Note: I wrote this piece in June 2013 and have never shared it before. I guess I was waiting for the right space and Orange Door SC has supplied that! I have since witnessed many more animal slaughters, and it is really interesting to read something that I wrote after my first experience with it.
“Some thing is going to die today.”
Looking past the man saying these words, about 50 yards over his left shoulder, my eyes are fixed on another person. He is an older African-American man wearing a rubber apron, with a .38 caliber pistol on one hip, and several knives on the other. He is waiting in the shadow with someone else, waiting for this speech to conclude. I am not sure how this situation is about to unfold, but I am sure of the fact that this man is going to be the one doing the killing.
The sun is hot but the air is crisp and cool. It’s the type of day where you never seem to have the right clothes on. Jacket on. Jacket off. Jacket back on. My emotions are running as out of control as my body temperature. I am scared and sad. I already feel a lump in my throat and I know that my tear ducts are ready to let lose. My sunglasses are my salvation. Through their lenses I am one half step removed from this reality, much in the way you read about wartime photographers using their camera lenses to distance themselves from the horrors all around. However, my emotions are much more scattered than just fear and sadness, because I am so fucking excited, and there is literally no place on the earth that I would rather be.
I am on Woodland Farm outside of Louisville, Kentucky. I am about to witness the slaughter of a hog.
The speaker finishes his sermon. I struggled what to call this speech, but I think sermon fits the bill. One definition of a sermon is “an oration by a prophet.” I know that the man delivering the speech would bristle at being called a prophet, but he is an inspired teacher and leader, and in this moment he delivered the context and message I needed to not only get through this experience, but also to ensure that its meaning and profoundness would be fully absorbed. We left the warming sun behind, and walked underneath the old barn structure where the man in the apron was waiting.
To our left was a “wall” with four inch wooden slats running horizontally and about 4 inches of space between each slat. We would watch from behind this wall. We were invited to go closer, to witness the slaughter from right next to the metal pen where the hog was waiting, but to reduce stress on the animal the group decided to stay back a bit. The quietness of the time from when we entered the barn through the death of the animal cannot be described. I could hear the woman four feet to my left drawing every breath.
George, the man in the apron, parted our company and went in the hallway between the slat wall and the metal pen. The hallway was about four feet wide, and the pen in which the hog had been moved was a good size square, about the size of a small bedroom. As George walked up the pen, the hog came up to greet him. Are you a dog owner? Do you know how a dog will come pattering up to you, ears back, tail wagging, nose sniffing…almost smiling? Well this is exactly how the hog greeted George, the man who was about to end his life. This was the most heartbreaking moment.
This pig was beautiful! Brown fur covered most of his body, and he was very well muscled. This animal was healthy and happy, in such stark contrast to 99% of the pigs in this country.
George removed the .38 from his holster. The hog was pushing his snout through the metal gate of the pen, smelling George. He held the pistol to the hog’s head and took careful aim.
A single gunshot rang out, shattering the silence of the previous three minutes. My breath was trapped in my chest, my throat too tense to swallow. The hog hit the ground writhing. I wasn’t timing it, but it took a little over a minute for the majority of the movement to stop. The throws were violent, with the hog’s front end mostly on the ground, while his back legs kicked with immense power. In contrast to what I was expecting, there was absolutely no noise from the animal, other than the slapping of muscle and fat on the dirt floor of the pen. There was also not as much blood as I expected. It’s impossible for me to know when the hog actually died. Death is absolute, but it turns out that dying is not so black and white. If movement defines life, then the hog was still alive after it had been butchered to pieces, and its muscles continued to fire uncontrollably. What I do know for sure is that that one-minute felt like an hour. A few tears escaped as the hog writhed in the throws of death, but not as many tears as I was expecting. As I stood there behind my sunglasses, I kept repeating one phrase in my head, “Please die, please die, please die…”
The women to my left, whose breathing I could here earlier, was also adorning sunglasses in the dark barn. I could hear her breathing still, this time much quicker, and I knew that she too was fighting back a few tears. I was not alone. However, I also noticed her nodding her head in the affirmative. Nodding as a few tears fell. This was right. This was good. This was going to be dinner. She, among others, was going to cook this animal. We were all going to honor it. It would be fucking delicious.
