On the Killing Floor | Our Town | Chicago Reader

On the Killing Floor 

The DeKalb slaughterhouse isn't much fun, but it's a long way from the jungle.

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By Elana Seifert

"This isn't one of those negative stories you're interested in writing, is it?" said Susie Lilovich Tornincasa, who runs DeKalb County Marketing Services, which processes and sells poultry at 8947 S. Commercial in South Chicago. "Because we don't need any of that."

I told her I'd been thinking a lot recently about how distant Americans have grown from the processing of the food they eat, and assured her I was interested only in writing about how animals were slaughtered.

"Are you sure you'd be comfortable with--" She paused. "I mean, we have to kill the chickens and all."

Susie's brother Steve Lilovich--who runs the retail component of DeKalb County Marketing, George's Market, two doors down on South Commercial--met me early on a Saturday morning when 400 chickens were to be slaughtered "Buddhist kill" fashion, which means with head and feet intact. Coops of chickens raised on several Amish farms in Indiana--"drug and pesticide free"--arrive by truck at 5 AM every day but Sunday.

We sat in the front of the wholesale building, and Lilovich talked about inspectors and the family business. He and his sister are part of a clan that's been in the business of slaughtering animals to feed Chicago for seven decades.

The tale starts with scrappy Ethel Gina, who at age 13 escaped from a work camp in Bulgaria to come to America, where she married Matthew Alilovic (a later feud between Ethel and Matthew's brother prompted her to change the family name to Lilovich). Ethel and Matthew set up a grocery shop at 87th and Buffalo, just down the street from DeKalb County Marketing's current operation. South Chicago was a mill community at the time, says Lilovich, and Ethel "would open up at three or four in the morning for the women who would come to get food for their husbands' lunches that day, before they went to their shifts. Then they would come back again at night to get stuff for supper. So my grandmother worked from three or four in the morning till ten at night. If she didn't open up, the women would come pounding on her door and force her to open the place."

Ethel and Matthew eventually bought an orchard in Michigan City to provide produce for their market. Their son George took care of the orchard until he bought a duck farm, then shipped ducks to Chicago's Chinatown until the 1950s, when federal law made it more difficult to ship slaughtered animals interstate. "You could ship over the state line," explained Lilovich, "but it had to be a completely clean bird--and the Chinese wanted them with the guts and everything still in them." George bought the 8947 S. Commercial plant that Susie now oversees so he could continue selling wholesale to Chinatown shops and restaurants.

The way Americans perceive the processing of meat and poultry has changed radically over those years. Most Americans used to work in agriculture, producing what they consumed, and even in the cities people kept small animals for use as food. Three-quarters of a century ago 40,000 people made their living in the Union Stock Yard. Americans now eat nearly 200 pounds of meat and poultry annually--more than ever before--yet a Chicago ordinance bans ordinary citizens from killing their own food, and even those engaged in the trade of slaughtering animals are barred from doing so in public or handling the carcasses "wholly or partly, within any public way or place." Of the 120 slaughter inspectors employed by the Illinois Department of Agriculture, only 12 now work in the city. Lilovich told me, "We're at a point where before long people will be eating things without even knowing they were ever alive. They already think pork chops come in plastic packages. How many city kids ever even see a farm animal anymore?"

It wasn't until I mentioned that some of my family were in the restaurant business that Lilovich finally took me inside the plant. In the back room where the chickens are unloaded, a few coops of "hard birds"--older than the usual roaster or fryer, which makes their meat tougher--were stacked up. These were for the "ethnic trade," Lilovich said. "Haitians and Jamaicans come in for them. They want them for stews--certain types of cooking you want a tougher chicken." A few of the birds were loose, and one flapped from the floor to the top of a coop to survey us.

The morning kill was already over. Only the smell--part pet store, part barnyard, part restaurant kitchen--remained. But Lilovich led me into the "kill room" and offered to show me the whole process. He plucked a white bird from a crate, produced a knife from a sheath in the wall, half turned away from me, made a small cut in the bird's throat, and dropped it into a metal bin that tapered to a metal mesh base. "That's called the bleeder, because they bleed in there," he explained. The blood was collecting in a pan beneath the mesh base.

The chicken flopped around while Lilovich eyed me cautiously. "It's not feeling a thing," he said. "All its oxygen to the brain has been cut off. That's just reflexive motion."

I still wished the bird would stop moving. A half minute later it did.

