Southern Legitimacy Statement: This work focuses on my relationship with my father and meat, and it takes place in the polarized city: Houston, Texas. Houston is my birth place as well as my homeland. I remained in the South for my undergraduate education at Elon University in North Carolina.
Eating Stripes, Saving Lives
I was born and raised in Houston, Texas, land of longhorns, humidity, oil, and ribeye steaks the size of small children. My parents never had children in their plans. They partied the first ten years of their marriage. They owned a lake house, where they teased and taught their friends how to waterski on the weekends. I have seen videos of my Dad laughing at Aunt Karen as she wiped out trying to stand up from that awkwardly bottled-up, embryonic position in between the two skis. His laugh grew in volume as he sped the boat up so she reluctantly let go of the rope after she swallowed enough lake water to hydrate her for the week.
“You bastard!” she cackled, as she bobbed, waiting for him to steer the boat around to pick her up.
I’ve heard my parent’s old college friends say that no one used to throw down like Stan and Ingrid—or ‘Stingrid,’ if you will.
Like I said, my parents didn’t want children, but my Dad didn’t hate the idea of having a boy. Someone to coach. To race. To throw the perfect spiraling football to. To wrap his hands up like a mummy and teach to hit his boxing bag that hangs from the rafters of our attic. He was not yet thwarted by these fantasies when the unplanned pregnancy occurred, and it was me, a ‘girl.’
My Dad handed me a T bone at age one and a half, before I had made the shift to solid food, and was still slurping down and spitting out baby formula. I, apparently, smiled at the offering as I yanked it off of my high chair tray, sucked down the remaining meat around the bone until it glistened in the incandescent light of the kitchen chandelier.
“That’s my girl,” my dad said.
My mom’s mouth zipped shut in terror.
My parents said they wanted to give me a pal—only twenty-six months younger than me. I wonder if it was also another shot at birthing a boy, but baby Elizabeth Louise Bond inherited my mother’s love of skirts lined with feminine frills. I refused to wear dresses or skirts of any kind, so I sported custom made pantsuits to church at age five. I was my dad’s tomboy.
At the age of seven I saw myself a chef, making bacon, hotdogs, scrambled eggs, and hamburgers in the microwave. Every meal I ate revolved around the meat it contained. At restaurants, I loved to surprise the waiters, by how much I could consume. I ordered their ribeye. They would say: “Do you want a half order? Or are you going to split that with someone?”
I would just smile at them and shake my head. Feminine in only my muteness.
“Oh, just you wait,” my dad would say, pride spilling from the corners of his smile.
A challenge I always gladly accepted. Eating was something that I could not mess up. For I could, and still can, stretch my stomach to fit my needs.
I felt like I was about to perform a magic trick when the waiter put the plate of steak, mashed potatoes, and green beans down in front of me. I felt like I was about to gain special entrance or at least recognition into the adult world, because I was about to eat an adult portion, or so I viewed it.
As the waiter slunk back to our table to replace the emptied bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape (my parents’ favorite type of wine), which was poured on their wedding day—when my dad was almost too hungover to stand and sputter ‘I do.’ I heard the wine offset the hangover brilliantly. The waiter would always at least pretend to be astonished as he exclaimed to me: “My, how are you almost done with all that food.”
Still mute, I would finish my magic trick before the waiter’s very dark brown eyes. I smeared the last bites of pink bits in with the mashed potatoes and gulped it down. Ta da! His smiling eyes felt like an applause, but he would soon ask for an encore.
“Would anyone at the table be interested in desert?” he would coo.
Of course, I always would order any variation of bananas foster or tiramisu the restaurant offered.
I loved all animals as much as I loved steak. Many of my friends’ families had ranches passed down generationally, growing smaller with each new owner, to the point where the farm only functioned intimately for the family. All of the produce made was eaten by the family with the small leftovers being sold in front of Rice University’s football stadium every Saturday morning.
My friend—Anna Arnett—and her family fit into this stereotype. When I was thirteen, we would flip four-wheelers on the weekends at her ranch. Luckily, the long-yellowed grass padded our landing most of the time. But if we went by the creek the bark would grab at our skin on our way down. Anna always broke from the pain first and would ask to go back to play with goats and pigs, which we would do with blood running down our bodies. We didn’t realize how many times we could have died. I was merely concerned with being the tougher of the two. She was already better at remembering handshakes, which to me were choreographed riddles I would never solve. Toughness was all I had.
I remember one day we hit bark so badly that Anna had to go inside and confess our adventure, just for a few Band-Aids.
“That’s weak sauce,” I told her later, after Mrs. Arnett had scolded us and forbade us from visiting the four wheelers ever again.
“Weak sauce?” Anna asked.
