo has been allegedly linked to everything from terrorist money laundering to child slavery (toddlers are used as camel jockeys; camel races are big money, and shrieking children make them gallop faster). But he’s kept his people safe and made them rich, and that counts for a lot. Democracy would just spoil things, anyway.

Besides, compared to its neighbors in ruins (Iraq), run by madmen (Iran) or oppressively fundamentalist (Saudi Arabia), Dubai is paradise.

The Madinat Jumeirah is a new hotel built to look like an old Arabian village that’s attached to other new hotels that look old by a waterway where young men from the Philippines dressed like Aladdin will shuttle you around on electric boats called abras for about $20, or free if you’re a hotel guest.

You could go to the old town and ride in a real abra for about 30 cents, but the Madinat is all about delivering the Arabian Nights experience without the inconveniences (raw sewage), and with the comforts of home (clean restrooms, Cinnabon). Here, you can browse a mellow, fragrant souk that mimics the real, cacophonous souk across town for souvenirs: a wood-carving of Tintin and Snowy, a ceramic camel whose hump is a snowglobe (inside of which is a second, much smaller camel), a silver ring etched with the face of an angry gorilla, a seven-spouted teapot called “Crazy Tea!”, a solid silver two-seated swing, a chain-mail jacket, and Tom Cruise’s head cast in bronze (actual size).


Dubai’s list of world records and future projects reads like the resume of the world’s most insecure MBA holder. Nothing matters here if it can’t be counted, measured or topped. “World’s largest acrylic panel?” Seriously?

There’s Dubailand, a $64 billion, 107-square-mile city-within-a-city being built from scratch; it’ll have theme parks, stadiums, spas, malls, hotels and the world’s largest snow dome.

There’s Hydropolis, a jellyfish-shaped resort 66 feet below the sea’s surface. Its 220 suites will offer unimpeded views of the world’s first underwater fireworks. It’s being built in Germany and shipped to Dubai.

The $11 billion Arabian Canal, a 50-mile waterway running inland to the desert, is the largest project of its kind since the Suez Canal.

But most ambitious is Dubai’s landgrab into the Arabian Gulf. Ten years ago, the Emirate had a puny 37 miles of natural coastline. Today, Nakheel’s man-made islands – three different Palms, plus The World, an archipelago of 300 islands designed to look like the world map from above – have tacked on another 1,200 miles of shore. The World’s islands aren’t open for public sale. You must receive a private invitation from Nakheel to bid.

On my third day in Dubai, I learn they’re building the world’s first commercial aerospace port – this is where you’ll board shuttles heading into space. It barely registers.


Once, I was assigned a piece on the president’s Thanksgiving turkey pardon, that annual rite where we atone for all the turkey we’re about to eat via the POTUS’ public sparing of one bird. So I called Kidwell Farm in Herndon, Virginia, where the lucky thing gets shipped to live out its little turkey days free from harm, frolicking about, pecking at grain.

And here’s what I was told: All the turkeys are dead. They die within months, sometimes weeks. The presidential photo-op’s big Butterball-style bird isn’t designed to sustain life long-term. It’s meant to become as fat possible as quickly as possible, and its organs just can’t keep up. Like that obese guy who had to be lifted through the roof of his house with a crane. (The article was shelved.)

In Dubai, I think of the turkeys often, like when my cab crawls by an overturned car that looks like a loaf of bread somebody sat on. It’s not the first accident I’ve seen here. My cabdriver gets worked up. “How many accidents this road? So many! Bad road, cannot see, many accidents. Everywhere everywhere new Dubai, many accidents.”

The circulatory infrastructure is insane. I’m told that as new neighborhoods crop up, the city scrambles to build roads. Does the Department of Transportation have controls, planning committees, safety hearings? Hard to say. But the roads certainly materialize fast. You need a road, a road gets built.

Lining these terrible roads are billboards hawking new residential developments, an endless parade of attractive model-couples enjoying their terrace/yacht/dock/lap pool/screening room. The marketing lines blend together: Desert Dream. Building Value Through Integrity. Live the Legend. Opportunity That’s Worlds Apart. Power With Oxygen.

