Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Of the Fallen

[click to enlarge]
abattoir |ˈabəˌtwär|
a slaughterhouse.
ORIGIN early 19th cent.: from French, from abattre ‘to fell.’

Just over one week ago I stood on a kill floor for the first time. In many ways I've been building up to that moment for a few years now [at least], learning about food systems and production and how the food we eat gets from the farm to the table. In elementary school we were assigned a research paper, and my initial "animal rights" topic quickly changed to a more focused study of slaughterhouses. What I learned turned me off meat for months, as I recall.

But let's face it. I'm like many other red-blooded Americans who love bacon and steak and fried chicken and Thanksgiving turkey. My studies [and interests in life] led me to food, and I changed the way I bought milk, where I shopped, what I shopped for. My internship in Italy got me so close to the food chain as helping raise animals, and seeing their carcasses return in halves, still warm.

But this whole part about death... that part scared me as it does so many people. It's easier to turn away and pretend that pork chops simply come from the grocery store in neat little bloodless, and plastic-wrapped, packages. I've seen film footage, both raw and in documentary form about it, but I wondered how I would feel actually being there for the moment of death. Could I ever, EVER, eat it again?

As soon as we got back from the processing plant, I sat down to write about the experience. It's disjointed but thoughtful, shock and a sort of peace between every line.

"To stand less than ten feet away from an animal who is about to take its last breath; to watch it take in its surroundings, fresh blood spattered and streaming across the kill floor, steam rising from another animal so recently slaughtered that it, despite being halved and headless, has rhythmically-twitching muscles that speak to pastured life."

Blood is an amazing, sustaining thing that captivates and horrifies us. To see so much of it, still hot, will take your breath away. And these men working make it all look so easy— when I know how much practice goes into each slice, knowing the grain of the meat, where to cut and where not to cut. It's one of our most primal skills as a species, perfected over centuries of passed-down learning.

"I've still never stood in place and watched a livestock animal take its last breath as it continues along the path from farm to food. Today the Farmily made a trip to the local slaughterhouse where our market hogs are processed. We put labels on various packages of sausage, mixtures of sage, white pepper, nutmeg, ancho chili, coriander... The men cutting made swift, sure strokes that make their work look impossibly easy. Chef Jay deftly sculpted raw body parts into hams and shoulders to be cured as other men sliced loin, belly [bacon], lard, pieces intended for sausage...

All of that I've seen before. At some point Jay showed me the room where all the sides of meat hang to cool— think Rocky punching sides of beef as his breath curls around the frame of the shot. It's awe-inspiring in the way that only something as personal as food and sustenance could be, a chilly cathedral built to honor the survival of man, the sacrifice of our domesticated animals, and the raw brutality that rules behind the scenes of our domestic lives.

And then, the kill floor. When I stepped into the doorway, a freshly-felled cow was being hoisted up, hooks through each leg, ready to bleed out. The men make quick work of it, slitting the throat, slicing through the spinal cord to remove the head, pouring the innards into a bucket, peeling back the hide like someone might peel an orange.

I watched for some time as the cow was broken down into pieces, cuts, right in front of my eyes. There were three halved animals hanging by hooks, being inspected by a representative of the USDA and hosed down before heading into the refrigerated cooling area. Logically, there was only one thing left to happen— close the gate, open the door, chute another cow through. Two, actually, small ones. They stood next to the steaming blood running across the floor, looking around, showing no obvious signs of panic.



The first heifer shied and took two shots to fell. Her chute partner stood there, not struggling, as the first one slumped into the gate and against her.


The second cow sat back against the door they had just walked through. Even in death, muscles remember and spasm in protest. Both cows kicked, blood foaming from their nostrils, eyes glassy and framed by long lashes. They were both dead in an instant. The inspector checked them both, and they were strung up by their back tendons as is every slab of beef that eventually arrives to your plate.

At least in a processing plant of that [small] size, employees have time to learn their craft and do it surely. On any given day, they might slaughter 20 or so animals. Industrial-strength plants process 400 animals per hour. It's more disassembly line than anything else, just another factory— as harmful to the employees who work in slippery conditions with extremely sharp tools as it is to the animals pushed through.

It is shocking, sudden and brutal. Yet at the same time the cows didn't appear to be stressed, and anyone who consumes meat is consuming an animal who does feel fear, or sunshine warming its back. As one man walked up to the first cow, rifle in hand, I felt a surge of adrenaline and wondered, will I turn away? But I didn't and I couldn't, because it was something I needed to see. If I'm not ok with the process, I just can't be ok with eating it [especially given my many close calls with vegetarianism].

It's not something to be sanctified. In some ways yes, to watch an animal die is a religious experience unto itself, where you are made to look deep into your own soul and consider your humanity. But it's also a fact of life and of nature. There are countless problems with our current food system and I think a lot of that stems from the simple fact that we are so far removed from what we eat. It's more than just a purchase at the store— someone, somewhere, grew or raised every single thing that you eat. The question we need to ask is, how?

And for anyone wondering, I've been enjoying sharing in the sausage made that day with family and friends, and the Thanksgiving turkey was especially delicious and grilled to perfection this year.


Sheroz said...

really nice :)

JOdi Firth said...

Thank you for your story and the bravery to view the entire process. I'm quite sure it's something the majority of the public couldn't (or wouldn't) do. It was amazingly written and thought provoking.