On the Mystery of Eating Meat: Springer Mountain by Wyatt Williams

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“Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are.”
—Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste

In 2011, while working as restaurant critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Wyatt Williams began to notice a pattern on the menus of the city’s trendiest openings: restaurants striving to redefine and reinvigorate Southern cuisine, preaching the farm-to-table movement as if it were gospel. They all sourced their pasture-raised chicken from the same place, a place nobody had ever been to or seen, the name spreading by word of mouth like an incantation, Springer Mountain Farm, a Shangri-La of sustainable farming.

If you don’t already know, you can guess. Nobody had ever been to or seen Springer Mountain Farm because it didn’t exist. After an investigation into the inner workings of the company that owned Springer Mountain Farm, Williams discovered that it was all a hoax, some sleight-of-hand advertising. The same chicken that went to Jack in the Box was also going to high-end restaurants but with a different label and eco-friendly packing. Williams blew the lid off the Springer Mountain Farm fable in a 2012 expose. He thought the story was done.

Springer Mountain: Meditations on Killing and Eating—a work that might be best described as a book-length lyric essay—picks up where Williams’ initial chicken hunt left off:

I did not want to be naïve, but I could not help but keep looking for Springer Mountain. It hadn’t been where it was supposed to be. I believed that maybe Springer Mountain could be found somewhere else. I looked for years. I took a job at a slaughterhouse. I lived on a chicken farm. I wandered through the woods with a gun. I did a lot of things. I kept a record of the facts.

Facts, it turns out, are this book’s obsession, and Williams, who quit reviewing restaurants in 2019, brings all kinds to the table. Sometimes the facts are etymological: “mete, the food of flesh, first shows up in English in 1380 in the poetic retelling of a generous meal and a cruel and vengeful God.” Sometimes they are clinical: “A lamb’s foreshank shall be removed from the shoulder by a straight cut exposing the humerus and removed from the brisket by a cut through the natural seam and may contain a portion of the pectoralis superficialis.” Some are epistemological: “To get a live chicken, you need an egg. Anyone who tells you that the chicken comes before the egg misunderstands the structure of the universe.” Some are factoids: “Frankenstein’s monster was a vegetarian.” Some are staggering, such as the fact that in the U.S. over nine billion chickens were slaughtered in 2019, up almost 650 million from when Williams started looking for Springer Mountain in 2011. Some of the facts are ironic, such as the disastrous case of the vegetarian settlement in Kansas in 1856 that had to resort to eating meat to survive after poor planning and a harsh winter. But more than anything, the facts in this book are personal: Williams’ firsthand accounts of killing floors, watching bolts enter the skulls of wide-eyed steers, cleaning the grit from countless chicken gizzards, emptying buckets of gelatinous blood, eating whale meat with Inupiat people on the shores of the Chukchi Sea.

What is perhaps most interesting about Springer Mountain isn’t necessarily the facts themselves, but how Williams presents them. Early on, he sketches out a statement of purpose:

I was interested in some of the conventional questions—Why do we kill animals and why do we eat them? Is it right or wrong? What constitutes ethical behavior in a godless world?—but I wasn’t foolish enough to believe that I would find any answers. I had read all of the books that claimed to have them. I hadn’t been convinced. I thought I could settle for how instead of why: How do we kill animals? How do we eat them? How do we behave? Those were the questions with answers. I thought the facts could be enough.

The distance between why and how comes to be a no-man’s land, a valley of the shadow of death the author spent years traversing. Perhaps I am reading too much into it, but I sense a strain of the Southern Gothic in Williams, who was born in Baton Rouge, grew up in Florida, and has longstanding ties to Georgia. The title of the book refers not only to the spurious farm, but also to a James Dickey poem of the same name, which, appropriately enough, is about hunting deer in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Georgia. It’s worth noting that the speaker of the poem does not shoot at the deer he has in his crosshairs, but instead drops his rifle, strips off his clothes, and follows the animal through the woods in transcendental ecstasy. Williams never quite reaches Dickey’s raptures, but he too gives up on hunting deer. (On the point of influences, I’d be remiss not to point out the debt that Springer Mountain owes to Oranges, John McPhee’s classic book of reportage on Florida’s most famous fruit.)