At a bar later, I’ll chat with an Australian, a Brit, and a guy from Philadelphia who met working for a local construction company. They have a theory that all of Dubai’s new buildings (i.e., more than half of the structures currently standing or in-progress) fall into one of three styles: Slapped Together, Arabian Nights Retro, or Make it Look Like the Future.

Describing the road backed up because of the accident, my cabbie uses a phrase I hear often in the next week: “You see here? Five year before, all sand.”


At the top are the Al Maktoums. Beneath them (and dependent on their largesse) is a loyal, wealthy leisure class of Dubai natives. Next, managerial expats: About 200,000 Europeans (east and west), Aussies and South Africans mostly, but also Lebanese and some Americans, all handsomely paid to make new Dubai happen. The rest, some 60 to 70 percent of the 1.1 million population, are laborers from the globe’s most impoverished nations, like Sri Lanka, Pakistan and the Philippines. They’re building new Dubai – from Trump’s next tower to Brad Pitt’s eco-resort – in green or blue jumpsuits, in up to 16-hour shifts, in blazing heat, for about $200 a month, which they send home to their families before going to sleep in a room with 11 other guys in a work camp on the outskirts of town until their next shift starts. Their passports are gone, they have no rights here, and labor unions are outlawed. I’m told there’s a high suicide rate in this group, but these statistics don’t officially exist.

Yet the workers I talk to are happy. They’re all wide-eyed, impossibly sweet. My hotel’s valet is supporting nine family members back in Nepal. The Kenyans at the Atlantis aquarium are in heaven, getting paid to work with animals all day, in this beautiful place — 200,000 species of fish! Imagine!


Contrary to what you’ve heard, Dubai isn’t the Vegas of the Middle East. They’re both pleasure playgrounds, grow like fungus, and build fake versions of real things elsewhere (the Eiffel Tower, skiing), but in Vegas – hell, in America – luxury is cheap. Everyone gets to have some. Can’t afford to stay at the Bellagio? You can still wander through, have lunch, buy a GUCCI-logo T-shirt at the Gucci store, feel special wading in the shallow end of the luxury pool. The Bellagio wants your money, and it’ll prey on your aspirations to get it. But it’s not exclusive – if it were exclusive, it would, by definition, exclude people.

Exclusivity, as Dubai reminds you hard and often, is precisely what money is for.

At the Burj Al Arab, the world’s only seven-star hotel (out of a possible five), there’s no wandering in off the street to coo at the world’s largest atrium or take photos of your kids in front of the four-story, 24-karat solid gold columns. No Burj keychains or souvenir shotglasses for purchase. It’s a gated community on its own artificial island accessed by a private footbridge. The cheapest way in involves reservations for tea (about $100). The Burj’s guests pay a minimum of $5,000 a night for a two-floor suite, assigned butler, airport transfer by private helicopter and, most importantly, not having to breathe the same air as you and I.


Mall of the Emirates (MOTE) operates an unofficial but efficient caste system. The ground floor houses your Esprits and H&Ms and a thudding dance soundtrack. The top has lower lighting, softer music, more expensive surfaces; here, tan Caucasian men squire younger, well-groomed women (trophy wives or Russian prostitutes, I’m told) to Christian Dior or Yves Saint-Laurent, while Middle Eastern women shop for designer clothing to wear under their head-to-toe black abayas, or behind closed doors, at home.

When the call to Mecca prayer sounds through MOTE’s PA, some people rush off to the mall’s Ladies’ or Gents’ mosques, but most keep shopping.

Dubai messes with my mind. At Newark Airport, I pass on a $24.99 hardcover I’m dying to read because online, used, I’d pay $5, tops. Four days later, I seriously consider buying – to the point of trying on – a pair of Italian calfskin boots that cost what I’m getting paid to write this article. I talk myself out of it, but I’m irritated and vaguely petulant for the rest of the day, like a three-year-old who isn’t tired but still gets sent to bed.

