“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.