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Pig to Table Project: ‘I wanted nothing . . . to go wrong’

By Tamar Haspel,

Editor’s note:

This is the last of a three-part series that chronicles the author’s effort to understand our relationship to the animals we eat.

The death we want for our animals is the one we want for ourselves: painless, instant, on a day like any other. Our three pigs took seven months to reach slaughter weight , and my husband, Kevin, and I had been thinking about that slaughter for the duration. Painless. Instant. On a day like any other.

We had two choices. We could bring the killing to the pigs or bring the pigs to the killing. Neither choice was ideal.

If we did it at home, we could, if all went well, kill each pig with one shot, in their accustomed pen, over a favorite food. But there were legal issues involving the discharge of firearms and logistical issues involving the handling of 200-pound-plus carcasses. There was the problem of dealing with two live pigs reacting to the death of their compatriot. There was the possibility of contamination, doing all the work outside, without the hoists and scalders and stainless steel tables. And there was, of course, no guarantee that we could make all go well.

If we brought them to a slaughterhouse, they would have to travel in a stock trailer, which they had never been in, to a place they had never seen, to be held for an indeterminate period of time — so much for “a day like any other.” But the pigs would be killed by a professional, and the carcasses would be handled properly. The slaughter would probably be painless and instant, but it would happen behind closed doors, and we would never know.

It was a hard choice, and we looked to our consulting pig farmer to help us make it. Every first-time pig owner needs a consulting pig farmer, and we were fortunate to have Walter Jeffries, who raises pigs in Vermont, at Sugar Mountain Farm, just an e-mail away. He has helped us all along, from fencing to feeding to finishing, and encouraged us to slaughter on-site, if we could manage it.

Our concerns about transport and holding, he said, were important; those are proven pig stressors. But live pigs panicked by the death of their friend? Not to worry. “Realize that pigs have no taboo against cannibalism,” he told us. “When you kill a pig, what the other pigs are thinking is, ‘Ooooh! Looks delicious!’ ”

Making preparations

After doing a lot of reading, and visiting the slaughterhouse closest to us (a non-USDA facility we were not impressed with), we were leaning heavily toward home slaughter.

When you grow food — plant or animal — you find there are as many opinions about how to do it as there are people doing it. Pig people have different takes on breeds, on feed, on optimal slaughter weight. They raise pigs in different seasons, in different housing, at different growth rates. But they are virtually unanimous on killing; there is one right way, and it is straightforward.

This is how you kill a pig. First, you stun it with either an electric stunner or a gun (captive bolt or bullet). You know the pig is insensate because there is no eye movement or squealing, and you quickly cut into the neck and sever the large blood vessels behind the breastbone to start the bleeding. Then you hoist the pig by a hind leg, to bleed out.

Once that’s done, you either skin or de-hair it, gut it, and Bob’s your uncle. Simple.

At least that’s how the guys on YouTube make it look. There are places in this country where people will come to your house and do this job for you, and we watched (over and over) a video of a guy in Mississippi who did the whole job, gunshot to carcass, in 31 minutes. We seriously considered sending him a plane ticket, because the killman guild doesn’t have a Cape Cod chapter.

If we were going to do it at home, we would have to do it ourselves. Although it would be difficult, knowing that there was one right way was surprisingly helpful. Even so, had I been in this alone, I wouldn’t have taken on the job. Kevin has more fortitude, dexterity and experience with firearms than I do. We knew that taking the pigs to a slaughterhouse would have caused a lot of guaranteed stress without a compensating guarantee of clean death. Killing them at home would have risks, but it was our only chance for that ideal death. Painless. Instant. On a day like any other — although not for us.

We started preparing a couple weeks in advance. We cordoned off an area of the pen, just wide enough for one pig, so we could bring in one at a time. We had a tub full of milk as bait and distraction, and a block-and-tackle ready to hoist the rear leg. Kevin bought .22 hollow-point bullets (to guard against a through-and-through that wouldn’t stun the pig), and we got permission from our neighbors, who own the only house within 500 feet (the Massachusetts limit) of where we would do the shooting, to discharge a firearm.

We rented a hot-water pressure washer to clean the pigs, and, we hoped, to scald them so that the hair would come off. If that didn’t work, we had a propane torch, to burn off the hair, as a backup.

We set up a second block-and-tackle a few yards away so two pigs could hang; one would be cleaned while the other was gutted. We made a giant stretcher of two huge bamboo poles and two moving blankets so we could move the pigs around.

And we recruited friends. A pig slaughter, like a barn raising, is a takes-a-village kind of event. Unlike a barn raising, though, it involves blood and guts and death. On pig-slaughter day, you know who your villagers are.

Two couples helped us: Ron and Susan, friends from Maine, and Don and Tanya, local friends. Ron was a sheep farmer for many years, and Don and Tanya have a small farm with cows and goats. None of us had killed and processed a pig, but there was significant collective experience with killing large mammals, and with guns.