At last, after the hour-long minute, the beautiful animal was dragged from its pen to the spot where George would display his true talents of butchery. I’ve had many discussions with people in the months since the slaughter about the length of time it took the hog to die. Was this normal? The answer seems to be that there is no normal, and that every time is different. Sometimes they die instantly, and other times it takes a bit longer. Did something go wrong? Nope. Would George have shot him again if there wasn’t a small crowd watching? No, this is just death, and death is never clean or easy.
I am not going to describe the breaking down of the hog step-by-step, simply because I don’t remember the details well enough to do it justice, and I would rather focus on some interesting observations. (However, in general the process goes like this: the hog is hung upside down, the head comes off, the hog is lowered onto a table, the hooves are removed and the skinning starts, the hog is raised back up, the hide is completely removed, the organs and bowels come out, he is cut in half, lowered again, and then broken down into different cuts of meat that we all know and love. Or most of us love…)
Watching a skilled butcher work is an incredible experience. I am not sure how many pigs George has broken down over the years, but it is more than a few. He worked with surgical precision with a variety of knives and saws, and does so at a blazing speed. It took less than 30 minutes to go from a live hog to two sides of pork. I’ve read that butchery is a dying skill in this country, and after watching George work I now know that it needs to be celebrated here in the U.S. more than it is today.
It was not my own observation, but one of the women I was with noticed that as the hog was slowly transformed, from an animal to meat, the crowd drew closer and closer in. The group I was with was comprised mostly of Chefs, and they went from standing 15 or 20 feet back from the hog in the beginning, to four or five feet away toward the end. There were a few chefs, mostly those who have had more experience with slaughter, who were hands on from the beginning. They helped remove the hide and here harvesting pig cheeks from the head while the muscles were still firing.
Lastly, the differences between humanely raised pigs and pigs that are coming out of large industrial farms and slaughterhouses are visually apparent in the meat. The musculature, color, and fat content are all very different, as are the size of some of the cuts of meat. I will touch on the flavor of the meat in a moment, but just the visual contrast was striking to me. Obviously freshness has something to do with this as well, as pork chops or tenderloins from your local butcher or grocery store were not alive 3 hours before you cooked and ate them, which would be the case later that evening.
At this point in my life, when someone asks me what the best bite of food I have ever had is, I have an easy answer. It was my first bite of that hog.
I had the honor of “helping” some of the chefs prepare dishes for a family style meal that we were helping to host later than evening. I was in the process of (badly) cooking sunny-side-up eggs for one of the chefs, when I had this bite. One of the chefs chose to cook the pork tenderloin. As he was plating his dish, he took a medallion of the loin and handed it to me across the makeshift kitchen. It was far from the most complex bite of food I had ever had, but it was seasoned and cooked perfectly. This was food to satisfy the soul. When I parted ways with this chef the next day, it was with a huge bear hug and a heartfelt thank you, because even if I never see him again, we would be connected for life.
Now, I freely admit that the experience of the slaughter, and the setting (cooking with 15 world-class chefs on a beautiful farm on a perfect spring day) completely influences my perspective on this bite of food. But shouldn’t that always be the case? Shouldn’t the setting, circumstances and people that you share food with be as important as the flavor and cookery of the food? Good food is all about connectivity between man and nature, and between people. We are more disconnected than ever from our food sources (nature) and from each other, and this experience is just a small but profound part of my journey to reconnect to both. The livestock farmers and hunters out there face experiences like the one I had in Louisville on a routine basis, but for the vast majority of Americans there is very little connection to the bacon on their plate and the pig that it came from. I know that this reflection will not change that for many (or any) people, but I have spent a lot of time talking about my experiences since May, and putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) is a necessary step to get the word out more broadly, and do one last thing to honor that hog.
It is also imperative that you understand that the life and death of the hog that I described above is quite literally the best-case scenario. The livestock at Woodland Farm have an incredible amount of space, are fed the feed appropriate for the species, are not given antibiotics, and are slaughtered in a very humane way and at the appropriate time in their life cycle. The life of the pig that supplied the pork you buy in your local supermarket could not be more different. Under the best of circumstances the death of an animal is tough to handle, and I refuse to be a consumer within a system that rewards efficiency and cruelty over quality, integrity and compassion.