In an industrial corner of South St. Paul, not far from the famous, now-shuttered stockyards, the Long Cheng Hmong livestock and meat-processing market sits between a semi-truck repair shop and a wooden-pallet maker that coats the parking lot with a fine layer of sawdust. Long Cheng makes its presence known with its ripe, barnyard stench. In warm weather the smell travels several blocks, so that outside Valentino's nightclub eau de manure commingles with testosterone and cologne—another animal scent, of sorts. Inside the market, the odor isn't as acrid as chicken scat or as putrid as a canine belch. Still, it takes some getting used to.
In the market's central corridor, customers—mostly Hmong, but also African, Latino, and Russian immigrants—loiter and wait for their purchases, languages blending into background music. A few meat buyers stand in the doorway between the waiting and butchering areas, speaking to an older Hmong man draped in a bright-yellow rubber apron. An unconscious pig hangs from a hoist by its hooves, and after a bit of gesturing, the man in the apron leaves his post and quickly returns with an empty glass casserole dish. Its function becomes apparent when the butcher slits the pig's throat and a deep crimson wave gushes into the dish, fast as vomit, frothing at the surface. When the dish is full, the man pours the thick red liquid into a plastic bag and hands it to the men. And you thought Gran Torino was bloody.
AT THE BACK OF LONG CHENG'S waiting area, a handwritten sign next to a small window reads, "stomach cleaning service needs to be paid here at office." One morning this winter, I was invited behind the Plexiglas into the cramped quarters overseen by Ko Vang, Long Cheng's office manager, who agreed to answer my questions. Vang wore a gray sweatshirt and a bright-pink hat and scarf set that stood out among the piles of papers and office equipment. Someone had scrawled the phone number for a nearby Burger King on a yellow Post-It note and stuck it to the wall.
Long Cheng, Vang explained, is owned by Pao C. Yang and his nephew, Pao T. Yang, and was started about 20 years ago to meet the demand for fresh, bulk meats that coincided with the Hmong immigration to St. Paul. While most Americans have severed their ties to food production over the last few generations, many Hmong immigrants have kept them close. In Southeast Asia, the Hmong have long been a rural, agrarian people who lived in remote, mountainous areas where animal husbandry and slaughter were part of daily life. To Hmong immigrants unfamiliar with urban culture, buying chicken at an American supermarket would be more foreign than killing the birds themselves.
Custom slaughterhouses like Long Cheng make up a small, somewhat libertarian branch of the meatpacking industry. Meat sold commercially in supermarkets or restaurants must be inspected by either federal or state Department of Agriculture employees who act as representatives for the consumer. But if an individual buys a live animal at a custom slaughterhouse (or brings his own animal) and pays someone to slaughter it (or slaughters it himself), the individual can take responsibility for the butchering process. While commercial slaughterhouses are subject to continuous inspection, their custom brethren are checked periodically to ensure they're following Humane Slaughter Act guidelines and proper sanitation procedures. As the owner of a live animal, the individual is categorized similar to a farmer, who has the right to kill and eat his livestock without government intervention.
Long Cheng employs about 15 to 20 people and is one of the few custom slaughterhouses in the Twin Cities (others include Long Cheng's neighbor, Concord Fresh Meat Processing, and Jeffries Chicken Farm in Inver Grove Heights). According to Vang, the Yangs buy mammals from a broker who operates in Zumbrota and Iowa. The chickens—Hmong prefer black chickens, finding their meat the most tender, she says—come from Amish growers in Iowa and Wisconsin. Vang estimates Long Cheng sells several thousand birds a week.
Vang's family of five—plus one on the way—is smaller than that of most Hmong, she says. "Hmong can have 10 to 12 kids per family." Having arrived in the United States as a baby, Vang says she's largely Americanized, as are her children ("They like to eat microwave stuff, or McDonald's hamburgers"), so she tends to buy meat at the supermarket. But for many Hmong immigrants, buying whole animals is a customary and affordable way to feed a large family. (Prices vary from 75 cents to $1.25 per pound, live weight, depending on the size and type of animal). "A pig will last maybe three weeks," Vang says.
