Tuesday, January 08, 2013

The Meat You Eat

Butchering animals is a grave thing.

For me, it always starts joyously— the prospect of beautiful fresh meat, raised by a local farmer/friend, pastured and fed a top-notch diet of grain and fresh veggies.

As you pull the door to the walk-in cooler open, the unmistakeable scent of fresh meat wafts out, curling around your senses in all its minerality and rawness.  Try though you might, your animalistic nature is overjoyed at the prospect of this feast.

The pig is neatly tucked into large plastic bags— one side on the left of the cooler, one side on the right, and the head sitting there, locked in a macabre grin with ears splaying out playfully, eyes closed as if the pig's last moments were spent in laughter.  You and your partner make sure you have space cleared for it in the back of the car, and then return to hoist the first side.

The front leg is so heavy, with that big shoulder and rib cage, that you can't even lift it.  You switch places, picking up the back leg instead.  The plastic sighs and stretches, and you wrap your hands around the ham as well as you can, staggering out into the light and towards the car.  It fully spans the length of your car from rear door hatch to drivers' seat.  You return for the second side, this time going straight for the rear leg, and resolving to lift more weights in the farming off-season.

The head you nestle between the sides where it won't topple or slide around as you drive home.

When you pull into your driveway, you look around the neighborhood, curious if anyone will bear witness to the cold carcass you are about to lug into the house, one side and then the next.  Ours must surely be the strangest household in town.  You wonder what neighbors think as you sharpen knives and don aprons, cleaning the countertop and laying down plastic and a cutting board to keep things clean.

By the time that carcass has come into your possession, it is most definitely meat.  It looks like the meat we all know, cold to the touch and bloodless.  If you start to glance across the landscapes of reds, pinks and whites, you can see cuts waiting to come out.  The marbling and the fat cap are enough to make your mouth water.  But that pig waited for you to bring "slop" this summer— veggies, fruit, the occasional cracked egg.  You knew that pig, although not closely.  No names were exchanged.  This stranger is now coming to rest in your house, in your freezer and eventually, the bellies of you and your friends and family.

And then, you begin.  With that first grasp of the leaf lard, lifting, gently tearing, you have begun to butcher an animal.  The sound of leaf lard separating from the tender organs and muscles it protected is like the sound of a peeling grapefruit.  It's crisp, the detachment is audible.  You wonder if your body would come apart so easily.  The sound makes you thirsty, a Pavlovian response that surprises you in the context of dismembering something.  But it's January, and grapefruit are in season.

As you settle into the carcass, you remember things.  Separate the legs right in the joint, popping the tendons and putting downward pressure until the two bones part ways.  Cut at the 7th rib, use the weight of the shoulder to break through the spinal column rather than cutting with a saw or cleaver.  Look for seams, and separate at the silver skin with your fingers first, following through with the tip of the knife.  Let the weight of those large muscles and pieces fall away from themselves.  Butchering is tough physical labor, but some of the work is done by the pig.  It's ironic, the way our bodies betray us.

Bit by bit, you realize that what was a nearly unmanageable half of a pig has become "primals" which then are whittled away into things that your kindergarten-era memory recognizes.  Chops, loin, belly that still looks unmistakably like bacon even though four days ago this animal was waiting expectantly to be fed each morning.  Through it all, that is what you remember most.  You take care not to waste a single thing.  Anything that falls on the floor are eagerly cleaned up by your dogs, and you set aside a bowl for scraps to grind later.  Even the bones will be turned into rich stocks later on.  Your reptilian brain tells you not to waste a single morsel, because it is all sustenance.  Your modern-day brain tells you not to waste anything because the thought of any of this beautiful animal ending up in a landfill along with the neighborhood trash makes you queasy.

The hardest part for me is the head.  There's no way around how personal it is to slice the jowls off of this creature's face, but the jowls are plump and sumptuous.  First, the ears are cut off and saved for dog treats [although they're good eating, too].  Then, right under where the ears used to be, make your cut.  Scrape the knife as closely along the cranial and jaw bones as you can.  Suddenly, the sound of a blade scraping against teeth.  You inhale sharply, close your eyes, take a breath.  Proceed with care, but remember that this animal was alive.  You cut just under the eye, still locked in smiling disregard.  When you've removed both cheeks, the jovial pig has been reduced to a hollowed-looking monster, teeth clenched in a grimace.  Some part of your brain tells you to take this skull in your hands and say thanks.  You murmur it, and know that you will use the head, too.  It will stay with the body for now, just in many more parts than three.

It never gets any easier, never stops causing me to take a sharp breath and be thankful.  The day I stop caring about the meat as I did the animal— or vice versa— is the day I should put down the blades and perhaps farming itself.  The things that make farming and eating meat difficult are the same things that make it joyful and rewarding.

After a long evening of butchering, Christian and I collapsed on the couch, nearly too tired even to wait for rice to cook.  We had a simple dinner, rice and a skirt-type steak from the pig.  It was just what we needed, and each bite was rich, perfectly seared, and inspiring.

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