“I don’t know, it’s something my dad says when you could have done better,” I said and shrugged.
While Anna was bartering details for care with her mom inside, I befriended some of the pigs. I of course named my favorite Wilber. Wilber was different from all the other pigs, they were all the same size, but the rest were all pink and Wilber was brown and had long fur. Wilber smooshed his nose to my palms frequently. That’s how he introduced himself and reminded me that he was there. His curly tail bounced around as he ran to an oak tree that neared the end of the wired fence and then ran back to me. I told him that he must be confused, he had to be a dog. He didn’t seem to understand me. I told him that maybe if he was really a dog, I could convince my mom to take him home with me. Our giant Doberman Andre had died a year before and it seemed to be my duty to find a replacement. Of course, my mom said that our house and backyard were not adept to handle a full-grown pig living in it.
That night, I had stayed for dinner at the Arnetts. Mr. Arnett had roasted the backstrap of a feral hog, his only trophy from the ‘night hunt’ he and Anna’s little brother, Jack, went on the night before. The backstrap, the meat near the hog’s spine, is the only edible meat from wild hogs. The heads can be hung for trophies, but just about everything else is useless and wasted. The fur is too mangled and wiry to be used as a rug or coat. Mr. Arnett was telling me about this when I said: “I’m sure the Native Americans would have found a way to use everything.”
“Well, that’s why the Indians, died. They didn’t know enough about what they killed. Not like we do now,” Mr. Arnett said.
He smiled as he saw my face visually processing this information.
“How far removed are wild hogs from pigs… like the pigs you guys have here,” I asked him, but also to the whole family in general.
“I am not sure, they are all a part of the ‘pig’ family,” Mr. Arnett answered with air quotes.
“Victoria said she made friends with the brown pig,” Anna remarked.
“The Kunekune?” said Mr. Arnett, laughing.
“I bet she will be relieved to know that KuneKunes are meant for shows, not eating,” he said.
I had not even realized that there was any sort of possibility of Wilber being eaten, but I was so filled with relief that I barely paused before wolfing down the backstrap.
During my Junior year of high school, I studied AP Environmental Science, a class my ‘smart’ friends called me a ‘simpleton’ for taking. This class made this simpleton gain more sensitivity and awareness for the plight of animals. I learned that we, the American people, don’t know as much about our food as Mr. Arnett led me to believe. I learned how we genetically modified chickens so that their breasts were so heavy that the birds toppled over, unable to walk. I watched documentaries where pigs live in claustrophobic cages with not an inch of negative space for comfort. At the time, I quieted my guilt by buying cage-free, free-range, organic, and grass-fed products.
IMPACT, the school’s dance company, was the most advanced dance class and repertory group a student could be in. I was in it and of course it occurred the same period that my favorite teacher, Mr. Mathews, taught ‘Russian Literature’ to an intimate class of my five best friends. Soon I had no idea what my friends were talking about on weekends and I grew quieter than normal. I visited the tiny River Oaks Bookstore on my street and the only book they had in their Russian Literature section was Anna Karenina—a book that failed to make it on the class syllabus. I bought it anyways and that book lived on the lap until I finished reading it. Tolstoy was my new obsession. I then read The Death of Ivan Ilyich in a day and continued to pursue short essays of his online. I quickly discovered “The First Step”—which comments on the cruelty of raising animals to trust, love, and depend on someone who will one day murder it. Tolstoy speaks of how humans repress an innate guilt that comes from eating something that had to be murdered and how the more we remove ourselves from the action of murder the deeper the guilt sinks into our souls.
I refused to realize what he was saying exactly, but saved the PDF as if I was filing away guilty evidence that would be assessed in a personal courtroom, later. Tolstoy and Mr. Mathews were the first people I admired that refused to eat meat.
One month later, I travelled to Namibia with my family and the Gittomers (a family so close to my own that we call each other cousins).
My cousin Ryan loves hunting and wanted some new exotic trophies, so he blew his raise from his hefty civil engineering job to book and plan this whole vacation. I had always wanted to go to Africa, but the fact that Ryan would be hunting these creatures who I saw as token treasures tainted my dream to nightmare. However, anxious Ingrid, my mother who I then called by her first name, felt that my move to college was an overall departure from our family. My demanding dance rehearsal schedule made it so I would sometimes go three days without seeing Ingrid, which made her suck in air with subdued sadness she would never fully own up to. I knew she missed waking me and Elizabeth up at the same time to the smell of bacon and banana bread, so I would quiet my inherent hate for hunting in an attempt to reconnect with my family.
When we landed in Windhoek, we were pleasantly greeted by a large blonde woman who resembled a beautiful blonde. She was so regal in her tan safari wear that everyone in my family looked down at our plane-wrinkled clothes in embarrassment.