According to Hmong tradition, animals are often sacrificed for significant events, such as welcoming a new baby or honoring the deceased. If a loved one passes away, a Hmong family might buy, say, 5 to 15 cows, Vang notes. Hmong funerals can last several days, so the ritual of cow sacrifice also has a practical purpose, as hundreds, even thousands of mourners may need to be fed. The cows cost anywhere from several hundred dollars to upward of a thousand—a large cow could weigh half a ton. Some of Long Cheng's customers, Vang says, are still in the habit of bartering as they did in their home countries. "Lots of people know Pao, and they come in and say, 'I want a $20 discount,'" she says. "And I want to say, 'Do you people know what business is?'"
Though Yang has improved his property over the years, recently adding a separate wing for cow butchering, Vang says the business is always threatened by encroaching urban sprawl. The more residential the area becomes, she says, the less tolerance there will be for Long Cheng's smell. "We just never know when they're going to shut us down," she says.
EVER SINCE UPTON SINCLAIR'S The Jungle exposed the corruption and hazards of the meatpacking industry, American slaughterhouses have remained a subject of some controversy. The plants tend to maintain low profiles and are somewhat secretive about their gruesome, often dangerous work. American consumers, it seems, have been largely content to ingest the meatpackers' products while ignoring their procedures. But at Long Cheng, the butchering process can't be avoided. Not only do customers watch the process, they participate.
In a large shed behind Long Cheng's office, sheep, goats, and pigs mill around in pens until one is selected for slaughter. The animal is then led through a small door and into a chute on the kill floor, where it is met by a man in rubber boots, hard hat, and a long yellow apron. (The mammal butchers all seem to be men, the poultry butchers, women.) Most of the men carry holsters containing three or four knives and hang a couple of sharpening steels from their belts. Occasionally, an animal will stand up on its hind legs and bleat, as if it knows what is fated.
Pigs are stunned with a device that looks something like a large pair of scissors, which the operator clamps around the animal's head and uses to deliver an electric shock. After several seconds the animal loses consciousness and collapses. Sheep and goats are stunned with a shot to the head from a captive bolt pistol, otherwise known as a "cash special." Instead of containing bullets, the stun gun releases a retractable bolt, which strikes a blow that's forceful enough to cause a concussion.
The unconscious animal is then hung on a hoist, sometimes still twitching, and weighed with a digital scale. The worker slits its neck artery and, after the blood has been collected in a large tub, dunks the animal in a scalding water bath. Most customers request the animal's hair be removed in a debristling machine that rolls and tosses the animal as if caught in a spinning combine head. Any remaining hair is shaved off with a disposable razor or singed with a powerful blow torch that looks like the one Carrie Fisher fired at John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd in the The Blues Brothers.
The hairless carcasses hang with their heads up and feet splayed, their taut white skin as smooth as rubber. A worker wielding a roaring chainsaw splits a hog straight down the middle, and its intestines spill out like clumps of beige water balloons. The carcass is laid on a table, where another employee cuts it into smaller pieces with a few forceful hacks of a machete. The next worker takes those pieces and slices them with a screaming band saw. He slides half of the pig's face through the spinning blade as if it were a block of wood, and tosses the pieces into a wheelbarrow.
In an area adjacent the kill floor, customers pack up their wheelbarrow's contents and then sort through the animal's internal organs at a row of sinks. A woman rinses a long string of intestines, pulling and stretching them as if she were washing out a pair of pantyhose. Vang says the Hmong use every part of the animal: the bitter liquid of the gallbladder, the "bottom parts" (which I take to mean the reproductive organs), and the blood, which can be cooked with mint and green onions to make something she calls "Jell-O meat." "It's actually really good," she says.
The customers seem as comfortable plunging their arms into a sink full of warm, slippery organs as they do wandering right through the kill floor. While some simply poke their heads through the door to holler instructions, others barge right past the carcasses, chainsaws, and torches to talk face-to-face with the butchers. On one visit to Long Cheng, I saw evidence that the customers had perhaps overstepped their bounds. Near the office, a sign instructed, "Customers are no longer allowed to use the torches." I asked Vang about it—customers were using the torches? Apparently, sometimes they borrowed the flamethrowers for a few minutes to char the animal's feet—one of the best parts of a pig, Vang says—to improve their taste. "You know how people grill steak," she offers.
