I’ve already told you that Slachthuisbuurt translates as “slaughterhouse neighborhood.” If you know me, you’re likely making some joke in your head about my crushing love of bacon and pork chops. I mean, where else would Clark live, right?
But now it’s time to come clean.
Not long after we moved to the Netherlands, before we got the keys to our place in Haarlem, my wife and I were at dinner with friends in Amsterdam. Just as we were tucking into some nice roast chicken, our phones pinged at the same time.
It was a text message from our 13-year-old daughter. “OMG. Just had a life-changing experience.” Then a second text: “No emergency. I just watched a video about what they do to chickens in slaughterhouses.” The rest of our delicious meal was eaten in funereal silence, as if one could feel an entire culinary era coming to an end.
When we got home that night, our daughter showed us the video. It featured all the traumatizing footage of animal slaughter, meat processing, and waste disposal that you might expect (chicken slurry, anyone?), plus some pretty compelling expert opinions: “Cheese is really nothing but moldy hunks of semi-fermented cow mucus.”
That’s how, when, and why my kid went vegan. Not just vegetarian. Vegan. And by extension, my wife and I did too in support of her.
The next day, we emptied the kitchen of all animal products. No meat, no eggs, no dairy. Even the honey had to go. I talked myself down off the Meat Ledge with self-assurances about how I’d had a mostly excellent 50 year run with porterhouses and pork chops, omelettes and pound cakes. I could get by without them now. Nutritional yeast, I was told by my newly minted teen expert, was a great substitute for Parmesan cheese.
“Lunga vita al lievito!” said no Italian. Ever.
We did have some pretty pricey and delicious non-vegan tidbits still knocking around the house, and I am neither wasteful nor stupid, although some might disagree with the latter. So, I disposed of the jamon iberico in an entirely appropriate and dignified manner. Same with the manchego cheese, and those Magnum ice cream bars.
All this to say that by the time we left our temporary digs in Amsterdam and moved into our house in Haarlem, we were all (mostly) animal-product free. Vegans in the Slaughterhouse. Slap some (egg-free) mayonnaise on that irony sandwich and call it lunch, right?
I quickly discovered that the Slachthuisbuurt had its ways of reinforcing that decision. Every day, we cycled past the old slaughterhouse to get to school. The mostly empty buildings loomed silently out of the late-winter mist, a haunting reminder to stay the course during those first few weeks, when we were sorely tempted by every kebab shop and American hamburger joint between here and Amsterdam. There are 28, but who’s counting?
Then, in April, I met Henk and Hilda.
OK, I have no idea if their names are really Henk and Hilda, but it’s what I started calling these two porkers. These swine are now, in my mind, the unofficial mascots for a new, improved, and far less stabby Slachthuisbuurt.
My daughter saw them first, about two weeks after we moved in. She came home from school one day and said, “Oh Dad, have you seen the giant pigs eating in that little park right in front of the entrance to the old slaughterhouse?”
“Talk about your final meal,” I said.
“No, they’re pets. Some guy just walks them around out there and they eat. Some people even go up and pet them.”
This required an immediate trip to the recycling bins, which also happen to be near the park. Sure enough, Henk and Hilda were out there munching, snorting, and defecating with reckless abandon, pretty much giving the middle hoof to the faded memory of Haarlem’s House of Porcine Death.
Are these pigs ugly? Terrifically! I’ve tried to look up what breed they are, but can’t find a picture online that quite matches what I see in the oh-so-abundant flesh. I don’t know that physics can adequately explain how they manage to walk or even remain standing.
They sometimes stray onto the sidewalk, but never out into traffic. In fact, the entire Slachthuisbuurt seems to just flow around them. Pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers all go by without even giving them a second glance. “Pet pigs in the park? Oh, yes, it happens here. Ha, ha.” And to think that not that long ago, many Henks and Hildas were being herded through those gates every day in the interest of churning out all manner of salty, delicious, export-grade spek.
*Stops typing. Grabs drool cup.*
I know there are plenty of other facilities across Holland, and around the world, that are doing this on an industrial scale. If I ever need a reminder, I get on my bike and head to another part of Haarlem, where there is an entire facility devoted to the production and sale of bacon. Just bacon. The smell alone is enough to help me transcend space and time. There also happens to be a large-scale coffee roasting outfit nearby. Now, if you will, imagine the combined smell of those two places. I think of it as a contact high for me as (almost) vegan. It convinces my reptilian brain that I’ve had more for breakfast than a bowl of whole-grain gruel with chia seeds sprinkled on top.
Clearly my own attempt at veganism is full of contradictions.
But for now, I’m happy to live in a neighborhood with at least two constant reminders that animals don’t have to live in horrible conditions, or die horrible deaths, in order to try to satisfy my ultimately unsatisfiable craving for their tasty flesh.
Henk and Hilda make me want to be a more thoughtful, more responsible denizen at the top of the food chain. They also still make me a little bit hungry for baby back ribs. I’m glad I’m following my daughter’s lead, trying to do something right for the animals, and for the planet. But I also think grilled pork chops taste better than raw turnips, and I probably always will.
When the yin and yang of this attempt to go vegan start fighting like this, it’s time to head to the park for a little Henk and Hilda viewing time. Luckily, I have a bag of raw cashews and dried cranberries that both the pigs and I can snack on.
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