“Hello, I am Marina! Let Manu get your luggage,” Marina said with a slight German drawl.
Stan, my dad, had to tilt his head upward to look her in the eyes when she spoke.
Ingrid was itching to show-off the Hochdeutsch she learned from her German mother.
“Danke, dass Sie uns abgeholt haben,” she said, something I couldn’t understand.
So, this was Marina, the lady who made a living by selling a special kind of murder. I knew that she was the one in charge of this “Namibia Luxury Hunting Safari.” A silent dark-skinned man managed to carry all of our luggage in his arms.
Marina and my mother bonded quickly, speaking in a hybrid of German and English. Marina was the more diplomatic out of the two, more often forcing the conversation to English to talk to my father, sister, and me.
When we arrived at the lodge, I could only see the outdoor fireplace. There was no outdoor light. My eyes soon adjusted to notice the long two-story hut that was sparse of windows. I joined my cousins by the fire and was immediately met with a kind face asking me if I wanted a rum and coke. I felt bad saying yes and felt worse watching her slowly pour my younger sister the drink. I’m sure this waitress was paid well, but I found the fact that even in this part of Africa—where there are far more black people than white people—Marina, this white woman, was the boss of all of only black people. I guess I assumed that there would be more racial equality in Namibia.
Over the fire Marina talked to the ‘ladies’ who were not hunting about possible ideas for excursions. I did not love being segmented in this way, like something that needed to be entertained. But then she went into detail as the fire cracked.
“In the mornings, I wake up early to go to the village, and anyone who wishes may join. I just drop off the meat we failed to use from the hunt two days ago and give it to the children,” Marina said.
“These are villages filled with AIDS orphans… their parents died of AIDS, so they are raised by the elderly, non-infected villagers,” Ryan clarified.
“Yes, these animals are so delicious over here, that not one bit of meat gets thrown away,” Marina said proudly. A small smile then grew upon Marina’s lips.
“So as of now the only hunters we have are Ryan and Craig. Will there be any more?” Marina said.
She let a long silence pass.
“I did arrange for more hunters to be ready tomorrow morning, just in case,” she said.
“Oh, hell, I’ll go,” Stan said.
I was shocked.
“Just don’t kill a giraffe or Zebra,” I said.
“Oh well there is a zebra that the hunters are after,” Marina said.
After… like some escaped convict… I thought.
“What?” I said.
“We only kill the animals that do harm to our reservation,” Marina said.
I didn’t think she knew what a reservation was.
“Certain older animals make it harder for the herd to stay healthy. For instance, this mare zebra acquired a disposition so that she hates all males.”
“Sounds like me,” Ingrid said.
This made Marina cackle a little too hard.
“Oh Ingrid, you and me both!” Marina said.
“But Victoria, you must recognize that this is extremely problematic because now the zebra herd will not grow. It must keep reproducing,” Marina said.
“There is also a temperamental male eland who has gotten so competitive with the young bucks that he has killed more than three. He’s so big, he would be a nice trophy too,” Marina said.
Stan perked up.
“Eland! That’s where Victoria’s going to school next year,” he said, so confident with his pronunciation.
“Elon, Stan,” I said.
“Don’t you call me that,” he said, embarrassed by the fact that I corrected him, pretending like that’s not what I’ve been calling him for three years. Though I now wore skirts and danced instead of running track, Stan and I now shared bonds of introversion, learning disabilities, fitness fanaticism, and a need to constantly rebel against bosses and societal norms.
It was decided that Stan was going to go hunting in the morning with the only white hunter, Hanuk. He convinced my mom, my sister, and me to go along with him. The next morning, a quick sea of black and white stripes came blazing past the green, windowless Toyota. Hanuk sped behind them, but then stopped once I cried giraffe (you are not supposed to make any noise when you hunt, and I knew this innately from my upbringing, but all awareness left me when I saw those large brown ears bobbing through the trees, wild). These giraffes ran as if their necks were their main propeller instead of their pelvis.
Hanuk used the time my sister and I fawned over these majestic creatures to tell Stan and Ingrid about himself. He apparently fought in World War II on the German’s side. This made Elizabeth and me whip our heads around.
“Yes, I’m the only non-bush hunter. All the other hunters here grew up in Namib, before we were independent from South Africa. They all grew up hunting in the bush to feed themselves, I learned how to hunt in the war,” Hanuk said.
I was happy he stopped telling his story there.
“Well, can we go find that zebra? I know you will kill it by the end of the day,” Hanuk said.
Ingrid, Elizabeth, and I both cringed visibly.
