Category Archives: Philosophy

Girls Don’t Grill Hamburgers, Really?

“Whaaaaaat?!? Girls don’t grill hamburgers!”

That was my 4 and a half year old daughter’s exclamation upon seeing this picture of me on Facebook flipping burgers at Saturday’s benefit party for the upcoming Rapid Pulse International Performance Art Festival.

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(Thanks to benefit attendee “HR” for snapping this pic and sending it to me to post on my social media at the event…hopefully there will be some good professional pics to come.)

My jaw dropped, and I felt a bit queasy.

If ever I questioned what I am trying to do with the Burlesque Butcher character, these stinging words from my daughter heightened the necessity and deepened my resolve. Words from my daughter–a child who has watched me butcher and cook numerous animals (many of them over a grill), who has accompanied me to farms and slaughterhouses to pick up animal carcasses, who has helped me build things with real tools, who has seen me sweaty and grungy doing typical “boy” things as often as she has seen me in dresses with perfect makeup and heels. Where is she getting this stuff? Her incredulous comments speak to a vital need for far, far more active normalization of the equalization of genders in all forms of cooking and food preparation. When I think back…has she ever seen a woman other than me grill something? I don’t think so.

Why is most home cooking done by women (and expected to be done by women) yet ignored or even regularly maligned while considered necessary? Why is most restaurant cooking (especially at the celebrity chef level) done by men? Why do women not carve the turkeys and roasts they prepared at dinner parties but rather let that final glory be overtaken by men? Why does backyard grilling default to men?

When pressed as to where my daughter got the notion that girls didn’t grill hamburgers she revised her original exclamation, hedging, “Well…girls don’t usually grill hamburgers.” I resisted the urge to rant and built on the door she left open a crack to explain (in 4-year-old accessible language) that it’s totally okay for girls to grill hamburgers and that, in fact, they should do it more often!

At the event itself, while out there in the alley over the course of a couple hours (everyone entering and leaving the space had to walk by me, so ample opportunity for discourse), I had three different types of conversations, which also reaffirmed what I’m doing with this character. With men, most of the initial comments were along the lines of “it’s so fun/cool to see a woman manning the grill for once” (granted these were men at a performance art event, so more inclined toward feminism and breaking gender norms). I got a few, more lecherous, men who either ogled or made comments about how what I was doing was sexy…and, to be fair, it was, and I like to feel that I make sexuality approachable, so the ensuing conversations also ended up being positive because I used my sex appeal as an entry point to explain the critique–and given the context the reception was welcoming not antagonistic. In a non-art context, though, I shudder to think what the reaction from most men might be…what I do does walk a fine line between T & A and social critique. Most women, when they do grill, don’t do it in platform heels. Women mostly just said they “got it” (I assume meaning the critique), but didn’t really engage me in much discussion while at the grill (later, when back inside just socializing at the party they did). It was fascinating (and compelling) that while at the grill, the vast majority of my conversations were with men.

Just the other day I was at a backyard barbecue hanging out with two seemingly feminist-leaning men, one of whom was cooking burgers over the grill, when he turned to the other man and asked if he knew how to tell if the burgers were done. He didn’t ask both of us mind you (he didn’t know about my performance art or long history with meat so he’s somewhat forgiven). The entrenched gender association of grilling with men, thrown in my face so blatantly and unexpectedly, floored me, especially when I thought I was in a context in which we both would have equally been asked such a question. The other man admitted he was a vegetarian so had no clue as to how to assess burger cooking progress. So me being me, I (hopefully gently concealing my shock) mentioned my meat passion and showed him how to press slightly on the burgers to sense how cooked they were by how jiggly they felt (more jiggly=more rare, although it does take practice to really get a feel for it–those of you who have a hard time getting perfectly medium or medium-rare burgers, might start using an instant read meat thermometer in tandem with the press-and-jiggle method to perfect your technique). The questioner genuinely seemed to be paying attention, which is not the usual reaction I encounter when guys ask for BBQ help, and I offer it, rather than some neighboring guy. I have gotten into some nasty tiffs with mansplainer personalities over meat advice.

Women…please! Unabashedly take over your backyard grills this summer (and carve the Thanksgiving turkey and the Christmas roast—I can’t tell you how many times I have bitten my tongue watching some man who had no freaking idea what he was doing butcher a carving job acting as the star of the show after his wife had slaved over the meal all day). There is no reason men should be monopolizing these “showcase” cooking roles and receiving accolades for what usually amounts to subpar food (with all due respect to my handful of male friends who do cook some mean BBQ or grilled items…).