Most Long Cheng customers have been exposed to the slaughtering process since youth, and several had children in tow. One man held a toddler right up next to the window to get a better look. Vang and I stood alongside them and watched the workers butcher a sheep. "I do feel sad," Vang admitted. "I have little babies at home, and when you see their eyes, it's just like your kids."
WHILE LONG CHENG'S OPERATION helps sustain the local-food movement, it doesn't deal in free-range, pasture-raised, or organics; it's not the idealist's "happy meat." While I didn't see any animals suffering more than would be expected, the process is more efficient than sympathetic—no Beethoven Muzak or soothing pats make the animals' last minutes more pleasant. The windowless room behind the poultry processing area is jam-packed with live chickens, some still in cages, others strutting around, heads bobbing and pecking. The room smells of musty feathers and dust, and occasionally a rooster lets out a telltale whoop.
I stood dumbly, like a suburbanite out of her cubicle, until an employee showed me how to grab a chicken, pull back its wings, and feel for the plumpness of its breast (I relied on her judgment). The other customers made their selections—grabbing chickens by the feet and tossing them into plastic crates as nonchalantly as supermarket shoppers might throw cans of soup into their carts. While I waited for a second bird, I held my first selection tucked under my arm, cradling it like a football. The chicken cuddled next to me, decidedly calm, and after a few minutes I felt our breathing synch. I decided to put the chicken down and pick out another one.
In the adjacent room, two women slit the chickens' throats and tossed their bodies into large plastic bins. One of the women crouched with the bird between her legs, pulled the head back with one hand, and used the other to slice with one swift motion. Death wasn't always immediate: One bird, clinging to life, hopped out of the plastic bin and perched on its edge, bleeding from the neck, until one of the workers knocked him back in.
After a trip through the loud, rickety feather picker, the bald birds slid out a chute and into the gutting area. Standing at the rows of sinks, customers toting five-gallon pails and sharp knives went to work removing any remaining pin feathers, decapitating the birds, removing the feet and internal organs. A lone chicken strutted past the sinks, too oblivious to make a run for it. A teenage girl dressed in canvas high-tops and a skull-and-crossbones sweatshirt split a bird down the middle as easily as she might have microwaved a Hot Pocket.
BUT THE CHICKEN and small-mammal rooms are really just a warm-up for the cow abattoir in the back of the building. When I was there, the scene looked almost like a contemporary buffalo hunt, with a group of customers gathered to help with the more detailed processing. The employees worked on two enormous carcasses, while a third cow waited in a stanchion, just a few feet from a severed cow's head lying on the floor. One employee disassembled one of the carcasses with a chainsaw, while another sliced off the second animal's skin, as if peeling back a thick shag rug. A set of Flintstone-size ribs was tossed into a wheelbarrow and transported to a band saw.
Typically, customers buy whole animals, but sometimes Long Cheng sells beef in smaller portions. While Vang and I were talking, large piles of meat—heaping armloads of steaks, roasts, and stomach parts—had simply been set out on plastic-covered card tables for sale. To me, the display looked as odd as cellophane-wrapped meat on Styrofoam trays must have seemed to the first Hmong immigrants. Vang told me that the piles, which looked to weigh maybe 30 pounds, cost $100 apiece. Within a half-hour or so all were gone or spoken for, covered by a paper marked "SOLD."
It's hard to say how long the next generations of Long Cheng customers will keep the market in business. As the immigrants assimilate and our cities sprawl, custom slaughtering may be pushed out eventually, but not for now. A few feet from the card tables, a young girl with neat cornrow braids amused herself by spinning in circles, while an employee put a goat's head into a plastic bag and handed it to the girl's mother. After a while, the girl stopped twirling and watched the butchers through the glass. I pointed to the window and asked what she thought. The girl paused, and then glanced at me shyly. "It's cool," she said. I raised my eyebrows. "Do you think you could do that job, or would you be scared?" I asked. "I think I could do it," she replied.