Dealing with imperfection

We met at 9 that morning, and I fed everyone breakfast. We walked through the day’s logistics and made sure everyone approved. We took a deep collective breath, and began.

There had been so much planning, there were so many details, there was to be so much hard, heavy, dirty work. But three moments mattered more than any of it: the three shots that actually killed the pigs.

Two of those three went just as planned; Tiny and Spot both dropped instantly, and we cut and hoisted them. The third did not. Kevin shot Doc and she didn’t fall. She bellowed once, and then backed into the pen.

To be calm, to rationally decide what to do next, when distress is bubbling up through gut and heart, might have required more than I had. But Tanya was standing beside me. She was calm.  She was rational. She was talking to Kevin about our backup plan, which was a 30-30 rifle. My husband, our friends, were equal to the situation, and I had to be, too. Kevin got the gun.  One shot, and Doc was dead. 

Years ago, I read “Education of a Knife,” an essay by Atul Gawande about every inexperienced surgeon’s need to practice on real live people:

“In surgery, as in anything else, skill and confidence are learned through experience — haltingly and humiliatingly. . . . In medicine, we have long faced a conflict between the imperative to give patients the best possible care and the need to provide novices with experience.”

Doc probably would have suffered less had an experienced person done the killing. But no one will ever become experienced without doing it, once, for the first time.

Still, it was that failure, and one of our pigs in pain, that defined our day. We had other problems but, once the pigs were dead, everything mattered less. The hot-water pressure washer didn’t work. The propane torch scorched the skin when we used it to burn off the hair. We used up all our daylight painstakingly scraping the hair off two of the carcasses and skinning the third, and had to move our whole operation closer to the house, where we had light.

Evisceration went as planned — hallelujah! — but in slow motion. The YouTube guy who processes a pig in 31 minutes spends only about two minutes on gutting; our first carcass took an hour. By the third one, though, we were down to 20 minutes.

When we put the last finished carcass in the truck bed, we’d been at it for almost 12 hours. We washed up, opened a bottle of champagne, and warmed up the (chicken) stew I’d made the day before. It wasn’t a celebration, though. It was just a relief.

That day was one of the hardest I’ve ever known. Even if everything had gone perfectly, the emotional and physical difficulties inherent in the job would have about done me in. Doc’s imperfect death amplified all of it.

We had arranged with a friend to hang the carcasses in his commercial cooler, and we met him on the site the next day. Dave helped us set up a beam across two ladders, with three hooks, and we used a forklift to transfer the pigs from the truck. I was still reeling from the day before, and it was grim work.

Once the pigs were hung, Dave, who feeds his family with what he hunts and fishes, stepped back and looked at the three bodies. “That meat looks beautiful,” he said. “And it’s going to feed a lot of people.”

On to the plate

That was the moment everything started to fit back together. Slaughter day had crowded out all the reasons — the good reasons — we had done this. We had given three pigs good lives. Two of them, we had given instant deaths. We will never forget that third death, but it doesn’t define the enterprise. It does, and will, serve as a reminder that the discussion of raising animals for meat can never posit perfect, painless lives and deaths.

Our best efforts won’t eliminate predation, accidents, disease or mistakes; as long as we have animals, we will have animal suffering. But only by having animals will we have animal joy. Our pigs had sunshine and mud baths, good food and elbow room, the companionship of each other, and of us. They basked and frolicked and wallowed, free from fear and stress. They were happy.

The meat does look beautiful. And it is going to feed a lot of people.

We left the carcasses to hang for a few days, and then took them to Maine, where Susan, who had helped with the slaughter, had just opened an incubator kitchen (a licensed commercial space where food businesses rent time). She had recruited Jarrod “Rook” Spangler, butcher and charcuterie maker at Portland’s Rosemont Market to lead a pig breakdown workshop, and Tiny served as the demonstration pig. Rook also butchered Spot and Doc and took charge of curing the bacon and hams.

Once the pigs were butchered, the cuts wrapped, the scraps consolidated and the kitchen cleaned, we sat down to dinner: Kevin and me, Susan and Ron, Rook and his girlfriend, Shannon. Mostly, it was bread and cheese, olives and salad. But there was a chop. One pork chop. From Spot.

Susan had seasoned it with salt and pepper and seared it on the stove top, finishing it in the oven. She brought it to the table, sliced. It was perfectly pink, with a layer of toasty, roasted fat on the outside. We passed it around, and we tasted. It was a perfect pork chop. Flavorful, succulent. Wonderful.

It was Spot, yes, but it was meat. And that was the point.

Haspel is a freelance writer, formerly urban, now hunting, fishing and raising her own food in the wilds of Cape Cod. She writes about it at Starving off the Land. She will join today’s Free Range chat at noon.

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