Because clearly, even with a strong, feminist presence in her life, my daughter has, at 4, internalized some abhorrent stereotypes. The vast, vast majority of other people have too. These subtle forms of misogyny need to be more actively fought!

(And remember, you can help support my upcoming Rapid Pulse Festival performance here! For a donation of just $10, you can receive a recipe booklet with my favorite lamb recipes, some of which I created myself.)

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Why I Can’t Sell Meat

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A number of years ago, when I first got into buying my meat farm-direct and butchering it myself, I had an interesting conversation with one of my farmers, when I asked why they didn’t just slaughter and butcher themselves (they were having a hard time finding a slot at a slaughterhouse for my order). She said that in Illinois not only can you not legally sell an animal you slaughtered (or butchered) yourself, you can’t even give it away.

I still haven’t been able to corroborate that “no gifting” rule, as, if I recall correctly, in Illinois hunters can donate the deer they kill and field dress to charity organizations (although there may well be some special rule that allows for that specific practice only). But clearly there are plenty of rules that pretty much prevent anyone small from being able to legally butcher and exchange money for meat.

One of the major impediments to a profitable life facing small farmers are the statutes in most (if not all) states against the sale of meat butchered on the premises due to a variety of one-size-fits-all rules and regulations (the fabulous Joel Salatin has done a lot of advocacy on this issue and still can only process chickens on his farm). Illinois (as a consummate nanny state) might be one of the worst offenders. Reading through, as one example, the IL Sanitary Food Preparation Act (410 ILCS 650), a few things clearly emerge that would prevent any small farm, much less an individual, from meeting the criteria. There are other regulations too (beyond just food-specific ones including business licenses, zoning regulations, etc.), but I’ll just highlight a bit from this statute for now.

(There is one fascinating exception written into the law. Small beekeepers producing honey are exempt from all the regulations (see Section 7). The bee-keepers’ lobbying group must be strong! But then again, beekeepers wear those scary looking suits, carry smoke puffers, and voluntarily walk into swarms of bees. I don’t think I’d want to mess with them either.)

Two particular highlights from ILCS 650:

From Section 3: “every building, room, basement or inclosure [sic] occupied or used for the preparation, manufacture, packing, storage, sale or distribution of food shall have an impermeable floor made of cement or tile laid in cement, brick, wood or other suitable material which can be flushed and washed clean with water.” [Now, I’m not saying something like carpet would be a good floor covering on which to butcher, but there are certainly plenty of other scenarios besides cement or tile, and flushing and washing clean with water isn’t the only way to properly clean a floor post-food prep.]

From Section 10: “It shall be unlawful for any employer to require, allow or permit any person who is affected with any communicable or sexually transmitted disease to work, or for any person so affected to work, in a building, room, basement, inclosure, premises or vehicle occupied or used for the production, preparation, manufacture, packing, storage, sale, distribution, or transportation of food.” [This is the one I’m going to research further to write about, because, you know, HIV or herpes or HPV, for example, are clearly food-borne illnesses and should prevent people from working. Right? No. Absolutely not.]

So, what’s an artist to do given these legal constraints? (For that matter, beyond small farmers who should have the right to self-butcher on site, the regulations prohibit, for example, a neighborhood food coop buying a whole animal and having a skilled member breakdown the animal into cuts to sell to others. It may even prohibit a group of friends going in on an animal together if only one of them is doing the butchery.) I think a lot about issues of risk and ethics (in fact I’m teaching a class called “Risk and Ethics in Performance” at SAIC next spring that covers food-borne illness risk, in addition to things like exposure to blood-borne pathogens, public nudity, civil disobedience), so I’ve given this a lot of thought both as to how to creatively circumvent these rules and allow people to determine their own risk level without government intervention.

The fear that drives the nanny-state laws to be one-size-fits-all, instead of making exception for individuals and small providers, stems from the question “but what if someone gets sick?”. When we get sick from food, we want to blame someone else. And often, blame can and should be placed (for example in clear-cut cases of negligence). From my perspective, as long as the consumer (or gift recipient) is aware of the circumstances of butchery, they can make an educated choice whether to buy from that provider or to use the gift. We all have our own levels of risk we’re willing to take. Sometimes people get inadverently sick. Life happens. Would you sue your neighbors if they invited you to a dinner party and unintentionally gave you food poisoning?

