Last 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.