Looking the Pig in the Eye

FQ pigLast week, I received a disturbing email from someone who was quite worked up about the pig roast we have planned for next month. The response overall has been great, and I personally can’t wait to spend a beautiful autumn evening with friends amid music, great conversation, laughter, and good food and drink. This person, however, was not so happy apparently, and expressed disgust and dismay in an angry email that we would choose to celebrate the season with the “sacrifice of a living creature.” Such activities apparently render all we offer “archaic” and “violent.”

“But, but, but . . . “ I sputtered, impotently, to the computer screen. We’ve always carried meat! We’ve never claimed to be vegetarian! Some of my best friends are vegetables!! Really, I understand that eating meat carries with it a stain of violence, that to eat meat, something must die. As a young girl, I hated hunting, and railed against the hunters I knew. Even then, I was not a vegetarian, and finally came to realize that it was not the killing of animals that so disturbed me, but the pleasure hunters took in killing gentle creatures of the forest. Somehow it seemed wrong to enjoy it so much, and perhaps that is what this unknown person was trying to express.

It has only recently occurred to me, though, that perhaps all the hunters I know are not cold-hearted killers, taking joy in felling a deer or a dove, but instead are perhaps experiencing the thrill and the joy of connecting with their food in much the same way that I experience a rush pulling a beet out of the ground. Buying out meat in shrink-wrapped packages and pretending that there was no sacrifice involved has, I believe, made us less sensitive, less grateful, and more callous.

I read once that French Laundry chef Thomas Keller asked his rabbit purveyor to show him how to kill and skin a rabbit. The purveyor brought back twelve live rabbits. He showed Keller how to kill, skin, and eviscerate one of the rabbits and promptly left. When Keller tried to kill the first rabbit he did a horrific job. The next ten went somewhat more smoothly but Keller learned a valuable lesson from that first rabbit. Because killing the rabbits had been such a terrible experience, he would not waste them. He would use all his powers as a chef to make them into beautiful dishes. Last winter, I worked with my friend Jesse Griffiths at one of his poultry cooking seminars that began with the “harvest” of two chickens. It was gentle, not traumatic, but still a little emotional and hard to watch, and since then I’ve often wondered how much meat I would eat if I had to kill it all myself. Not as much, probably. But, still, some.

In the past, butchering animals and preparing meat was a communal event. My mother tells stories of neighbors coming to their small farm each fall to help my grandparents butcher the hog they raised to feed the family. The two-day event culminated in a feast, and everyone involved was actively grateful for the sustenance the pig would offer all year. No one butchers hogs in our family anymore, but still, I married into a big “hunting” family, and there are trips several times a year to the “ranch” in West Texas to hunt for deer and doves. The communal spirit prevails on these trips—they are a way of filling the freezer with venison, but also a time to drink and laugh, to connect, to tell stories and trade recipes, to marvel at each other’s skills with a knife . . . would it make more sense to gather around a platter of chicken “fingers”? Do we want our children to believe that chickens have fingers? I want mine to respect the physical world they live in, to understand that no food is “throwaway” food, that all eating requires a sacrifice. This conversation about food is going to be a long one. Growing a banana requires cutting down the rainforest. Eating a veggie burger requires that farmers grow more soybeans, much of them genetically modified and heavily dependant on chemicals. If you eat a non-local tomato in winter, it was likely grown in Florida and produced by defacto slave labor. The days of innocence are over, and it’s no longer a viable option to feel immune from complicity in the broken food system by simply being a vegetarian.

 Yes, we should all eat less meat. Yes, we’ll have a “vegetarian option” at our party. Yes, there are many days I don’t eat meat at all. But, when I do choose to eat meat, I’m glad to look the pig in the eye. Our meat is raised by people we know. Mike and Debbie Sams and their family have raised the pig we will be eating on October 17th. It has lived the way a pig should live—in its social group, never crowded, fed the whey from the family’s cheese-making operation, kept with its mother until naturally weaned, taken to slaughter without stress or fear, and allowed to explore and roam at will. I have seen the animals on Kay and Jim Richardson’s farm too, I know they are happy, humanely treated, and respected for their sacrifice. That seems worthy of a celebration in my book.

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16 thoughts on “Looking the Pig in the Eye

  1. Great blog post. I agree 100%, although you’ve probably said it all much more eloquently than I would have.

    I’ve attended some of Jesse’s classes and I believe that he does a great job of truly teaching you to eat with respect for all ingredients. That is the way that we like to eat and that is what I will teach our kids one day.

    It’s so important to realize that no matter what you eat, as long as you eat (and we all have to), you are making an impact in some way…whether it’s the soil or the labor or the slaughter of an animal. I don’t quite see why so many vegetarians are fine with eating hyper-processed “food” that’s terrible for the environment, the laborers involved, and other farmers, yet they completely condemn the killing of an animal–even one raised humanely, slaughtered compassionately, and used in the fullest way possible.

    Once again, great post. Thanks for giving us all something to think about.

  2. I totally agree! Thanks for this candid, well thought out and pro-animal response. Domestic animals on integrated, healthy family farms have a good life. The fact that we see it done wrong so often is all the more reason to support people who choose to do it right.

  3. A well-stated overview of the complexity of our broken farm system…

    I actually had a veggie friend who was so scandalized that someone had used manure to fertilize her tomatos. Really? You prefer ammonium nitrate?

    Raising cattle actually helps protect land from development when done sustainably instead of on feed lots because you need much larger tracts of land than is needed for vegetable and specialty crops.

  4. I am glad to hear someone from “your side of the fence” express, so eloquently, the truths of this matter. We don’t get this much from the Austin area. As a rancher, it is quite obvious to me that many, many (most) consumers have lost the link that connects them to the land and to the environment. They don’t really know where food comes from.

    Yes, we kill animals. Yes, we eat them. But, at the same time, we respect them, we respect their surroundings, we respect their quality of life. We are not heartless killers; to the contrary, we have great respect for the animals that we raise, the wild animals on our land, and the land itself.

  5. Amen! My experience “processing” 3-4 chickens several months ago was both disturbing, enriching, and significant. I’m very glad to have done it, and eating chicken has since been different (in a good way) experience.

  6. I used to feel exactly the same way as the person who posted this comment. It was not until I read the Omnivore’s Dilema by Michael Pollan that I softened my perspective on this subject. I would much rather appreciate wonderful food whereby folks are being conscientous on how it is grown, fed, treated, harvested, etc. than mindlessly picking up a nicely prepared food from the grocery store without a single thought of where it came from and how it lived.

    Thanks for your blog and in general for the service you provide.

  7. Hooray!! Brilliantly said. I agree with you whole-heartedly. I come from a family who raised cattle and ate cattle. It was stored in a huge freezer in the house. I knew exactly where it came from and how it got to my plate. Bravo to you for writing this so eloquently. Bravo.

  8. Well said. We have lost so many connections in our “society”….to the land, to a sense of place, to both domestic and wild “food” animals, but most importantly to each other.
    Community is a minomer more times than not.

  9. The book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver is another great way of looking at growing and eating meat. The American way of eating meat at every meal is born out of PLENTY, but the plentiful meat is grown and slaughtered in extremely unwholesome ways. If we ate less meat, we would be healthier and have less need of the huge quantities that corporations are able to provide so cheaply. It’s pretty early in the morning for this little rant! Maybe I need a cup of chai tea 😉

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