In another life, I think I would have been a butcher. There’s something so soothing in those steaks, ribs and roasting pieces, the way their overflowing piles remind me of the bounty of the land. Even as a customer, being surrounded by robust slabs of meat, awash in a sea of mauves and ochres, I take on a Zen-like calm. As a butcher, I’m sure my passion would be so contagious that I would send customers home laden with produce they had never intended to buy. The main downside is that this other, more butchering life would have to be one in which I was not with Natalie. And I quite like Natalie.
She’s not a judgmental person. If anything, she is the more open-minded of the two of us. Nor has she ever insisted that I abstain from meat, at least not entirely. However, living with a vegetarian and sharing a kitchen described by real estate agents as “compact”, I’m just not able to consume meat on the day-to-day. Even eating out carnivorously isn’t simple. I still can’t shake the mental image of the candle-lit dinner we shared, when Natalie wrinkled her snub nose every single time I took a bite of steak. She didn’t say anything, and it might simply have been a well-timed subconscious reaction to some restaurant aroma, but I took the hint anyway.
My main opportunity to indulge my meat-seeking side has been with Natalie away on business. Every few months, her employer would send her to their offices interstate, pay for her (vegetarian) meals and put her up in nice hotels. During those glorious weeks, I would be free to cook up a meat-storm in the kitchen. I’d invariably go shopping the first night, returning with a dazzling array: sirloin, duck breast, lamb shoulder. I wouldn’t even look up recipes first; my instincts would guide me. Armed with spices, rubs, and marinades, I would design a meal entirely around the centerpiece – the slab of farm beast on my kitchen counter.
It was on Natalie’s most recent trip away that I noticed a new butcher had opened near my office. It was my lunch break and I was walking past to grab a sneaky BLT. With an almost canine sense of smell, I was alerted to the presence of a previously-unknown meat market from half a block away. I stopped at the window display and stared, entranced. The steaks laid out before me were thick and delicately marbled. I imagined the contented cows from idyllic pastoral scenes that gave up their lives for my enjoyment, the way the filets would turn into melting morsels on a hot flame. In the end, I completely forgot about my sandwich and walked back to work with visions of roasting sinew in my eyes.
I didn’t even make it to five o’clock that day – I made an excuse to my boss and was back at the butcher’s in minutes. The moment I walked in the door of my flat, staggering under the weight of brown paper bags, I set to work. Soon, I had every pot and pan in the apartment in my service; every flame, oven and hotplate turned to full. At intervals, I would hold my nose in the air like a cartoon chef, inhaling the aromas of oxidizing meat. I had more than enough left-overs for several meals, but the very next night, I did it all again.
I was filled to overflowing, both with creativity and with animal hunger. At work during the day, I searched the web for inspiration: new cuts and cooking techniques; images of raw meat as far as the eye could see. My colleagues would walk by and catch me looking at screens that suggested a meat wholesaler’s idea of hard-core pornography.
It came skidding to a halt on the Friday afternoon of Natalie’s return. I had just finished loading the dishwasher with greasy plates when I heard her fiddling with the lock. I rushed to open it for her.
“Mmmmm…” she mumbled, as we stood there in the hallway, our arms around each other. “It’s good to be home.”
“I’ve missed you,” I said, which would undoubtedly have been true if I hadn’t discovered the Ying Luck Meat Company just a few days earlier.
Natalie collapsed onto the couch. She sniffed the air.
“You’ve been cooking meat,” she said.
I had sprayed a lot of air freshener around the night before, but the equivalent of catering a four-day-long Argentinean wedding was going to leave a trace.
She didn’t say anything else, but I could sense her disapproval. For the first time, it occurred to me that she had expected that I would change over time; that by now I would have developed a taste for seitan and chickpea patties. My need to consume a cow’s worth of beef every time she took off for work was obviously a slap in the face. I either had to change my diet, which was impossible, or be much more sensitive.
The problem was that I had opened the floodgates and any attempt to stanch the flow would be futile. I wasn’t going to be able to stick to falafel every night; not with the knowledge of eleven different ways with prime beef; not when I walked past the emporium of possibility every morning and afternoon. I needed to think through how I could reconcile my love and respect for Natalie with my urge to sear meat on an open flame.
On impulse, I shopped again the next Monday, with no plan for how to consume my purchases. I left with pork knuckles, brisket, bacon and a deep sense of shame. I knew I couldn’t take them home to the apartment and face Natalie’s expression; not when she would open the fridge to find her silken tofu replaced by the entire inventory of an abattoir. I recalled that there was a shared fridge at work, which could be my repository during the week. This allowed me to take home only one vacuum-sealed pack of marinated lamb tenderloin, which I wrapped in innocuous-looking aluminum foil and slipped in among the kale and Greek yoghurt.
That evening, Natalie selected a documentary on Netflix involving cruelty to zoo animals in South East Asia. It wasn’t light after-dinner viewing and I suspected it was an unsubtle hint to reconsider my position on animal welfare. In this she was singularly unsuccessful, because I spent the entire program thinking of nothing but the delicious piece of lamb in the refrigerator. Instead of the wounded expressions of sad pandas, I saw only a rotisserie of delight, roasting over hot coals.
I had a plan. I set a vibrating alarm on my phone for one a.m., hopeful that I would be able to rise without disturbing Natalie. My strategy was to cook the lamb, consume it in a single sitting and then go back to sleep without her being any the wiser. If she woke and came upon me in the kitchen, I intended to plead sleepwalking. No expert on somnambulism, I knew this would be risky. There was the question of how quickly to “wake”, for one thing. Would a simple greeting be enough, or would I need to be physically shaken out of my simulated REM phase?
