Chicago historian Dominic Pacyga labored in the stockyards as a young man. Credit: Alan Thomas

Midwestern Cuisine

Chicago’s identity has long been tied to its working-class roots. Labor battles such as the Pullman strike and the Haymarket riots, born of conflict between wealthy elites and exploited laborers, defined Chicago’s culture. But the struggles of Chicago’s rail yard and factories paled in comparison to those of its packinghouses, where the city gave birth to modern food processing.

That rich history is explored in Slaughterhouse: Chicago’s Union Stock Yard and the World It Made (University of Chicago Press), a new book by Columbia College history professor Dominic Pacyga. The 66-year-old author’s stockyard roots are deep: his grandfather moved to the Back of the Yards neighborhood and worked in the stockyards around the turn of the last century, and Pacyga spent several summers working in the stockyards before they closed in 1971.

Pacyga’s passion for the place that earned Chicago the nickname “hog butcher for the world”—as Carl Sandberg famously described the city in his 1914 poem “Chicago”—is evident. He writes: “My family and I have had a long relationship with the Chicago Stockyards . . . [and as] a child, I heard the stories of neighbors and relatives who worked in the yards.”

Pacyga spoke over the phone about Chicago’s deindustrialization, the historical accuracy of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and finding his subject as a historian in a hog house.

Tanner Howard: How did you come to work in the stockyards?

Dominic Pacyga: One summer in the middle of college I was working at a steel plant at 51st and California, and I hated it. So I quit. I went back to the Back of the Yards where I grew up, looking for work. I thought everything was gone, but I came along the cattle pens, and was able to get a job in the hog house and in the cattle alley.

What was it like when the stockyards closed in 1971?

When the yards closed, I was angry—like the other guys. There were guys that were 53 years old and had worked there since they were 18. For me, the closing of the stockyards was the first taste of deindustrialization and [the loss of] an entire way of life. It wasn’t so much a romance as much as a job, but a formative job, and a place where I found my subject as a historian.

Your grandfather came from Poland to work in the stockyards. How did his experiences as part of the first generation to arrive compare to the horrors faced by Jurgis and his family in The Jungle? Were the stockyard workers aware of the book and its account of the laborer’s life?

There’s many people in the Back of the Yards who didn’t read the book, frankly, unless they went to high school. I read it in high school, and found it to be a little strange. It didn’t seem like the neighborhood I recalled, or the stories of my grandparents.

As far as the working conditions go, they were pretty bad. But what Sinclair does is take the stories of 50 years and puts them on one family, which is kind of unbelievable. But he does bring up stories about living conditions that are somewhat documentable.

Why did the Union Stock Yard emerge in Chicago? What was the biggest impact of the stockyards, both on Chicago and on the world?

The stockyards were created by the railroads. They brought together the farm and the city and connected the yards to a massive distribution system that stretched all over the world. The motto of the International Livestock Show was “Success comes to those who hustle wisely,” which says a lot about the industriousness of the entire stockyards. These were farmers who were raising livestock, were changing the way people thought about meat, and were not only feeding the country but the world.

The postindustrial era separated Americans from the creation of their food. How have people’s perceptions of what they eat changed from when meat was processed in the city’s backyard?

I don’t think that most Americans think about where their food comes from. Even though my family left meatpacking after World War II, we still lived in the neighborhood, we still dealt with the smell, and we still watched the cattle trucks go by.

What does the “locavore” movement, which emphasizes locally produced foods, say about people’s desire to understand what they’re eating now?

The locavore movement has moved against that unawareness, and there are some people willing to pay more for their meats and vegetables—but that’s only a fairly recent development. The growing locavore movement excites me, and I think more Chicagoans should embrace the city’s agro-industrial history.

What remains of the stockyards today? What about Chicago’s meatpackers?

The stockyards still have a lot of potential, and there are a lot of green industries emerging in the industrial park, including a new green chemical plant that opened on the property of an old Swift & Company plant. I recently did a tour of the Chiappetti meatpacking plant. Chiappetti still slaughters sheep on 38th and Halsted, and all the workers were Mexican, many of them recent immigrants. The same was true of Park Packing at 41st and Ashland. These are people that are still working in the same way that they have in that square mile for more than 100 years, but they’re being joined by industries that are very diverse, and I think reasonably successful.  v