We stepped onto the kill floor. Steam was roiling up from the scalder making the room humid, sticky, almost tropical. The clean, buttery smell of fresh blood was in the air and I was nervous. We discussed how the harvest had been going thus far with the men on the floor, their rolled-up sleeves revealing knotted muscles and scars. We walked into the blast chiller to check out the morning's carcasses, still with wisps of steam curling up amongst them as Jay looked them over. They were beautiful. And I was nervous, nervous, nervous.
We'd gotten a late start that day and there was only one pig left to walk through the doors from the holding pen. The door opened and she walked into the chute. At that point I could feel some adrenaline coursing through my veins and I was focused on nothing else in the room. The workers were finishing up with another carcass so Jay and I stood and watched as this sow checked the room out, sniffed around, took a couple exploratory nibbles on the bars of the chute, tried to root under the door through which she had just walked.
She didn't appear to be stressed out, just curious, just... obstinate. The one pig with the neck fatter than any others... It took me what felt like years to finally turn to Jay and whisper, it's Cracklins.
I know, he said.
Of course we had both known the moment they opened the door. Of course she WOULD be lucky number 13, the last pig to be slaughtered, the only one we would see. If watching an animal die was ever going to turn me into a strict vegetarian for life, it would be the queen of the tummy-rub herself. My legs felt rooted in place, as anyone who consumes meat is rooted to the slaughterhouses of the world. One man picked up the .22 and walked up to her, steadied his aim... she moved. It had to be a clean shot, an instant kill, for him to take it. And then he did. And there was Miss Cracklins' blood pooling on the kill floor.
What more is there to say? This had to be personal because eating is as personal as it is animal. Cracklins had a good life, as did all of the hogs we harvested. In the end, I wasn't upset. The night before, after loading them onto a trailer and sending them off the farm, Jay and I were watching Forrest Gump. In the depths of some sad theme music I suddenly was awash in tears [and let me say, also extremely embarrassed. What a girl!]. I was afraid of what I might see in the morning and how I might potentially feel about it. I felt heartsick. Jay was concerned and gently suggested that maybe we shouldn't go, but I insisted. Never again would I have this opportunity and I tried to explain why. He and I both realized, I think, that it wasn't a morbid curiosity but need for both answers and more questions.
How I came to be so intimately involved with meat and livestock and a farm is sometimes as much a mystery to me as it is to you, my readers, my family and friends. I love it, but I also love the opportunity to tell people about what I see, just in case they wonder about but will likely never visit a kill floor. I think it's something worth seeing, but I also think there is a right and wrong way to go about getting there. You can't see blood for the sake of seeing it. Cracklins is a reason for everyone to know their farmer, even if you don't want to know the names of his or her bacon-makers. She's a reason to know your butcher, to know where your food comes from, and know how you feel about the way it was produced. Death is difficult to see, but peace of mind is a beautiful thing.