Four days kicking around Dubai, and I’ve spurted a poisonous sense of consumer entitlement.


To hit the slopes, you enter MOTE from the west and hook a right at the food court. (Not a Panda Express-and-Sbarro food court, but one with marble counters and lacquered Peking ducks on gleaming hooks, sliced to order.)

You pass through a series of Get Smart-like doors, each leading to a chamber that’s colder than the one before, to reach Ski Dubai. Maintaining a constant temperature of 30 degrees Fahrenheit is no small feat in the desert. Nepalese photographers are excited to shoot you skiing, tubing, tobogganing, scampering through the ice labyrinth, hurling a snowball, and building a snowman in the designated snowman area, which has how-to diagrams for first-timers. Everyone on staff at Ski Dubai seems excited, especially the Filipino guy who helps me into my bobsled. He’d never seen snow before this job.

Every night, at 2AM, it snows. The temperature drops to 17F and Cessna propeller-sized guns blast atomized water and ice microns from the ceiling. By the time Ski Dubai opens at 10AM, 3,000 tons of new snow blanket nearly three football fields of terrain. It weighs down the branches of artificial pine trees, coats the world’s first indoor black diamond run, lines the two-story windows overlooking the food court, dusts the eaves of the aprËs-ski Avalanche CafÈ. Here, I warm by the fire, sip non-alcoholic mulled “wine” made with Vimto, a berry soft drink popular with British grandmothers and watch skiers whoosh by. Just outside – inside, but outside – an Indian family shrieks with glee at seeing their breath for the first time.

Each superlative’s days are numbered. Soon, Ski Dubai won’t be the only indoor ski resort in the Middle East (Dubailand’s Snowdome is in the works, and it’ll be bigger).

This can’t last, right? Or is it progress? Is it any different from the Pyramids, or Versailles, or the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota? Aren’t they all some rich guy’s idea of what the future should look like?


The locals seem sanguine about the future. The guy offering camel rides at the Atlantis fishes a pack of Marlboros from his dishdasha and shrugs. As long as he can afford to feed his camels, he says, he’ll be fine.

A Pakistani cabdriver is impatient, even. “Is too much construction, too much. Building many, but now, money finish. I talk people hotel, no booking. Before full until April, May, but now no. Finish. I am happy. Balance, you know? Cannot go many time like this. I am happy. Before was Bush system. Now is God system.”

Still, if you can buy a $4 million fireworks show that gives people the most exhilarating 20 minutes of their lives, why wouldn’t you? As the last rockets explode over the Atlantis (illuminating Sheik Mo’s yacht, moored at a discreet remove), hundreds of waitstaff, laundry workers, security guards, drivers and janitors have poured out of the resort onto the beach. They hoot and holler, sling an arm over each other’s shoulders, and point cameras at the sky, taking pictures to send home.

The Carnivore’s Dilemma

I’m holding a skinned pig’s head.

It’s not a pig’s skull, in the way that skulls – dry and smooth and ageless, sitting in glass cases at a museum — all sort of look the same. No, this is very specifically a head missing its skin, with bits of deep-pink flesh and yellow-white fat clinging to bone. The teeth are there, much smaller than you’d expect, jagged and blackened. The eyes are flat, a cloudy blue-grey. Without its big, comical snout, this head I’m holding looks more like it could have come from a deer. Or a smallish golden retriever.

As I move the head, the jaw shifts, unhinging slightly, and right at the corner of the mouth, there’s a dot of blood. I grip the jaw with my right hand, and the dot starts to darken, swell into a pool, and trickle down the pig’s peeled face, catching in the shreds like rain on stucco. There hasn’t been any blood until now; my breath catches. Then I realize it’s probably because Jeffrey just cut the pig’s head off its body, severed the tongue at the back of the throat and pulled it out through the neck.

Later that night, that’s the image that replays in my mind. The trickle. The way the jaw moves.