As it happened, I was favored by fortune. When my phone buzzed its way around my dresser a few hours later, Natalie only groaned and turned over. In the kitchen, I preheated the oven and began to prepare a simple marinade. I diced root vegetables and slipped them into a tray around the meat, now glistening with oil and sprinkled herbs. I looked on my creation and saw that it was good.
Walking past our bedroom, I could hear no sound from my sleeping girlfriend. I breathed a little easier. While the meat roasted, I scoured online cookbooks for faster recipes, better suited to nocturnal execution. When it was finished, I poured myself a glass of red and sat down at the dining table to consume my feast. It was perfectly tender and well-balanced in flavor. I tried to avoid making lip-smacking noises of appreciation, out of concern for waking Natalie.
The next morning, she stood in the kitchen in her pajamas, holding her coffee mug and looked around.
“I swear you can still smell the meat from your cooking last week,” she said, puzzled.
This clearly wasn’t going to be a viable strategy. There was no way Natalie would still believe that the meaty aroma was the residual of my bachelor nights when entire months had passed.
“Weird,” I replied, as if I too found it inexplicable.
I mentally ran through my options. I could sneak out to a late night restaurant, or take a long steakhouse lunch, but it wouldn’t be the same. I now saw that what I was experiencing was not just a craving for animal protein. I needed to see the meat transform before my eyes, from raw, springy cuts into the tender creaminess of a well-cooked filet. I craved the act itself. There were friends’ houses, but who would be willing to let me borrow their kitchen in the small hours of the night? How many blocks could I plausibly claim to have sleep-walked? I needed to consult a specialist.
There was only one solution. The next day, I trekked across town to a barbecue shop and purchased a small portable unit. Back home before Natalie, I found an anonymous-looking cardboard box to hold it. Out on our balcony, there was a nook where I stored various items with no home in our combined world: school football trophies, Schwarzenegger DVDs and the like. How appropriate a location for yet another unshared interest, I thought, as I stashed the propane tank under a pile of old tracksuits.
That night, I set my alarm again, but this time Natalie woke.
“What are you doing up? Why is your phone buzzing?” she asked.
“I think it’s someone from the Tokyo office,” I said. “They can never remember the time zones. I’ll take it in the other room.”
I slipped out of bed, but lingered by the door to check for a sign of Natalie drifting back to sleep. Hearing her familiar adenoidal snore resume, I knew that I was safe to proceed. Out on the balcony, the night was cool. I brought out the propane tank from its hiding place and removed my portable grill from the cardboard box. This was going to be outstanding, I thought, picturing the perfectly-marbled Wagyu rib-eye in the fridge. Tonight it would be mine.
I opened the valve to full, heard the hiss of gas and pressed the ignition button. There must have been a problem with the tank or pipe, because the spark generated an almighty blast of red, yellow and orange flame that shot through the grill plate and directly into my face.
I jerked backwards as a flying ember ignited an old newspaper at my feet. I stomped on it in my socks, doing my best to avert an inferno. With the blackened pages under me, my head throbbed and my mind was in turmoil. I looked anxiously around the balcony to assess the damage. Had the meat been harmed? I considered whether I would have to stage a full-blown apartment fire, a pantomime with me as the hero, saving Natalie while she slept. What else would have to burn to make this credible? What would be the cause, given I would have to deny the existence of the barbecue?
The next morning, as Natalie woke from a charcoal-scented dream, she looked at my singed eyebrows and her face matched my own, now permanently-quizzical, expression. We exchanged glances for some time, participating in a silent stand-off, before Natalie spoke the first words.
“What happened to you?”
“Oh this?” I touched my face and bumped a burn on my nose. I winced.
Doing my best to summon an air of confused innocence, I asked, “Have you ever noticed me sleepwalking?”
“No, never. Not since I’ve known you.” I could tell she was trying to work out how this topic could possibly be relevant.
“Well I must have last night. I had a dream where I was barbecuing a steak. It was incredibly vivid. I mean, I could even smell the meat. But I woke up and I wasn’t in bed. I was outside standing by the barbecue with tongs in my hand and there were flames everywhere. It was terrifying. I can’t believe you didn’t wake up.”
“Uhuh,” she said.
“I was lucky I woke up and was able to put out the fire. Can you imagine if I had kept sleeping?”
She looked skeptical. “We don’t have a barbecue.”
“Yes we do,” I said. “We’ve always had one. I just never use it anymore.”
“And did you slip out and buy meat in your sleep as well?”
“No, of course not!” I tried to keep calm. I had to think quickly what incriminating evidence I might have left behind in my hurried clean-up. “When I put out the fire, I found what looked like a plastic heat mat on the grill. I must have tried to cook it. I’m guessing that’s what made it all go up in flames.”
“Oh you idiot!” said Natalie as she wrapped me in a hug. “I don’t believe a word you’re saying, but you know you can eat meat around me. It’s certainly better than you burning me in my sleep.”
I held her tightly and it might have been just the residue of the nighttime’s conflagration, but I could swear she smelt like tender, dry-aged sirloin.
David Pullar works in the communications team of a large multinational company and co-hosts the pop culture podcast Is This What The Kids Are Into? His work has appeared in Popmatters, Potluck and Stylus Magazine. He lives with his (meat-eating) wife in North Sydney, Australia. Link to him on twitter @D_Pullar and his website is davidpullar.wordpress.com.