Lilovich plucked the bird from the bin and dropped it into the "scalder," a foaming 150-gallon vat of 145-degrees Fahrenheit water that softened the bird's skin so its feathers could be removed easily. "My grandmother scalded chickens in her bathtub," he told me, as a mechanical scoop churned the bird through the water for a minute and a half (a duck's feathers are so oily it has to be scalded for 3 to 5 minutes, a goose up to 15).

The chicken was now ready for the plucker, a circular rotating tub lined with ridged rubber fingers that catch and remove the feathers. "When I was a kid," said Lilovich, "we didn't have a machine like this. We had a rotating drum with rubber fingers on it. You held and turned the bird against it. I was the fastest--seven seconds I could pluck a chicken," he said, and then laughed. In her day, he added, his mother could pluck a chicken faster than anyone. And after he and his wife, Eunice, were married "she could outproduce anyone. She could certainly outproduce me." But it's Susie Tornincasa who holds the record today.

It had taken less than five minutes for the fluttering white bird to go from living thing to plucked corpse. We moved from the kill room to the "eviscerating room," where five employees and one state inspector were working the "line"--chicken carcasses hanging by their feet from a cable rail that rotated slowly around the room.

The employees were systematically "drawing," or eviscerating, the chickens. One employee would pull the guts out, the next would separate the liver from the gizzard. Another employee would pull out the craw and windpipe, the next clean the fat off the gizzard with a spinning electric device. "We used to have to do that by hand too," Lilovich said. "That's a real nice machine." He pulled a not-yet-cleaned gizzard out of a pile to show the windpipe opening, then pulled a rock out of the gizzard, explaining that chickens eat small rocks to help grind and digest their food.

After they're eviscerated the chickens go into a water tank, the temperature of which is slowly brought down over a half hour to 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Once cooled, the birds are packed--feet tucked up into the body cavity--16 to a box. Most of the boxes that Saturday were to be shipped to Chinatown restaurants and storefronts. About 30 were to be sold out of George's Market. The few birds that had been spared in the back room would be sold live to those who like their chicken really fresh--an average of five a week.

I seemed to have passed some kind of test, for Lilovich then invited me to look over the operation at the T & J Meat Packing plant in Chicago Heights, run by his brothers, John and Joe Lilovich, and their cousin Tony Alilovic. At the wholesale and retail business 300 to 400 animals--mostly pigs but some goats as well--are slaughtered and processed daily. A quarter are sold in Chicago Heights; the rest are shipped to the city for the ethnic market.

T & J has been around for 50 years, but when condos recently went up across the street some of the owners tried to shut the plant down. "A few people complain about the smell," said Joe Lilovich. "But it's a livestock smell. You can't please everyone." Steve Lilovich said, "We're at a point now where we have to hide from the public. It's like a big, stupid secret. It shouldn't be this way, but it is."

The smell of the holding pens at T & J was overpowering--a rotten organic smell combined with a sickly sweet barnlike smell. "It doesn't come off you," Lilovich warned me.

The pig slaughter was a bigger, messier version of the chicken slaughter. The scalder contained 1,000 rather than 150 gallons of water. The chickens dangling from the cable rail in the eviscerating room had looked vaguely comical, but the pigs looked grisly. There was a lot more blood, and the purple viscera being slung into barrels looked too familiar. The internal organs of a 200-pound pig and a 200-pound man are apparently virtually indistinguishable.

Workers on the evisceration line started by shaving any hair remaining on the carcasses. The next worker removed the animals' eyelids and ears. The last man, an Illinois Department of Agriculture inspector, hosed out the inside of the gutted animal with what looked like a handheld showerhead, then inspected the insides of the carcass and stamped it with an inspection seal that from a distance looked like two tiny blue baby's footprints. As he pushed each carcass along it would bang the one ahead of it, sending up a spray of tiny droplets. Other men constantly put huge barrels of purple viscera on hand trucks and rolled them out to be picked up by soap and fertilizer renderers.

But there was no screaming, no flailing animal limbs, no hacking of flesh, and no bodies dropped to the ground. It wasn't what Upton Sinclair had described in The Jungle. The pigs in the large pens out back occasionally emitted piercing squeals as they nuzzled each other, drank from troughs, even mated. But the animals in the small holding area just seconds away from death were silent, lying about looking oblivious. A "shackler" culled them one at a time, stunned them by putting what looked like electrified tongs on their heads, then fastened them, unconscious, by a hind leg to the rail that conveyed them into the kill room, where their jugulars were slit. The only sounds were of churning machines and of men washing, hauling, and spraying. The modern slaughterhouse, though smelly and gruesome, was quite tame.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos by Randy Tunnell: various slaughterhouse shots; Toni Alilovic, Joe Lilovich, John Lilovich.

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