The first time I tried Black Meat was also the last, though not for lack of interest. As a journalist, I’d written many articles about the product—the one you’re reading being, obviously, the most recent. It was gray the day I received my hostess’ unexpected invitation, by private courier. Brown grass gathered dew from a motionless blanket of clouds. It was unusually warm for early January, and I’d left the house in only a wool shirt. A driver picked me up at my home at 3:00 pm. He stoically checked my driver’s license, matched it to a picture he’d been given, then silently opened the rearmost door of the black limousine and motioned me inside. The letter the hostess had sent was hand written on a finely woven hemp paper and sealed with unstamped wax. It requested that I leave behind all electronic devices, including my phone, and that I bring only a pen and paper for taking notes. It asked that I give the letter itself to the driver, who arrived precisely when the letter said he would, and that I politely not photograph or transcribe the exact text therein. I complied with all requests. We drove in silence save for classical music at a very low volume—I think it might have been Debussy. I was blindfolded and given a flute of champagne.
The black meat had been described by a certain surly, sarcastic TV chef as “like chewing through decomposing wood… wood that tasted like an odorous French cheese with a vinegar edge…notes of molasses and bourbon. Not pleasant necessarily, but not entirely bad. Dare I say…fascinating?”
The production of the meat was steeped in as much mystery as its ingredients. Saffron robed monks with ash-caked skin hid away in log-built smokehouses and hummed surreal melodies over crackling mesquite fires. They’d emerge, faces striped with gray ash cut by rivers of sweat, humble and bowing to their replacements in a nearly silent and well-rehearsed ceremony before retiring to nearby tent or yurt barracks. They’d have crates and packages shipped under the protection of the same special laws that protected the production and consumption of Black Meat. “Government sanctioned cannibalism,” had been thrown around in the early days, to no avail. No journalist or cultural historian had ever traced the exact source of the Black Meat practice, nor the harbinger of its trendy resurgence, but it was commonly theorized that it began with someone in the 1% who’d discovered it during travel abroad; no doubt, exposing it to the elite of the elite. The quiet, old money was first, and the young new money followed in never ending emulation of extravagance.
It became fashionable contraband, like cocaine and Cuban cigars. Rock stars made references to the infinite complexities of the flavor in the lyrics of ballads. Tabloids were plastered with stories in which certain leading men of Hollywood were rumored to have tasted Black Meat. Moral debates raged across the aisles in Congress as new bills were proposed to ban consumption, and calls were made for the UN to publically denounce it. Amid the fervor, a bill was quietly presented with bipartisan support—aged senators with red and blue ties and American flag lapel pens spoke of “religious ceremonial freedom” and “traditional memorial practices”. The bill mentioned nothing of Black Meat, nor its consumption, but ensured:
…that one’s remains could be dealt with as one saw fit, in keeping with one’s religious traditions and practices, despite any pre-existing laws, so long as the wishes of the deceased were clearly laid out in the proper legal documents and no unwilling parties were involved or directly affected.
The bill passed with a comfortable margin, and a subsequent Supreme Court case found that consumption of Black Meat could be protected under the new law, given that close controls be put in place to ensure valid legal documentation of a party’s wishes to be processed prior to their passing, and validation by a licensed coroner that the party’s passing was natural or accidental. Any hint of foul play or unusual circumstances would be in violation of the “non-incitamentum” (no incentive) clause. A further appeal from the moral minority ended in a compromise—an amendment to the law which required that any portion of Black Meat sold be procured from a single party, and that the departed’s (previous) identity be clearly labeled on any packaging.
It wasn’t long before various churches of The Black Meat sprang up on the internet. Sign up from the comfort of your own home, attend an occasional web-service on YouTube, and print out your own certificate of membership. The churches’ dogmas were tongue-in-cheek lists of variations on a theme—a theme of mostly libertarian, sometimes borderline hedonist, personal freedom and privacy:
Thou shalt drink whatever thou wishes to drink, in whatever amount thou wishes to drink it, so long as thou does not drive inebriated or in any way harm another person outside of thyself.
Membership in many of these churches also required proof that the applicant had drafted what became known as the “Black Meat clause” into their legal will. Many lawyers provided this service at a discount until the option showed up on the automated will-builder of a popular legal document website. Unsurprisingly, this clause evolved into a very specific form in which a party could not only dictate their wishes to be processed into Black Meat, but also dictate a specific party or parties that could then receive the product—assuming either party could afford the exorbitant cost of processing. Crazed fans left themselves to rock stars. Lovers left themselves to one another in a final and ultimate act of intimacy. Controversy arose when a frightening number of terminally ill patients began leaving themselves to wealthy patrons “as a thank you” for said patrons charitably relieving their families of their medical expenses. These charitable acts soon included college scholarships and luxury items as the poor had begun bidding for the opportunity to ceremonially thank the rich, and the rich, as it were, had begun to literally eat the poor.
The ash-masked, saffron clad monks faced competition from a commercially mass-produced product out of China. It was generally agreed upon by the culinary elite that this was a vastly inferior product, often leaving less wealthy consumers with strange parasites, and in a few documented cases, a fatal variant of Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease.