I’ll give an example from the non-meat world as to how ridiculous regulations agaist gifting self-butchered meat are (people tend to have a particularly weak fear threshhold for meat items, due to media hype over mass, industrially produced food-poisoning incidents). I have received plenty of jars of homemade canned items over the years, some of which I know have a pathogen risk (being low-acid and thus at risk for botulism, which in my mind is a far scarier risk than something like E. coli). Given this, if I don’t know anything about the person’s food preparation background, I’ll gently ask what cannning method the person used. If such items were pressure canned, I’ll happily consume the contents. However, if water-bath canned, I’ll graciously accept the gift, but won’t use it—too risky in my mind. How many people use gifts of home-canned food without ever considering the circumstances of production? The gifting of jars of preserves is not banned by law (at least as far as I know…in Illinois, it wouldn’t surprise me if it was!).

People who take on projects like home canning and home butchery, from my experience, have really done their homework (I’ve never asked about canning procedures and gotten the wrong answer). No one wants to get anyone sick. Small farmers and small butchers can’t risk their reputations by getting people sick—so they have to take extra precautions. They also don’t have the profit margin to absorb the losses, like the giant, unethical, commercial-industrial producers.

For thousands and thousands of years people have been butchering meat under conditions quite different from what the IDPH (and the USDA) specify. And they’ve been fine. There are unwritten rules that need to be followed. Meat can only sit out at room temperature for so long before problems start. (You’d be surprised how long that is—I know I was surprised when I started reading butchery and food science books and articles. How many of you have traveled outside of the first world and seen animal carcasses hanging outside butcher shops all day? Believe it or not, that’s totally ok, because those animals were almost definitely slaughtered that morning.) Meat raised under proper conditions (or wild, hunted meat) does not have the same pathogen risk as animals in CAFOs (concentrated animal-feeding operations). With the advent of things like ice and refrigeration and soap and bleach, risk can be virtually eliminated.

So…how, as an activist, can I work within our fear-based, nanny-state system that prohibits me from butchering meat and selling it (or even giving it away). Well…I can transform it into “not meat”. I can transform it into art. Thus the “This is not meat, this is art!” labels were born. I am clearly labeling my artistic product as not meat. The person who voluntarily takes (or, through the Indie Go Go campaign, signs up for) a meat gift knows the circumstances of the artwork’s creation. If he or she decides to eat it, than that’s his or her decision. There are no laws against, for example, buying a million-dollar painting, then cutting it up into tiny pieces and eating it. You, as meat-art recipient, may do what you will with your gift!

What is “Burlesque” to the Burlesque Butcher

When people first hear about the Burlesque Butcher, they automatically think I’m a dancer, and although I love to dance, I’ve never practiced enough to be adequate to perform in that role. The incredible recent popularity of “burlesque” has led to a fairly narrow view of what this word means, especially with respect to a woman. Burlesque today, particularly in the popular imagination, conjures a sexy, erotically clad woman who does a dance rooted in strip tease with costuming and music often informed by a nostalgic sense of history (the icon for the new burlesque movement is someone like Dita von Teese–who I love, although I tend to prefer the more wide-ranging interpretations of the burlesque strip-tease artist presented in shows like Chicago’s Kiss Kiss Cabaret).

I do certainly mine this strip-tease history for the Burlesque Butcher’s work, but more often I play off of other definitions and historical contextualizations of the word. I also try to incorporate the more “male” side of both contemporary and historical burlesque shows by fusing elements from the “supporting acts” with those of the star performers.

I recently came across a historical Burlesque Butcher in the pages of a book, published in 1897, called Puppets at Large: Scenes and Subjects From Mr. Punch’s Show by F. Anstey (aka Thomas Anstey Guthrie).

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Mr. Punch’s Show, if you are not familiar with it, refers to the “Punch and Judy” puppet shows which have a long history of parody, critique, and education. The scene goes on to provide similar glimpses into the characters of a variety of other market vendors and attendees but few are described as evocatively as the Burlesque Butcher–the “Farsical Fishmonger (with two comic assistants)” and the “Lugubrious Vendor” come close). [Note: you can read the whole text here.]

What was so exciting to me about this 1897 Burlesque Butcher find was not only his gender but that someone dramatically and “triumphantly” selling something gory and cheap–“the scrag-end of a piece of mutton–had so many resonances with some of what I am trying to do with my Burlesque Butcher character in terms of nose to tail eating. Yes I love fancy food, but I appreciate the scrag-ends of pieces of mutton too (although true mutton is pretty impossible to come by in America these days).

It also prompted me to look up a then-contemporary definition of burlesque. As food for thought (pun intended!), I will leave you with this definition from the 1919 “concise” Oxford English Dictionary (I’ll try to track down the full first edition definition some other time):

BurlesqueDefinition1919ConciseOED