Book Review: Processed Meats by Nicole Walker

by Crystal Sands

Nicole Walker opens her powerful collection of essays, Processed Meats: Essays on Food, Flesh, and Navigating Disaster, with a story. The story is about her “hoarding problem.”

Walker writes: “I may have always been what would one day be called ‘a prepper.’ When I was eleven, after I had mown the lawn, I stored handfuls of grass for my horse, in this case, my bike, in a shoebox in the garage. I stored cough syrup for my dolls. I kept under my bed a pound of white chocolate. I would eat only a fingernail-scraping full at night. I had to make it last. Who knew when the next chocolate would appear?”

This resonated with me. When I was nine years old, our Sunday school teacher would give full-size candy bars (that’s right, full size) to children who memorized the assigned verse from the Bible each Sunday. No matter how long the verse, I never made a mistake. I was rewarded each week with a full-size candy bar–Snickers, Milky Way–treasures. But I did not eat my chocolate. I saved them–just in case. In case of what? I don’t know, but it was definitely something along the lines of Walker’s point about not knowing when the next chocolate would appear. Walker’s book reminded me of the incident and that I have always been a “prepper” in my heart too.

Walker’s book is a treasure on its own–a treasure of essays about the ways in which we connect with food during times of crises. Walker opens her collection with an essay about Y2K and the anxiety triggered by that event that never really became an event and ends her collection in the middle of our current global crisis–the COVID-19 pandemic. “The virus isn’t over,” she repeats in her last essay. As I write this review, the pandemic continues, of course.

In the middle, Walker takes her readers on a powerful journey into her life, into her struggles with work, family, and infertility. She writes about her Mormon heritage. And along the way, Walker shows us, again and again, how she used food to “stave off chaos” in her life. But, of course, the chaos is the best part because Walker’s take on the struggles and chaos of everyday life during the difficult (well, maybe a bit apocalyptic) times in which we find ourselves brings some comfort.

Walker covers everything from overwork in her academic job, to climate change, to the ethical struggles of grocery shopping, to the struggles of being a mom, to coming to terms (and I mean really coming to terms) with the meat we eat. She deals with the anguish of leaving her son in daycare while he cries and clings to her (an anguish so many of us understand) and the stress of finding out a child has been molested at her son’s daycare. At times, it just feels like too much, and it’s a too much we are all far too familiar with. But reading Walker’s book makes you feel like you have a friend who understands the stress of the collapse of everything–a friend with a great wit, a sense of humor, and a fantastic outlook on hard times. In this way, her book was incredibly comforting to me.

About the book, Walker says, “You’d think, with my Mormon heritage, I’d be good at hardship. You’d think, with my Mormon heritage, that I’d be extremely fertile. But the only thing I seem to have inherited from my Mormon ancestors is a love of fried chicken and a compulsion to sock my cupboards with canned peaches to prepare for the End of Days.”

Walker’s wit and humor in this collection that is wrought with a certain sadness and anxiety makes for a powerful, enjoyable read. There was so much I could connect with in her essays; each essay was a work beautifully woven with elements of current events, her personal and work life, and her fantastic take on it all. Written in almost a stream-of-consciousness style, Walker shifts in and out of a variety of topics in her essays, and this is a part of the charm of this book. Her nontraditional narrative makes each essay in the book feel so authentic. Truly, this was a page turner for me, and I enjoyed every bit of Walker’s writing. I felt a bit of sadness when the book was “over,” and I am looking forward to reading more of her work. I have this habit of dog earing the pages on the books I read when I find quotes that I love or feel I need to remember for their wisdom. I think I have about 40 pages dog eared in Processed Meats.

It’s difficult for me to choose my favorite quote to share, but I have to share this powerful passage near the end of the book, as I am certain it will make you want to read this book for yourself. For me, it captures the push and pull I have felt throughout my life as someone who eats meat (though just a little since becoming a homesteader), even though I have a deep love for animals:

“As I said before, F. Scott Fitzgerald says the sign of true intelligence is to be able to hold two opposing thoughts in your mind at the same time. It’s pretty amazing that we can love the pig while eating the pig. We see ourselves in the pig. We love that he eats chocolate raisins and doesn’t idle his car. We love that he knows he will die one day. He’s sad we love him more dead than alive, but we are also sad for and so in love with all we have killed and all we have borne.”

Released in March of this year, in the middle of a pandemic, the book may have flown under the radar, but I am glad to have discovered it. I think you will be too. I also learned that Walker published another book called Egg, so I know what I am reading next.

In the meantime, as you find your cozy this winter, snuggle up with Nicole Walker’s beautiful collection, Processed Meats. This book was so much more than I expected. As we continue to deal with one crises after another, more and more of us are turning to food–both cooking and food preservation. Walker’s book is striking in its relevancy. I think her sharp insights into our bodies, our food, our culture, and our histories will be as thought provoking and entertaining to you as they were for me.