Circling back to the decidedly Southern flavor of Springer Mountain, Flannery O’Connor’s conception of the grotesque seems an apt point of reference. In her seminal essay, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Literature,” O’Connor claims that “the Southern writer is forced from all sides to make his gaze extend beyond the surface, beyond mere problems, until it touches that realm which is the concern of prophets and poets.” Although O’Connor is discussing fiction, Williams is similarly driven to not only look at the surface issues of eating animals, but to plumb the deeper mystery of killing for sustenance, to mine the numinous marrow of our species’ carnivorism. He may not be a prophet, but he is certainly poetic, more interested, as O’Connor would say, in possibilities than in probabilities. Being poetic does not mean waxing rhapsodic on the ecstasies of eating meat; quite the opposite. Williams’ prose is stripped down, close to the bone. There is nothing pretty about his description of chewing chicken meat rigid with rigor mortis. (It turns out chickens need a day to rest after slaughter.) The author’s voice—coarse-grained, elegiac—embodies all the weariness of wringing their necks, working on killing floors, bearing the weight of all the brutal facts regarding killing and eating animals. This weariness leads to existential doubt about the very project of the book, his search for the meaning of meat. After years of studying the people who kill animals for a living, after doing quite a bit of the killing himself, Williams comes to the conclusion “that it never starts making more sense; that it simply becomes more familiar; that it is possible for facts to be both true and contradictory; that they can be arranged and rearranged endlessly; that veracity is not the same thing as sense.”

This abiding sense of exhaustion, this vein of self-interrogation is woven into the composition of the book itself. Just as it’s hard to glean meaning from mere facts, it’s quite difficult to classify this text. To call this a book of “Meditations,” as the title does, or “Food Writing/Essays,” as the back cover does, doesn’t quite cut it. Though it’s divided into three chapters (preceded by a virtuosic preface), the text as a whole feels like a singular utterance, not separate meditations, which is why I’m keen to describe this as an extended lyric essay, a form of nonfiction that seems capable of housing all others within it. As a result Springer Mountain is more akin formally (and tonally) to Maggie Nelson’s Bluets than to Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. From investigative journalism to longform personal narrative to free-associative riffing to staccato stacking of textual evidence—all these modes cohere into the minimalist body of the book, each representing a different way of getting at (essaying) the meat of the matter.

Ultimately, what we have here is the story of a man trying to understand the story of humans eating other animals. “To understand this story,” Williams says, “you have to imagine a mouth. It is a mouth much like your own.” Before speech, this mouth was made for eating, and then, for making the Om-like sound of mmm:

That’s it. That single moment is the beginning, if we must insist on a beginning. The sound has changed over the years, but we keep repeating it, saying it, killing it, eating it. It is one long, unbroken line into our past. On one side of that line: the flesh we recognize as ourselves. On the other side of that line: the flesh we know as food.

This book toes that line, crosses it, blurs it beyond recognition. Williams’ teleological conclusions, brilliantly crafted to coincide with the story’s narrative arc, will do little to settle the ethical debate about the eating of animals. But that is not his intention. Brillat-Savarin’s aphorism about eating and identity may be reductive, but it’s useful for understanding what the facts amount to in Springer Mountain. If you eat meat, then you are an animal who kills other animals. Humans are not alone in this, but more than all other creatures of the earth, we have gotten grotesquely good at it.

It’s important to stress that killing is never glorified or justified in Springer Mountain; it simply is. A fact of life—paradoxical, but a fact none the less. “We belong to a great line,” Williams says. “This is our lineage.” Springer Mountain is a complicated, mysterious document, by turns poetic, problematic, perhaps even prophetic. At the end of the day, we might just call it a piece of literature, a work of art, an artifact all too rare in the world of food writing.

Gregory Emilio is a poet, cook, and critic living in Atlanta. His work appears in Best New Poets, Gastronomica, North American Review, [PANK], Tupelo Quarterly, and Southern Humanities Review. Kitchen Apocrypha, his debut collection of poetry, will be published by Able Muse Press in 2022. More from this author →