Hanuk drove us to a few watering holes. For a while I think my family and I forgot what we were doing. But then Hanuk spotted the herd. He motioned for Stan to take aim, but kept having to move the neck of the gun so that Stan was pointing at the right zebra. I prayed that he missed, and he did. The bang scared all of the zebras and they darted away.
I then looked at Stan and felt bad.
“Damnit,” he said.
I knew his pride was on the line.
Hanuk barely took a second to hesitate. He grabbed the steering wheel and jabbed his foot on the gas pedal. We followed the zebras in the car for a while. Eventually they stopped near some low trees.
“Stalk,” Hanuk said to Stan and motioned for him to get out of the car with him.
“You guys wanna come?” Stan asked.
But just as he finished the last breath of his thought Hanuk intervened, “Only one can come. No more.”
“Vicky, you wanna come?” Stan said, knowing that I have never once enjoyed being called ‘Vicky.’
And I did not want to go. I wanted to remain unaware of what was going on. But I felt the challenge so I accepted.
We ‘stalked’ or followed the zebras for an hour, according to Stan’s Fitbit. I oftentimes forgot that we were after something, that we were hunting; being in Africa and walking on this quintessentially African tall yellow grass with the low wide trees that seem to open up to the sky like a fan. It all took my breath away. I often forgot that we had to stay in a low squat as we walked. Stan cramped up a few times, but Hanuk kept moving and so did I. I would not be the weakest one in this challenge.
The herd finally settled down to enjoy some low hanging leaves.
Hanuk told me to stay behind about a hundred yards and because I did not have a relative idea to how long that was, I just stayed put.
I saw Stan take aim over a tripod. His hands were shaking. I never saw him so vulnerable; I felt his embarrassment pour over me, what I thought he was experiencing, and I felt awful for wanting him to miss the first time, but just by glancing at the zebra. The old leader of the herd. The monarch about to be dethroned, this thing who Ingrid felt connected to. I automatically took it all back. I wanted Stan to miss.
He shot the rifle.
A half second of relief went over me, thinking he had missed, but that was just the amount of time it took the bullet to split the flesh of the zebra’s muscular neck. Her head flung back from the implosion before her weight redirected the momentum so that her side body thudded upon a small shrub. The hump that the shrub provided lifted the old girl’s head up just enough so that it looked like a proper funeral bed.
I realized that my mouth was hanging wide opened. I closed it before anyone else could see.
Hanuk ran back to the car (somehow, he remembered where it was in this maze) to load the trophy onto.
I slowly walked to her. Stan was already at her side smiling.
Once I got close enough, I could see blood spurting out of her neck like a stream stopped up by stones. Her eyelids twitched rapidly, like she could feel herself dying.
I made myself take one slow stable breath before I said:
“Shoot her again, she looks like she’s in pain.”
“It’s dead!” he said.
“But her eyes,” I said, my panic becoming more audible.
“That’s just its body shutting down. It’s not conscious.”
“Oh,” I managed to say.
As I walked back, I was so thankful that I had decided to wear my mom’s oversized, square sunglasses. It held my tears in its ridges. My eyes were hidden by their dark shade. I was unaware of how concealed my puffy red eyes were until Stan said; “I’m glad you were the one to come with me. Elizabeth or Ingrid would have given me shit, made me feel terrible. You are tough. You get it,” he said.
The next day was my birthday, July 10th. The cook, Helmut, grilled the old girl like a high-dollar ribeye: dark thin crust on the outside and pink softness on the inside. Elizabeth refused to eat her. I looked at it on my plate. I felt my stomach invert.
I ate my green beans and salad slowly, until Stan noticed my meat was perfectly intact.
“Are you gonna try what I got?” he asked me.
“Oh yeah, just saving it for last,” I said.
I bit into it. It was tender. Probably the best meat I had ever put in my mouth. My gut told me it was wrong. My mind told me that most of the food I ate didn’t have a life as good as this old girl. I ignored the tremors from my gut and ate every last piece. I felt sick.
Helmut came out with a cake the size of his face.
“I heard chocolate cake was your favorite!” he said, so excitedly.
Everyone clapped and sang a disjointed happy birthday. I smiled the whole time so hard that the corners of my mouth were already fighting to come back down.
I blew out my candles, but didn’t touch the ten layered chocolate cake.
On the seventeen-hour plane ride home I sat up and obsessively rewrote the zebra murder scene five times. I would finish one version and then become flooded with specific details that I had left out and events from the trip that suddenly seemed to inform the actions I had and had not taken. I made countless pros and cons lists and flipped many coins to decide which college I should attend the following Fall, yet I faced no indecision when I gave up meat. I would go to Elon University and never eat meat again. Stan would think that I do this to keep extra fat from my limbs.