Butchery: The Watershed
I think it’s time that JC and I shared a pact that we’ve made concerning our relationship with animals. We’ve agreed that if we can’t stomach the process of killing and “processing” them, then we shouldn’t be eating its meat. For those of you who have been to parties at Pine St, the thought of a vegetarian JC might be hard to swallow. There are so many reasons to be thinking long and hard about eating meat – how it is produced and how it affects the planet. Anyone who loves food and / or cares about climate change should be invested in answering these questions for themselves and if they cook for a living, what it means for their profession. It’s a thorny set of issues pitting gastronomic passions against forward thinking sustainability. Many food writers and chefs are progressing this discussion. Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals and Mark Bittman’s recent release, VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00 are good places to start. If you are still firmly entrenched, watch Our Daily Bread and then let us know if you aren’t disgusted by Industrial food production. I believe that we all want to feel good about what we are eating. Industrially produced meat is a pretty gross once you know how it’s being processed.
Here’s the rub: I love eating meat, fish and eggs. And cheese, wow, do I LOVE cheese! To be clear, I believe that if a being is born an omnivore, it should stay an omnivore. But ancient man did not eat meat three times a day. He was lucky if he had meat three times a month. The American diet is out of whack with nature and factory ranching is laden with ills – it is the highest consumer of antibiotics in the world and the highest contributor of “super bugs” or antibiotic resistant bacteria; it is the top contributor to climate change via animal-produced methane; clear cutting of forests and jungles to make pastures for beef cattle are disastrous; and, the list goes on.
If you want to stop contributing to those ills, you can try to eat only organic, free-range (pastured) meat and hope that the animals have been raised on the feed that they have evolved eating– i.e., cows eat grass, chickens eat bugs and some plants, pigs eat a variety of things, not just corn. And when you can, go for the heritage breeds! Buying heritage breeds helps support genetic diversity in our food supply which is in grave peril. (More on this in a future post.) And, if you can, buy local. Not only does this help strengthen the small farm marketplace (and therefore small farmers) and cut down on fossil fuel consumption, you are also strengthening your local economy by keeping the dollars you spend in your area. Besides, I’d much rather give my hard-earned money to a local farmer than help the CEO of some food chain buy a bigger house in Aspen.
And yes, organic meat is often more expensive, but if flavor matters to you, you’ll be happy to spend more on better meat. JC and I made the switch almost two years ago and we simply cut back on the amount of meat we would eat each week in order to stay within our budget. (Yes, the ribs at our going away party were organic, grass fed and locally sourced!) And of course, there are times when you can’t (i.e., when you are on a much-anticipated BBQ tour of Texas.) Just do your best when you can.
And, yes, there are a lot of places where this kind of meat just isn’t available. We are currently in Kentucky, in the middle of some of what was once the most fecund farmland anywhere, but much of the countryside is also a food desert. If you didn’t know about River Run, Roughdraft Farmstead or some of the other local farmsteads in the area, you’d have to drive 30 minutes away to find a store where you could buy an apple or a carrot. Many of the farmers here who grow corn, don’t actually eat the corn they grow. Why is that?…because it’s sprayed with RoundUp, a pesticide so toxic to humans that you are supposed to avoid getting it on your skin and, if you ingest it, you are to head straight to the doctor. But they spray it on the corn that gets turned into high fructose corn syrup and corn flakes and Doritos…and then it’s “OK”, go ahead and eat it! And of course, they feed it to all of the animals as well.
The insanity of this situation is beyond my vocabulary, so I’ll get back to the point:
When we buy meat that has been sanitarily packaged from a store, we are shielded from the killing portion of the transaction and therefore from any emotional, moral or physiological effects that the bloodshed might have on us. On the other hand, when we kill an animal with our own two hands, I expect that we are intimately engaged in and enmeshed with the moment of death – the blood, the bones and the intricate network of veins, organs and muscles that used to be a living creature. You are then forced to experience the gravity of Meat and to understand exactly what it is you are taking out of the world every time you fire up the grill or order that herb roasted chicken breast. I hope that when we learn to kill and butcher the meat we eat, we can properly honor each animal and its sacrifice. And take steps to make each animal’s life and the ending of it, as peaceful and natural as possible. In short, to reconnect with our humanity where meat is concerned. To respond to any feelings that arise appropriately, ie, if the killing is difficult, then we do it rarely, if at all. After all, it is possible that butchering will weigh heavily on us and our consumption of meat will decrease. Or cease. In short, to learn how to be a fully responsible omnivore.
Julie Hurley of River Run has been through this many times with her husband Jonas and she cautions that the process can take a while and may include several passes. You may react one way to slaughtering chickens and quite another to the killing of hogs. You may react one way the first time you (or your partner) kills an animal and quite another the second or third. “If you’ve eaten chicken a hundred or a thousand times before today,” she wondered the second time her husband Jonas butchered chickens, “what makes this next time so different?” A thought which can be read with conflicting meanings, which completely reflects the complexity of these issues.
At the same time, we are thinking about the retreat center. Which animals could we raise in a sustainable way? Which ones make sense in a permaculture system? Over the past three weeks, we’ve had a chance to observe several species and various ways that farmers husband them. Our jury is still out on which animals and methods are best, but I can tell you one thing: Animals are a lot of work and decisions about which ones to raise and how to raise them are not to be taken lightly. We think we’d like chickens as fresh eggs are so wonderful and nutritious, but chickens are dirty and loud and kind of aggressive, like feathery squawking dinosaurs! Also, there are “meat” chickens as opposed to “layers”. Ducks are much cuter and cleaner (I think) and their eggs are higher in fat. And I think eggs can be produced in a way where we and the birds are happy. There are dairy sheep and those you raise for wool and/or for meat. Hogs are loud, dirty AND smelly and they eat a LOT. And sturdy electrical fencing for them is critical. Cows also eat a lot and are gigantic so you need a lot of land. Goats are smaller, more manageable and can also produce milk, but they are nimble and will eat almost anything, so, again, fencing is critical. Guinea fowl are great at keeping ticks and other bugs in manageable numbers and are supposedly very tasty, but they are loud and almost impossible to catch. Rabbits are cute and will mow your lawn, but I can’t get over the fact that they are rodents. And the list goes on…
There is a vibrant community of US farmers who are working with permaculture principles on small farms to develop sustainable systems for raising animals to produce meat, milk, leather and textiles. Joel Salatin at Polyface Farms is probably the best known for his system of intensive animal management. To summarize, he moves the ruminants (grass-eating animals) using mobile fencing thru a series of small pastures several times a day. This ensures that they are eating a wide variety of plants, not just their favorites and depositing their bountiful manure in broad coverage. Pasture circulation is also incredibly effective in controlling the spread of parasites. When the cows and sheep move out, he moves the chickens in and they go to work digging through the manure to look for tasty bugs and spreading fertilizer throughout the field. The cows get fresh new grass and the chickens get great scads of bugs. But this process is human and potentially petrol energy intensive and I’m not sure that process would work for us in a sustainable way on the retreat center. So much depends upon the location of the center. The matrix of decisions about raising animals boggles a bit. As does the prospect of butchering them.
I have to admit that I have some anxiety about what could be culinary watershed event in our marriage. What happens if one of us is fine with killing animals for food and the other is not? What happens if we both decide that vegetarianism is better than having to kill and butcher our own animals? I do not know what is on the other side of that moment, and for the time being, I remain blissfully ignorant.