A Review of Nicole Walker’s Processed Meats

March 22, 2021 § Leave a comment

By Jenn Gibbs

Parenthood is meeting daily the hypocrite within.

Standing in the produce aisle, I weigh my kids’ need to eat greens against the karmic repercussions of a plastic clamshell. Should I buy the unwashed bulk kale? When I’m on deadline (which is always), that is a sure path to a container of slime behind the mayo. And it’s been hard enough propelling two teen boys through the agonies of online school to add food prep to their chores.

Also, and this is important, that meaty bulk kale doesn’t taste as good as this tender baby kale. Which is organic, by the way. Surely that tips the scales. I put two in my cart and roll on over to Meat where I’ll agonize over the affordable, monstrous Valu-Pak chicken that elder teen can mow through in two days versus my preferred yet painfully priced and teensy packages of the humanely-raised, cage-free, organic stuff. I will again consider pescatarianism then recount all the reasons that hasn’t worked for us. I will repeat this ritual in front of the beef, pork, and sausage. When I finally get home, exhausted, my partner will tease me about how long I’ve been gone.

Nicole Walker would understand why grocery shopping can be a fraught ethical exercise for all but the purest of eco-warriors and climate deniers. The poet and essayist’s latest collection of creative nonfiction, Processed Meats: Essays on Food, Flesh, and Navigating Disaster, is all about the tension between our appetites and ideals, our need for change and our habits as individuals and as a collective. With wit and wide-ranging imagery, she places her own warring drives and impulses in the center of the plate, revealing how a self can be a microcosm of a society that can’t seem to bring the body in line with the logic for a healthier planet.

The collection opens with “Salmon of the Apocalypse,” on cooking fish in the desert to ward off the hypothetical crisis of Y2K, and ends with the very real crisis caused by COVID-19 in “Impurities” and “The Body.” Throughout, Walker wrangles with a chronic dissonance between appreciating the case for zero population growth and meatless living on one side and a deep desire to create babies and eat bacon and beefsteak on the other. “My dream of becoming a pure vegetarian fails,” she admits, “just like any of my dreams of being purely pure.”

Throughout the book, Walker presents the joy and terror of motherhood refreshingly free of sentimentality and mingled with ecological concerns. “What the Dirt Knows” juxtaposes an inability to get pregnant with the difficulty of growing tomatoes after environmental degradation—both conditions made more puzzling against a family history of prolific fertility of both womb and garden. “Anti-Bodies,” “Veal,” and “Move Out” set harrowing experiences with a premature infant alongside botulism, meat production, and air quality. “Pork Technologies” intersperses the anxiety of listening for wheezing lungs during the H1N1 pandemic and solutions for CO2 overload in the atmosphere with a hodgepodge of porcine-related ponderings such as how to prepare pork belly and one highly memorable way that housing a pig in an apartment can go awry. (My note in the margin there: “I can’t unsee this.”)

These essays are studded with moments of delight, many the result of low-simmering, situational humor bubbling up. Did someone mean to compliment Walker’s restraint at limiting herself to two kids—or two steaks? And while Walker doesn’t mug for her audience, I could swear she’s inviting us to laugh along as she serves poached salmon that falls squarely into the trap her cousin’s boyfriend (irritatingly, to this reader at least) warned against? Environmental writing skews toward the somber for good reason, and while Walker hits low and mid-range notes beautifully as well, a bit of levity is part of living at the intersection of competing values. There’s a compassionate wisdom to the wit in this collection, an understanding that we sometimes have to fumble along with ambiguity or the consequences of making what, in retrospect, proves to have been a bad call. After all, without joy, hope, or pleasure, what is the point? “[T]hese babies and these steaks are so delicious and there is only one life to live and we should dig in an enjoy it.”

For readers accustomed to essays structured around chronological, causal relationships, Walker’s lyric-dominant approach to form may feel as disconcerting as being served a taco with everything but the tortilla that holds it together—a dish described in “What the Dirt Knows.” Narrative is an important yet secondary ingredient in this book, where transitions tend to be associative. “Trying to get pregnant is lot like trying to make cheese,” opens the brief and delightful “How to Make Mozzarella,” which then leaps, not to cheese (which comes along in a moment), but to climate change. Yet these junctures are more than quirks of Walker’s style; they contribute to the book’s theme: the interdependence of individual and collective bodies, culture, and the environment.

Sometimes humorous, sometimes poignant, always peripatetic, Walker’s meditations offer not answers but companionship for anyone who tries and fails to align rational mind with all the other parts that come into play when guiding the choices we make for ourselves, our dependents, and the wider world. Processed Meats makes the point that we’re in the thick of it, here and now, together. As Walker writes, “We establish boundaries between you and I but what if there really is no separation?” Whether or not we buy the prewashed greens encased in plastic, eat the steak, or have the babies, we are inseparable from one another, our planet, and all that we turn to for nourishment.

Jenn Gibbs is a writer, editor, and communication Swiss Army knife specializing in prose forms and the creative process. Her stories and essays have appeared in literary journals and anthologies including The Gettysburg Review, Ocean State Review, The Chattahoochee Review, and Literature and Racial Ambiguity. She makes art, a living, and a life in Salt Lake City.

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