Seven or so years ago, I’m at downtown L.A.’s Grand Central Market, ordering tacos at Roast to Go, which my friend Ann and I find by following the aroma of roasted meat all the way in from the street. We order from a menu that lists buche (hog maw), sesos (brains), morcilla (blood sausage), tripa (tripe) and chicharron (crackling), carry our bonanza off to the side and tuck in, handing the greasy, dripping crescents off to each other. It’s intense. As we leave, Ann surveys the detritus we’ve dropped and, hoisting her purse high on her shoulder, jerks a thumb towards my feet and says, “Snout.”

I look down. Sure enough, there’s a baloney-thin slice of meat that’s very recognizably a pig’s snout, both nostrils edged with hot sauce and crema. We leave, go and get a drink, satisfied with our feast.

But that was seven years ago, and today, I’ve come here, to a butcher shop called Jeffrey’s Meats inside the Essex Market on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, to… what, exactly? Figure it all out? Face down my fears? Atone for all the pork I’ve eaten – happily, so happily – in my life? Everything sounds like some sort of touchy-feely pilgrimage that falls into a category my boyfriend calls “first-world problems.” Because I have the luxury of getting to choose what I eat, and I eat meat.

I come from proud meat eaters. My father’s family hails from a hamlet, in a nondescript part of France, whose butcher (it’s a one-butcher town) was the godfather to both my uncles. A family snapshot shows my great-grandfather, in the dining room of his hotel, lining up rabbits fresh from the hunt. When I first tasted rabbit, I was about eight; my grandmother told me it was chicken, and I didn’t think to question why the drumstick was two inches long. There’s exactly one vegetarian in the family, and she cheats with foie gras — which borders on the absurd, when you think about it.

I have respect for vegetarians, far more than I do for people who’ll eat a tenderloin but disdain the tongue or the tail. If you’re going to sign up for your spot on the food chain, you need to go whole hog, so to speak. You don’t have to like it all, but you have to try it. My ancestors lived on it. They sold the good cuts and ate the tripe, sautéed the gizzards, pickled the feet. They invented sauces you now pay $24.95 to eat in a restaurant, because without the sauce (and the wine in it, to help break down hard tissues), the rangy yardbird that passed for food in the dead of winter would have been completely inedible. (Ladies and gentlemen: coq au vin.)

But in the years since my snout taco, there’s been a shift. I’ve become, for lots of reasons, a conflicted carnivore. Maybe self-conscious is more accurate. Nowadays (unlike before, when people trusted that “USDA Prime” actually meant something), there’s too much knowledge readily available about a steak’s journey from womb to plate to be wishy-washy about it. A stance is required. If I’m to continue making my own pâté and roasting marrow bones (while giving money to animal shelters), I need to deal with where my food comes from. It’s either that or vegetarianism, the thought of which makes me feel claustrophobic, like celibacy or living in a skyscraper.


Thanks to a confluence of recent circumstances – behind-the-veil documentaries like Food, Inc., Michael Pollan’s evangelizing of “food your grandmother would recognize,” locavorism and its attendant worship of farmers, butchers and other food artisans as indie royalty – butchering classes are available pretty much any day of the week in New York City, like Pilates. And like Pilates, the level of service depends upon how much you’re willing to spend. (“Private butchering classes start at $1000,” writes a representative from the Brooklyn Kitchen Labs, “and include the meat to be butchered, as we cannot sell product that untrained people cut up.”).

So I’m here, in a meat locker, in the bowels of the Essex Market at 9:30AM on a Saturday, staring at Fred, a 10-week old, 68-lb. pig who was slaughtered the day before yesterday in upstate New York. It’s just me and Fred, communing in this quiet, cold chamber, surrounded by things like a meat grinder and a 7.5-lb. plastic tub of rendered duck fat.

He’s gutted but otherwise whole, his blue-pink body arced over a stack of cardboard boxes, next to a thick metal second door that opens to deeper cold storage. Every time one of Jeffrey’s staffers marches past me and throws open that door, it whacks against Fred’s flank and he jiggles. There’s something undignified about this. I read once that it’s hard for technicians who deal with coma patients all day to not perceive them as just another flat surface on which to set things: Instruments, charts, coffee cups.

