I had a genuine farm to fork experience this weekend. Butchering among other things is called farm to fork, so I’m told, which is a pretty way to talk about some not-so-pretty things.
The not-so-pretty part is what I signed on for. I felt I owed it to the animals I choose to consume each week. I got plenty of not-so-pretty. I also got a lot more.
Last weekend we arranged to kill and butcher two hogs that had been raised as a 4-H project. The young man had invested a year of his life in raising two animals from the time they were piglets. It had become a family affair, with his stepdad bringing scraps from his restaurant home each night and his mom having to help corral them when the broke out of the pen. When we arrived they admitted it was time to evict the noisy, stinky guys. For us it was time to fill the freezer.
My daughter’s boyfriend is a hunter. He fishes and crabs regularly. He is comfortable with skinning animals and values the meat such efforts provide. But he still takes no joy in the work of killing.
I don’t hunt. About the worst of anything I’ve killed are my brain cells from 20 years of drinking. We divided labor. He’d do the killing and skinning. I’d focus on the butchering. I helped him with the skinning. He helped me with the butchering. We both spent back breaking hours at the tasks at hand.
We had one goal. To kill the animals as efficiently and quickly as possible. We watched plenty of youtube videos and did everything we could to prepare. I read and read and tried to get myself ready for each step. We knew they would squeal and their bodies would react violently to the violence being done to them. We knew cutting a jugular is simply not an easy thing to do.
In all of the above we were right. There isn’t a single thing I’d call good about the process of taking another sentient being. I’m glad I didn’t have to do it. I gladly walked away and could care less about turning in my man card at the door.
That’s the real unpleasant bit about our weekend. The necessary part if, like us, we aren’t going to be vegetarians. It may be small consolation but if I can make a small stand and not eat meat I know where it comes from and had a small hand in its procurement, I feel more responsible and ethical than grabbing a slab of meat in Safeway that comes from an industrialized animal killing machine.
It’s also stressful. We both lost sleep that weekend, worrying about the logistics and the meat and the tasks at hand and wanting to do it well to produce the desired result: Consumable, healthy food. The worst would be to take the pigs lives and see the meat spoil.
Along with that unpleasantness came a lot of pleasant benefits. The young man earned money for his labor and developed a healthy respect for the animals he raises and the eventual lifestyle he wants to have. I learned how to break down a pig, to cut and wrap and use as much of the animal as I can in productive ways. My daughters have freezers of meat at a great cost savings. We have a Thanksgiving smoking party planned for all the bacon I have curing my refrigerator:
Simply put, I like doing what I can rather than relying on experts to do it. It’s a sentiment wonderfully expressed in Michael Pollan’s Cooked. It is what drove me to sign on for the not-so-pleasant part.
When we made a batch of carnitas to share among family at the end of the long day of butchering, I was surprised how much I enjoyed the time. My butchering partner said it best when he said we made some family memories that weekend. Both pleasant and unpleasant memories oddly mixed in a satisfying whole.
The sheer effort involved in protecting the meat, preserving it properly, cutting it for use, freezing makes it far more valuable, and in a strange way, something I want to enjoy more, which for me means eat less. Because I don’t want to kill a pig every day of the week, I want this meat to last. It has more value to me now.
And the work continues. We have some curing experiments on tap to make bacon and hams and even a prosciutto, things I’ve wanted to do forever and yet seemed far beyond my ability to do. I’ve closed the gap on what’s involved to make the food I eat, just as I did with bread and chocolate and pasta and a host of other things I used to buy but now make.
Health is a spiritual exercise. Slowing down to do the work of eating brings balance to my life that leads to spiritual comfort. I can’t explain it or even rationalize. I have no need to promote it or evangelize it. I just do it and in the doing I feel righter.
I think of those pigs from time to time and what I feel is clearly remorse. I wish I didn’t have to have played a part in their demise, yet knowing I play a part when I make a purchase at Safeway, this remorse is a livable one.
A weekend of butchering is exhausting hard, emotional work. Perhaps God knew what she was doing when she said, “on the seventh day you shall rest.”