Many dubious internet articles claimed to know the secret traditional recipe of Black Meat, and though each varied slightly, most seemed to rely on the same general protocols. The body was skinned, and the skin cleaned and put aside to dry. The meat was separated and packed in rare spices and various dried berries while the rest of the body was cremated and pulverized. This pulverized ash was mixed with salt and packed into earthen jars. The meat was buried in this salt and ash mixture, and the jars were capped and set aside to allow the meat to cure. After some time, the meat (including the ash, spices, and berries) was removed and coarsely stone-ground into a dry, charcoal-gray hamburger. Other spices and oils were added, and the meat was packed tightly into the now plasticine skin, tied with natural fiber twine, and left to smoke above the other crematory fires.
We’d ridden for about an hour, I suspect, and taken many turns. The roads had become rough, and I’d reached up to touch my blindfold only once when the driver, who I imagine must’ve been watching me in the mirror, politely reminded me that our trip would be immediately cut short if it were removed even for a moment. When the limousine finally came to a stop, my door was opened, and I was told I could now remove it. We’d parked in the middle of a large pasture surrounded by evergreen forests. The air smelled like rain and wet straw. I stepped out onto wet, well-manicured grass, though as dead as my own humble lawn. We walked through what appeared to be an outdoor shooting range. I kicked aside the occasional broken bits of orange clay and a single yellow shotgun shell. The driver checked over his shoulder to make sure I was still following. An icy breeze swept across the large yard from somewhere over the surrounding woods and made me regret not wearing a jacket. He led me toward a high wooden fence, or wall, more accurately—built not with planks but 8-foot wooden posts driven into the ground side by side, like the defensive walls of an early colonial settlement. Smoke billowed from the other side of the wall. A large wooden gate was slowly opened, and beyond it stood my hostess, whose exact description she requested be kept undisclosed. She was, suffice it to say, a beautiful and well-known old-money socialite. We exchanged formal greetings and she motioned me inside. She was dressed pragmatically, in English riding apparel, with high boots and a large golf umbrella – a duplicate of which she offered to me. With our matching umbrellas, we crossed the large inner courtyard, leaving the driver at the gate, standing in his suit and tie, stone-faced against the rain and cold.
My hostess reiterated the conditions she’d laid out in her letter, all of which I, again, agreed to. I assured her that I had complied, to the letter, with each. She led me toward a log-built smokehouse. She explained that she’d tired of navigating the legal channels that bottle-necked the product in the face of high demand, and that her own standards of freshness and quality were far above what had become the standard. She admitted that this, her private operation, was both very illegal and very expensive, but that she complied with all moral and ethical criteria laid out by law.
“I have an application process,” she explained, “and interested parties must meet certain physical and genetic guidelines. I also demand a level of freshness that simply isn’t possible under the federal protocols. For this,” she smiled, “they are compensated far beyond the norm.” From the smokehouse emerged an ashen-faced monk clad in saffron robes, exactly as I’d imagined. He bowed, and we returned his bow. He presented to my hostess a parcel wrapped in oily brown paper and tied with string. My hostess guided me to a nearby table set up under a crudely built gazebo. The driver had prepared two more flutes of champagne, and offered me a cigar. “For after,” he said quietly. I politely declined. The hostess placed the parcel between us and unwrapped what appeared to be a human hand, twisted into a Buddhist mudra. The hand seemed to be translucent and over-stuffed, like a partially inflated latex glove. Before I’d come to terms with the situation, my hostess had casually cut into the meaty, outside edge of the hand, opposite the thumb, and carved out a small wedge of densely packed, black meat, flecked with exotically colored spices and small, dried berries. I took the oily wedge in my hand and turned it, noticing tiny hair-like spices protruding from the coarse mixture. I smelled it—indeed, an odorous cheese. Then, after a quick sip of particularly good champagne, I took a bite, chewing slowly and allowing the oils and flavors to flood my mouth and my mind.
A vinegar edge. Truffles. Perhaps notes of molasses and bourbon. Spices I could not identify. Beyond this, an infinite and overwhelming complexity of incomparable flavors I can only describe as…sentimental. Bittersweet. The familiar voice of a long lost lover somewhere in a crowd. A quiet, comfortable shame. An ecstasy of solitude on the tongue, and after, the familiar sorrow of loneliness at the back of the mouth. I felt the lump in my throat even before I’d swallowed. A knot that rose—and I began to softly weep. When the bit was gone, and I again opened my eyes, the grays and browns around me had become somehow more vibrant. The gemlike eyes of my hostess, also wet with tears, were now the eyes of a friend—the eyes of someone who knew, and who knew that I now knew. I felt a kinship to this woman. We who knew a secret…the secret. We who had stepped through the veil.
I don’t remember the drive home, nor the rest of the evening I spent in darkness, sucking on my tongue and swallowing my own saliva. It’s been two days now, and I remember only the impossible flavors of Black Meat, and the feelings I can’t adequately describe. I no longer know what’s right or what’s wrong… I don’t even know if it matters. I only know that I’ve seen beyond the veil. I know the orgasmic bliss of surrender to Black Meat, and I know I’ll continue to seek the experience. Until then, I know I will taste it on my tongue until the day I die, and I know, now, what I would like done with my body.
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