East Knoxville's Broken Wing Meat Processing Aids Second Harvest

Part of a Series: Scene & Heard: Holiday Edition '09

Slices of life from Knoxville's neighborhoods: North, South, East, and West

What makes Knoxville unique? We often point to the cultural and entertainment offerings downtown, but most residents identify Knoxville with their own neighborhoods outside of the center city. And while they may exist far apart, sometimes in very different circumstances, these places collectively make up the Knoxville experience. In this second edition of our ongoing series, we visit different parts of Knoxville to simply record what we see, profiling the scenes and lives that help define our city.

EAST: Broken Wing Meat Processing

Follow the dimly lit, sinuous Riverside Drive east from downtown, and after a few miles you'll come upon a bucolic, two-story home with a white picket fence framing the driveway.

It's quiet here on a crisp autumn evening, despite the proximity to the city and highways; the only ripple disturbing an otherwise placid evening is a rare passing car, or the occasional whir of a plane taking off or landing at Island Home Airport across the river.

Behind the house sits a fairly typical garage, complete with a canoe fixed across its facade and fluorescent light emanating from its single window. Signs of life—the hum of power tools, fans, and gruff male voices—grow as you approach a checkered square of light, but once you reach the door, it's death that overwhelms: Deer carcasses, recently decapitated and skinned, drip crimson from large metal hooks as they wait to be chilled and then methodically divided up. A pile of discarded, cranberry-red rib cages, three feet high and gleaming, sits beneath them, destined for the African wild dogs' cage at the zoo. From the wall, two mounted deer heads are forced to look on in an ironic twist of fate. The air is musty with the smell of organic decay.

Across the room, the rhythmic hum of a bandsaw tears through flesh under the surgical, latex-covered hands of Ed Blankenship, the owner and butcher of Broken Wing Meat Processing. Splotches of dried blood color Blankenship's jeans and the concrete floor, proof of a long day spent carrying the sinewy remnants of creation into the freezer for four or five days of aging.

"It's hard work!" Blankenship yells, smiling through his brown-and-gray-speckled beard. He leaves the saw to carry another body to the freezer. A green Buckmasters hat rests high on his forehead, black-rimmed glasses rest crooked on the bridge of his nose. His laugh is high-pitched and playful.

There's something unmistakably familiar about Blankenship, about his frenetic pace and sanguine, honest-to-God attitude. If Santa Claus awoke one morning to the realization that his eight tiny reindeer had outlived their usefulness, come nightfall he might look and act something like Ed Blankenship.

In a way, that's not far off. This gruesome, exhausting work represents a vital link in a chain providing food to hungry families in East Tennessee and across the state, a program called Hunters for the Hungry.

Started in 1998 by the Tennessee Wildlife Federation, a Nashville nonprofit, Hunters for the Hungry encourages sportsmen to donate deer to processors like Broken Wing, which cleans, packages, and stores the venison. Then, before Thanksgiving and Christmas, Second Harvest Food Bank collects the meat and distributes it through its network of pantries to local families. Last year, across the state hunters donated 71,348 pounds of meat, more than 1,200 deer. In Region 4, where Knox County is located, hunters donated more than 6,000 lbs.

"Venison has one of the highest protein counts of any meat out there," says Gail Root, who works with "Eddie," as she calls him, in her role as executive director of Second Harvest Food Bank of East Tennessee. "Of course, at the food bank what we need most is protein because it's just so hard to come by."

Hunters who donate the deer must pay $40 to Ed to have them cleaned. This is a discount—for regular customers the fee is $50—and hunters receive a receipt they can submit for a tax write-off.

But Matt Simcox, head of the program for the TWR, says the fees present a considerable hurdle to more hunters donating. In other parts of the state, he's been able to secure private funding for the processors, making donations free for hunters, and he'd like to see that happen in East Tennessee, too.

"We would love to have funding for every county in our program," Simcox says. "$1,000 will [pay for] approximately 1,000 pounds of venison. One pound of venison will feed four people... so every thousand dollars a business donates feeds 4,000 people." That money stays within the county, he adds.

"That's one of the beauties of this program," Simcox says. "All the meat donated stays there locally, in county, to feed local people."

On this Monday night, at the beginning of November, Broken Wing has only received two donated deer, which Blankenship attributes to the high price of meat at the grocery store. Last year the food bank received 143 pounds through him, while Adam's Taxidermy, in Powell, contributed 500 pounds. This region came in second to last in the number of deer donated, and last in the total pounds donated. Still, Simcox says, the region does well considering the terrain and that there's no funding to waive the fees.

Kathy, Ed's wife of 36 years, arrives later from the house out front, dressed in a white butcher's coat, latex gloves, a low-sitting hat and tinted glasses. She seems stiff—perhaps from her hip surgery earlier in the year, or perhaps just in relation to Ed's frenzied pace.

"She's the organizer. She honestly is. She keeps me going!" Blankenship booms from across the room as he slices cuts into smaller pieces and drops them into the grinding bucket.

Now past 7 p.m., it's approaching a 12-hour workday for Ed. He doesn't actually know when he started and the question seems irrelevant: He gets paid by the deer, not by the hour, and today he's cleaned 14 and will grind 10 more before quitting.

Even at this hour, customers still arrive to drop off their trophies for processing and take home the antlers. A man who looks to be in his mid-30s enters with his daughter shyly hiding behind his leg, his buck deposited out front.

"I believe she killed it!" Blankenship teases the girl, letting out a high-pitched guffaw as he moves outside to survey the specimen. He pulls open its jaw to reveal a mouth nearly devoid of teeth—a sign of old age, Blankenship says.

"No, she didn't get to go this time," her father answers for her, smiling, "but she wants to come next time."

Blankenship takes an electric saw and cuts through the animal's powerful neck, then hands the head to the man.

Back inside, on a bulletin board, three signs read: "Where's my meat?" "Is that all I get?" "Can you eat that?"