How I nearly became what I served
Until recently I could have claimed I’d gone my entire life without touching a buffalo penis. Not so now. But don’t blame me; a buffalo penis is probably the last thing you’d expect to find at Atlanta’s ritziest restaurant.
To be fair, I was not actually inside the restaurant, but rather in its adjoining gourmet market, Star Provisions, where there’s an entire section devoted to fancy pet chews. It turns out that dehydrated braided buffalo penises are an epicurean delicacy for dogs. They come twisted two together, basted to the color of nicotine, and hard enough to knock against the table. Surprisingly I’m pretty unruffled at the thought of my dog chewing on an expensive dehydrated buffalo penis. What does ruffle me, though, is the thought of the thing rehydrating itself somehow—maybe after a summer shower or some excessive dog slobber—and there it would be on my porch, all amputated and untwisted.
So I bought my dog a hoof of some kind instead, which came from another bucket among the many buckets of dehydrated animal oddities—snouts, ears, faces. It would appear that it’s a big shame at Star Provisions to let any part of the animal go to waste. An actual butcher shop of fancy meats, the kind consumed by people, was located across the retail area. There, sliced loins were lovingly displayed and so expensive I wondered if they came with a side of diamonds.
I don’t eat meat myself, though I’m not a vegetarian. My aversion started in high school, when I lied about my age to get a job waiting tables at a fancy steak restaurant in San Diego. Back then the waitresses hair-sprayed their perms into giant coiffed clouds and wore more makeup than performing drag queens, heels so high you could use them to hunt bison, microscopic skirts, and clingy low-cut blouses. The patrons were almost exclusively big, suit-wearing, meat-eating men who left lavish tips and had broad expectations for the concept of “service.”
The restaurant itself was a dark, windowless enclave decorated with stones and red-and-gold brocade wallpaper—a gilded cave. When my shift ended, I remember being blinded by sunlight when I opened the door to leave. I don’t know how I got hired, all clean-faced and flat-chested as I was, except to say that the restaurant was located in a hotel and had to offer breakfast service. As almost none of the senior waitresses had it in them to slap together their customary getups at 5 a.m., it fell to eager, lying teenagers like me to pick up the slack. Occasionally I got to work the lunch shift, and that is where the meat came in.
For one thing, the lunch menu weighed forty pounds. It was a giant tray upon which a sample of every meat the menu had to offer was displayed. We lugged these huge trays to the tables, teetering on the javelins we had for heels, and from them the customers chose their cuts. The chef kept plenty of other animal pieces at the ready, none to be wasted—but somehow most of it was. Customers commonly requested a bowl of hot blood, for example, to go with their steak, and the chef was happy to oblige, happy that another part of the animal wasn’t going to waste. At the end of the day, though, there always seemed to be more in the trash than ever made it out to the tables. I wish there were some horrific kitchen confidential I could impart here as to why I acquired an aversion to meat, but that wasn’t it. It was more subtle than that.
It was literally the light of day that did it. One day I went to work and spent the morning and afternoon as normal in that darkened hovel, lugging the loads of meat, both raw and charred, as well as the bowls of blood and the Bloody Marys—all atop those impossible heels, in a skirt short enough to be a belt. Before I knew it, I’d made $300 in tips, mostly because by then I’d learned from the veteran waitresses how to bat my eyes and sidle up to the tyrannosaurs. The money made me less miserable than usual. Then my shift ended and I went outside and was once again blinded by the light. I never went back. And this is why I rarely eat steak: It simply reminds me of how close I came to becoming just another piece of meat, and how, no matter what part of me was sure to get used up, still most of me was bound to go to waste.
Illustration by Peter Arkle