Posted by Lisa Simpson – Years ago, I spent a week at Quillisascut with 12 other cooks and chefs. Meals were dictated by what was ready in the garden and the slowest chicken in the flock. I might be sneaking eggs from under a warm and annoyed hen for breakfast, only to be plucking feathers off the still warm body of the same hen the next morning. We collected fresh mint and watercress by the creek, plucked fragrant peaches off the trees in the afternoon. Up at 5am for morning milking of the goats, flopping cream and foam at the farm cats that patiently waited just out of petting reach. If we needed honey, we had to go collect it from one of the bee hives kept on the property. Wheat came from a nearby farm, lamb from down the road. It was a powerful experience that imprinted into my brain and stomach.
And the most indelible memory? My then- teenage stepdaughter shrieking with disgust, “You killed a poor helpless chicken??”
“You know,” I said, trying to teach her an important lesson, “Pork chops come from a warm, living animal. It didn’t grow in shrink wrap at the store.”
Anyone who has a teenager will understand that trying to teach them important lessons is like trying to build a skyscraper with a pot of wet noodles and some crazy glue.
I’m worried about where my food comes from, the dying off of small farms, contamination, humane animal treatment. Ozone layers, global warming, marketing ploys, genetic engineering. It’s all very upsetting when one pauses to think about it. I do what I can, which is really all any of us can do.
I think it’s important that everything reaches its destiny- and that goes for leftover tuna sandwiches, too. As a culture, we’re so far from where our food grows that it’s easy to forget all the work and effort, and in most cases, pain and misery, our meat comes from. It’s easy to buy shrink-wrapped bacon and forget about it until it’s grey and furry and then toss it out never to blink an eye about where it came from or where it goes, who touched it before and after me. We live in a land of plenty and most of us take it for granted most of the time… we don’t like to be reminded.
So Sunday I went with some friends and picked out a pig. A handsome Duroc/Berkshire/Hampshire fellow who will live at my friends’ house along with 7 friends and family until sometime in the fall. And then… I’m going to help slaughter the little fella, skin and dress him and send him off to one of the dwindling number of butchers to break him down into manageable parts that will then live in my freezer until called upon to reach its destiny.
The incomparable Tamara Murphy of local Seattle restaurant, Brasa, did it a few years ago. There’s nothing that she hasn’t already said that I don’t agree with.
If you’ve never been to a working farm, it will disabuse you of any dream of bucolic country life. It is not Green Acres. It is not Hoggett’s Farm. It’s not Fitzgibbon’s farm. Working farms are smelly, dirty places. Chaff floats in the air, mud thick from animal urine, a junkyard of long-dead partially dismantled farming equipment, the ducks like to sift through the giant pile of compost made from used bedding straw. A working farm is practical by necessity. Farmers are not sentimental people- they can’t be, otherwise nothing would get done.
Pig after pig was lifted into the truck, the farmer as blandly blasé about what we were planning as if it was an Office Depot transaction. At first I couldn’t wrap my head around it- how can you not want to keep that cute little piglet? Isn’t it SOME PIG?
I asked why the piglets were over there and not with the mother, here. He explained that the sow will kill her babies, “Cuz she’s mean as hell.” Oh, well… that’s not… something Pixar has talked about. I watched one brave piglet spring out from its warm shed away from its litter mates and dart under the sow, who grunted and snuffled and stamped her feet, sending the piglet running back to base. The sow had given birth unexpectedly in the middle of the night and the farmer couldn’t get her into the birthing rack in time, so he had spent the night pulling piglets away from her mouth and putting them where they could nurse safely while she was laid out with contractions. “Now I’ve gotta get in there with her and try to get her over there,” He pointed across the way to a narrow iron pen. “She’s a good producer, but I’m tired of the bites.” He leaned over the gate and looked at her. “I’m getting too old to fight with her, so a .45 will do wonders for her attitude.” He smiled wryly before pointing to another pen. “That gilt there will take her place.” A gilt is a female pig that’s never had a litter. She looked at us with curiosity, her wet nose pushed between the bars to get a better scent of us. One of the kids reached over and petted the bristly snout, which caused the pig to flap its tail.
I am not naming my pig, (though my husband has decided to call him “Scrummy”, short for “scrumptious”). My friend, Brittani, lifted my pig up and transferred him into the cage in the back of our truck, where it ran, squealing, into the corner and eyed me with distrustful caramel-colored eyes fringed with cinnamon lashes. And I felt the first pang of guilt- You, little guy, are going in my belly. And I think, perhaps, he knows it.