As an American it’s easy to forget the distance I have from my food, both literally and figuratively. I can walk inside my not particularly fancy grocery store in my not particularly fancy neighborhood and find avocados from Mexico, tilapia from Vietnam, olives from Greece, coffee beans from all over the post-colonial world. Even the domestic products have traveled hundreds of miles to the shelf. And while produce looks the same as it did on the farm, the meat is shrink-wrapped and stacked by cuts from unidentifiable parts of livestock labeled, thanks to the Anglo-Norman language that dominated the English upper classes for centuries, ‘beef’ or ‘pork’ or ‘mutton’ instead of ‘cow’ or ‘pig’ or ‘sheep’.
Few of us ever deal with the creatures that become those anonymous slabs. We don’t drive hours to look at an animal’s teeth, pinch its haunches, and barter over its price until, satisfied, we’re holding the tether to a week’s worth of dinner.
Dinner that is living, breathing, and refusing to get into your car.
The Karakol animal market is held every Sunday in the мал ьазар on the northern outskirts of this old Tsarist garrison town. The farmers keep to their early-morning schedule so I was up before dawn, walking the streets alone except for the odd stray dog, until after a few miles of modest houses the asphalt gave way to dirt, cars that were parked in every conceivable spot, and the unmistakable musk of the farm.
It’s a loud, claustrophobic experience beginning at the southern road into the bazaar. Hundreds of people and over a thousand sheep and cattle and horses, all packed together on top of a slurry of mud, shit, and piss yelling, bleating, and baying. Families lined the path holding ropes tied to a half dozen sheep each while men in kalpaks walked by smoking and eyeing the merchandise. Others pushed through with newly-purchased cattle while angry rams would start running circles around their owner only to stop when someone would part the masses on horseback and all the while I was trying to maintain my footing in the slick while shoving aside hundreds of pounds of pissed off steak. Inside the market proper it was somehow even more crowded, like a better-smelling mosh pit, and if we’re being honest I did not take my time. Standing around and gawking wasn’t worth getting bulldozed by a heifer.
Once outside the north exit of the bazaar I took some time for a breather and some personal space while watching families ready their meal tickets for the ride home. I had to remember that these animals are not pets but significant, practical outlays of money, and god knows the horrors that have taken place in the production of my Big Macs alone. I too suffer from that cognitive dissonance of cooing at a cute rabbit video and then settling down for some rarebit. Cattle that didn’t want to move were flogged with rope and recalcitrant sheep were lifted by their hindlegs to walk them wheelbarrow style to, for most people, the trunk of a sedan that was lined in plastic and then shut over the hog-tied ewes.
As someone used to paying a set price for everything just watching the process of a single transaction was exhausting. I saw a young man in a baseball cap, pleather jacket, and tennis shoes already soaked in night soil leading a fat-tailed sheep - an animal in whose description has been one of the few times in my life I’ve been able to use the word ‘steatopygic’ - from a morass of cars in a mud pit that was pretending to be a parking lot. 200 yards from the entrance to the market he was pounced upon by a man who looked like Evo Morales in a tracksuit and Evo began a nonstop patter, bringing out a wad of cash, gesticulating and talking wildly and following the farmer who kept walking, smiling, and shaking his head, only pausing when Evo held up traffic to lift the entire sheep and guess at its weight like a carnie, add to his offer, and then shake hands while they both exchanged the equivalent of $70 back and forth like a game of three card monte they were both in on.
And then that was it. The clock was nearing 8am, what sales could be made had been made, and farmers were taking out plastic liters of beer or buying steaming shishkabobs from nearby stands - a reminder of the end result of all this haggling - while catching up with each other before the drive home. The formerly ubiquitous calls of the sheep and cows diminished as they were loaded into boots, service vans, and trailers while the honking of cars grew louder and louder as vehicles loaded with ovines and bovines went both ways down single lane roads.