Jeffrey Ruhalter calls every animal he butchers Fred, whether it’s a pig, lamb, chicken or calf. He stands at his stall in the middle of the Essex Market every Saturday morning and teaches people how to turn a whole animal into the cuts of meat you see neatly stacked in his glass case for sale, from the beheading to the popping of elbow sockets to the slicing out of the tongue and kidney. He’s funny, charming, charismatic as hell and works very blue; every few minutes, regulars shopping the market come by to give him a hug or a kiss or something they baked.

His great-great-great-grandfather (a butcher) arrived from Germany at Ellis Island at the turn of the 20th century and set up shop on nearby Orchard Street in 1904. The family business moved into the Essex Market on January 1, 1940, and has been here ever since, catering to dirt-poor customers who could afford offal on a good day. In 2010, there are still customers like that – and many stop by his stall this Saturday morning, because at Jeffrey’s, you can get pork shoulder for less than $2/lb., grass-fed, organic, cut fresh and packaged in smooth pink paper by someone who’ll happily tell you how to cook it. But there’s also a new contingent, lured to the neighborhood by new condos and shops peddling $200 tanktops. For them, he says, “we sell meat my grandfather didn’t: venison, ostrich, wild boar roast. But they’re not why I became a butcher.”


The first thing that disturbs me? Bacon with teats.

Bacon comes from the belly of the pig, and belly is where the teats are. Jeffrey holds up an enormous slab of bacon (cut from some other Fred) from which he’s sliced a few rashes to cook up for us to taste. We all lean in to look: Tiny nodules, the nipples. “Cut off the skin, add sugar and spices and cure it for five days, and you get pancetta,” he says.

The bacon is retrieved from the oven. I take a piece and chew, as I stare at Fred waiting over on the side. It’s some of the best bacon I’ve ever tasted.

Fred is hauled over to the work area, and the parts match up: The belly has teats, and that’s where the bacon is. Someone asks why the eyelids have been cut off, making the animal look surprised.

I steel myself for what happens next. It involves a cleaver, rented from a company that’s been providing knives to Jeffrey’s family for 60 years. Jeffrey grips the head firmly down on the cutting board, and starts to sever. While there’s doubtless precision to this act – and he narrates everything, including measuring to know where to cut, and what bones and muscles to look for to guide you — there’s also a lot of just plain hacking.

The head is removed, slapped down upright. Fred is now gazing out across the market aisle at his counterparts sitting on ice at New Star Fish Market, which are looking back with the same starey dead eyes. I lean down for a good look. Little whiskers protrude from the pig’s nose and upper lip. The animal was mostly shaved at the farm, but as anyone who’s been waxed knows, there are always a few stragglers. Staring at a severed head bothers me, but not as much as Jeffrey lighting a cigarette and putting it in Fred’s mouth. Photo-op, he says.

“Is that the scapula?” asks one woman, pointing to the mess of bone and flesh exposed under the pig’s shoulder.

“I have no fucking clue.” He hoists Fred onto the Biro band saw nearby, switches it on, and buzzes the pig’s body in two lengthwise.

A doctor friend of mine once told me about some of the stuff the students would do with the corpses they worked on in med school, for comic relief. “It’s just not right,” he’d say. “But it’s how we got through the day.”


Little by little, over the next three hours, Fred is turned from a corpse into recognizable things, things we’ve so removed from their origins that childrens’ play kitchens come with plastic miniatures of them: Pork chops. Frenched rack of pork. Pork roast, tied with string by hand. Spare ribs. Jeffrey turns the rear of the pig over, its ass on the table and legs in the air, and with a hoof in one hand, applies his cleaver with great crunching sounds to bisecting the animal’s caboose. The legs fall away, dropping to either side – it looks like something a particularly skilled pole dancer might pull off.

