I was twelve when we visited relatives in Austin, Minnesota, home to a Hormel hog-processing plant as well as to my cousins. I declined my father’s suggestion that I should take a tour of the famously efficient facility. Hogs walked in at one end, packaged meats were trucked away from the other. He thought I should know where bacon and pork chops come from, before they’re stacked in grocery store coolers. I thought I already knew more than enough about that, and had no wish to watch hogs die, however humanely the deed was done.

      I was wrong, of course; not that I ever told him. Twenty years later, when we picked up Nerissa in two halves for the pig-roast and a hundred butcher-paper-wrapped pieces of Milton, sliced and ground and cured, for the freezer, for the winter, from the slaughterhouse in Tennessee, I remembered the afternoon in Austin. Not that I ever told him. We learned it was better not to give our pigs names, and some of us learned it was better to eat less or not any pork. The slogan we worked by in those days (the kindest of farmers) was: happy meat is good meat.

      I missed that tour, but I did hear and still remember the Hormel facility’s slogan, celebrating their thoroughness, making mucilage and jowls and tanned skins and pickled feet and fertilizing blood, as well as the more familiar cuts: we use everything but the squeal. A laudable effort assuredly, then as now. I leave it up to you whether to linger over the squeal.


A wise guy.



      Now that I kill people, professionally, on a regular basis, I have found a new sense for the Hormel slogan. When you take a life, in fiction, or in war, just as when you raise or hunt animals for meat, there is a moral aspect you neglect at your peril. You owe your victim, or game, or livestock, in the most profound sense.

      I don’t like the “cozy” mystery convention that you kill some inconsequential stranger, or a character nobody else in the book much likes, to get your story going, forgetting instantly that the dead body ever belonged to a real daughter or bride-groom or economist, albeit a fictional one. That’s using only the squeal, and leaves the rest to rot. Murder rends a family, a neighborhood, a committee, a swimming team. A horrible hole torn. You must tell that cost, or the story doesn’t matter, the puzzle doesn’t matter, your other characters are cutouts, and their jeopardy cannot move your readers.

      Present everything, use everything. Including the squeal. It is better not to make sermons or long faces, but you must let the weight show. Then you can burn sage leaves and purify your scene. But save some for the sausage, it is the essential spice.