Prep Time (2006)



After acclimating to the smells of death (which I assume is a unique blend of formalin, gastrointestinal vapors, and freezer-burned meat), I noticed that, for something called the “Anatomical Laboratory and Preparation Room” and deliberately hidden out of sight within the dark, windy halls of the basement of the American Museum of Natural History, this space certainly looks less like a 19th-century Frankenstein-ian, Hyde-ish, Moreau-esque workplace, and more like your everyday kitchen, sans the housewife. Perhaps this room – where birds are skinned, stuffed, and prepared for displays and collection shelves – also lacks the marble counters, fine cookware, and a floral-curtained window looking out at the front lawn (or any window, for that matter); but you’ll quickly notice that there’s the old wooden spice rack hanging on the wall, except instead of basil and rosemary, this spice rack is loaded with meticulously-labeled dusty jars of fluorescent bluish-purple skeleton stains, of fluid bodies (whole animals marinated in alcohol), and of stomach contents, bird syringes, and breeding-season gonads floating in 70% ethanol (which comes in multi-gallon jugs with spigots, neither mountain-spring fresh nor delivered to your back porch).

Instead of drying wedding-registry china, the dish rack is used to air out jerky – except it’s more like dried, shriveled skinless bird bodies awaiting the bug colony (where beetles eat off the remaining flesh, leaving the disarticulated skeletons clean and ready for accession). “Skinless” birds no longer indicate the skinless, boneless breast variety you’d buy at your local organic market; but, poultry strings are still used to tie the wings and legs in place, like a Thanksgiving turkey trussed before the deep fryer. Instead of over the stove, the fume hood is placed over the sink, so the formaldehyde vapors don’t burn the intricate lattices of your inner nose. Razor blades are the cutlery of choice: shiny, new ones are used to pulp tissue for easier DNA extraction and rusty, recycled ones can be used to make that initial medial slice into the paper-thin skin just above the breastbone. Dusty volumes of Birds of the World and the annals of Avian Anatomy delineate these recipes for preparing a methodically precise museum specimen.

Perhaps the white towels are permanently stained with bodily fluids, rather than a tomato-based sauce, and where you’d expect signs reading “Kiss the Cook” or “Dishes: An Equal Opportunity,” you’d find signs that read “Potentially Hazardous Substances” and “Store No Flammable Liquids.” Stick-figure crayon masterpieces stuck on the refrigerator by colorful, plastic fruit magnets are replaced by detailed schematics of avian osteology; Dad’s pictures proudly displaying his ultimate conquering of the-fish-that-got-away are replaced by faded pictures of past preppers proudly displaying their largest conquests: intact skins of pelicans, grouses, and emus. Here, the iconic family dog waiting for table scraps is a badly taxidermied red-tailed-hawk-in-flight hung in the corner watching your every move.

Dish cleaning brushes and rubber gloves hang above the sink, and little shallow drawers contain all the necessary utensils for measuring, weighing, and grasping things that you wouldn’t manipulate with your bare hands and fingers. If you overlook how tissue vials are packed into the ice cube trays, you’d find that the carb-free, protein-packed freezers are, simply-enough, filled with meat and poultry. Just like in a contemporary non-vegan kitchen, everything that arrives here has already been killed. There is no torture or bloody slaughter or rituals of the flesh. So what exactly makes this particular kitchen so unappetizing? Perhaps it’s the buckets of dissected penguins or the obnoxious yellow cabinet marked Flammable Hazardous Waste or the Emergency Drench Hose or the foul fowl smells emitting from the trashcans facetiously labeled “chicken food.” In any case, something tells you that those brown paper packages tied up with string lying in an under-the-Christmas-tree-looking pile by the door will certainly not contain your favorite things.

As I began to leave the museum (also scholastically known as the Am. Mus. Nat. Hist., like their skeleton/skin tags read), I walked through the Hall of the Universe; I couldn’t imagine anything more cosmic in scope, especially having just left something so bounded and finite in scale. Is it the visceral, corporeal gore that haunts this place? Or is this space disquietingly afflicted by the transcending notion that when something dies, its brain, with all its synaptic beauty, is but a gooey smear on the lab table, or a severed fluid specimen at best? That every thought we possessed is so fleeting and of absolute cosmic unimportance? Yet, is there anything closer to literal, physical immortality than to be forever preserved in motionless peace within a prestigious museum’s displays and collection shelves? To excite science-lovers of all ages for generations, or to be examined in excruciating detail by eager graduate students and ambitious post-doctoral fellows looking to contribute their hypotheses on biodiversity into the canon of scientific literature? Exiting through the glass doors of the 81st Street entrance, I noticed that what I initially thought were simply small opaque polka-dots lining the glass walls were actually depictions of the different phases of the moon: full, waxing gibbon, waning crescent, quarter, and new. As I passed Zabar’s, surprisingly hungry, I saw a few sparrows hopping along the sidewalk; I decided to lose myself for a moment in the streaks and swirls of their brown spots, which are actually accurate indicators of their genus/species, age, breeding status, seasonal plumage, and sex. Their liveliness was such a contrast to the past few hours, and for an instant, I drained them of their lives, looked into the near future, and hoped that they would make it into the glorious halls of immortality.

~ by Janet Fang on December 12, 2007.

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