“Is this a girl pig or a boy pig?” I ask. “It’s a dead pig,” Jeffrey says.

There’s no way to tell. The internal organs (save the kidney, which Jeffrey neatly slices off) are gone, as is the area that housed the genitals. Only the tail remains, stubby and waxy like a baby parsnip.


Towards the end of the class, Jeffrey has a few miniscule blood splatters on his cheek. His hands are something else entirely – it looks like he held a cherry popsicle until it melted. Before he parcels up bits of Fred for the students to take home, he reaches for a thinner knife – “six inch boning knife, high-carbon steel” — and declares that he’s going to remove the skin from the pig’s head. Jesus.

“You want to use the tip of the knife, and make short little cuts.”

The knife goes in by an ear. The forehead separates, then the eye is just a hole through skin; the cheeks come away easily, and the nose is the last to go. Short cuts. It’s horrifying, one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever seen. He folds up the pig’s face and sweeps it aside, where it sits, looking like a rubber Halloween pig mask dipped in afterbirth.

And that’s it. He’s on to talking about how much meat there is on a pig’s head, far more meat than you’d think, and how you can feed three kids with the neck bone alone.

“Braise this, it’s fabulous. When you don’t have money, you eat everything. You eat cartilage, spinal cord. That’s food,” he says. He pauses and points out that none of us in attendance have probably ever had a child ask us if there’s going to be dinner on the table tonight. But he has, with his customers. He gets emotional. “I’m a poor man’s butcher, and that’s what I’m most proud of.”

A few minutes later, Jeffrey produces a bottle of Prosecco, pops the cork into the air and pours; we each stand, solemnly, with our cups. “We have to give thanks,” he says. “We have to acknowledge what happened here. This animal died for us. It’s a loss. And that’s real. That’s fucking real. To life.” He swigs from the bottle.


I’m in bed that night, thinking of Fred’s head.

I look down at my dog, snoring loudly at my feet. Her head is smaller than Fred’s. Why did she wind up on this side of the world, coddled and cared for, while on the other, some of her distant relatives are being carved up for dinner?

I think of how in place of the old myths (e.g., that the government knows what’s best for us, food-wise), there are new myths to suit the age, like that of the “happy” animal, shorthand for one who enjoys relative freedom, who gets to amble and graze in a verdant field right up until the point when he’s stunned unconscious and has his throat cut. (“Are these from happy chickens?” asks a woman in line ahead of me at a Brooklyn greenmarket, pointing to a crate of eggs.) This was Fred’s fate: Oinking around a farm maintained by people who devote their lives to making healthy meat affordable.

Fred was a have-not, and so’s the woman with three kids whose best bet for feeding them is his head, ready for boiling, only $1.50 a pound — and not, unlike most meat sold in this country, jacked up on hormones to speed growth and toxins from being fed its own kind. I too am going to die at a time decided by some entity larger than me. Until then, I get to do my own version of ambling and grazing. And save for donating my remains to science (where, I have it on good authority, a hungover med student might indulge in a little black humor with my corpse) what’s left of me won’t feed anyone or anything. So how do we define “happy,” exactly? Life is nasty and brutish and deeply unfair, and Jeffrey’s religion is finding the sacred and the good in that.

Still, I’m not sure how many more generations of butchers the Ruhalters will be able to boast. My daughters’ daughters will probably be gobsmacked by the idea that we used to eat other living beings – either for survival or because we liked it, it won’t matter by then — in the same way I can’t fathom a concept like segregated water fountains. Sometime soon, eating meat probably won’t be legal, which means there’ll be a thriving black market for it. You’ll know a guy who knows a guy who makes blood sausage in his basement.

This is what I think of as I lie awake, replaying the trickle of blood down Fred’s jaw, waiting to feel an emotional tug pulling me one way or the other. Eventually, I fall asleep and wake Sunday morning – less conflicted, for now at least — to the smell of bacon.


[photo c. kelly turso]

#onthisday #onedaylate #jamesbrown #apollo #godfatherofsoul #fivedollarfine

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