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An equinox harvest

September 22, 2009

The first day of fall ushered in another kind of harvest for us. Today was the day that the pigs our friends raised this summer were slaughtered. They raised two of them- one for our freezer and one for theirs. I woke up this morning, forgetting that today was the day until Ralph mentioned it. I was significantly ambivalent about whether I wanted to go or not. And I hadn’t really intended to. But I suppose, in the end (and it was most certainly an end), I am glad I did.

It was raining when we arrived to find Earl milling around his dooryard watching two drunken pigs. Apparently, giving the pigs a quart of vodka mixed in with their feed dulls their senses enough that the process is less traumatic for them. They were staggering and visibly drunken, eating from their trough while slumped onto their haunches. Is this how it ends? I was disconcerted to find that it was a little funny and a little tragic and thinking shouldn’t it be a little more solemn than this? I guess not from the pig’s perspective. A half-hour later, Joe rolled up in a blue pick-up truck, donned his rain pants, and with a .22 in hand said, “Well, no time like the present.” Indeed.

When you have someone come to your house to do them in, the animals get shot in the head. I could not watch this. I was firmly planted in the shed, fingers in my ears, trying not to pass out. A peek outside after the first shot confirmed that it was definitely not something I wanted to see if I also wanted to appreciate pork in the near future. It was pretty grim. There’s a lot of movement after they’re dead- a lot more than you’d think. Enough said about that. The second one was not as simple as the first, apparently. The shot missed it’s mark and then the gun jammed. It was unpleasant- I could tell just by watching Ralph and Earl’s faces. But eventually, they pigs were both dead and still and at that point, I eased out of the shed to watch from the periphery.

And the rest was physics and knife work. The animal is skinned, disemboweled and the head and feet cut off. It is then cut in half and taken to a butcher who breaks it down into cuts and packages it into something you’d recognize from the grocery store. Ralph and Earl were right in the thick of it the whole time. They’re both deer hunters and no stranger to skinning animals they’ve hunted, but even so, they both felt there was something different about the pigs. More deliberative, harder to imagine carrying out, and they both said they’d likely not do it themselves in the future. Was it that they’d spent time with these animals, feeding them, watching them root around, listening to their grunts? We’d had a fair amount of discussion about doing the slaughtering ourselves. It would have taken us all day, at least, and I’m definitely glad I wasn’t in there with a knife.

Joe worked efficiently, quickly, and considering his kidney stones (“they get agitated when I bend over,”) I was seriously impressed with how hard he worked. Moving a 250# dead weight from where it fell to where it was strung up on a tripod looked like back-breaking work. But Joe had his system perfected and his motions were economical and swift; the motions looked like they came from muscle memory rather than something he had to think about. I was likewise impressed with how often he honed his knives. Any cook who has used someone else’s dull kitchen knives can appreciate that. And as he skinned it, it definitely started to look more like the kitchen and less like the barnyard. What a strange transformation this is.

Well, until Joe pulled out the guts. That was seriously disgusting. By that time, I was sitting 20 feet away under cover in the garage and the smell hit me like a ton of bricks. Good lord, it was terrible. I can’t even describe how awful that was- I’ve got nothing to compare it to. I had started to get a little bit accustomed to it- I forgot to be guarded. And I seriously wished I’d been prepared for that. I was queasy all morning and that was the peak of it.

And getting accustomed to it was strange. Definitely by the second pig, I was less queasy, less concerned that I’d disgrace myself by vomiting on my sneakers or passing out in the dirt. The blood-stained trough that first thing in the morning made me turn aside and hold my breath was just part of the landscape an hour later. The steaming gut pile on the ground a couple of feet from where Joe worked lost a bit of it’s chilling hideousness and again became just part of the process. I suppose it lends weight to the argument Michael Pollan cites in Omnivore’s Dilemma- that it’s good not to participate in the killing too often so as not to become callous about it. It is taking a life – or two – and that should be noted rather than passed over and worn thin with familiarity. It certainly felt significant today but I can see how it would become routine.

When the second animal was loaded into the truck and Joe pulled away, we all looked at each other and shuffled into the house. Ralph and I were sitting at the kitchen table working on the cut list- the sheet you give the butcher, telling him how you’d like your cuts divided – and Earl called his wife to tell her the deed was done. And as he was relating the events of the morning to Tami, I saw him reach into the liquor cabinet and pull out the tequila bottle. I laughed at the time, but it felt just about right. We had tequila and orange juice at 11 in the morning, and then had tequila and limeade when the orange juice ran out. We sat at the table for an hour or more, talking over how we wanted the meat cut, rehashing the process, slowly getting buzzed on tequila as the sun came out.

I took quite a few pictures of the process, intending to post them here, but looking at them now, I’m not sure they’re entirely appropriate. They’re pretty grim. If you’re interested in seeing them, let me know and I’ll send you a link. It’s not something I’d like to do again any time soon, but I am grateful to know that they lived good lives, had swift deaths, and that they will never travel far from the place they were raised throughout the whole process. I suppose that’s as good as it gets.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    September 28, 2009 8:50 pm

    Thanks Andrea – It was like I was there….unfortunately I was at work, while the three of you were at home drinking my birthday tequila. Actually, I'm very glad you were all here to witness the events. It makes it more real. Can't wait to see ALL the photos! Tami

  2. Andrea permalink
    September 29, 2009 8:49 pm

    Tami, Martha actually really meant for that tequila to be used for exactly that occasion. She just didn't know it when she gave it to you for your birthday. It was much appreciated at the time! Photos coming soon.

  3. Nejem Raheem permalink
    October 14, 2009 5:24 am

    Andrea. This is great. I grew up watching the animals we ate get slaughtered and butchered, but it's been years, and this is a very felt description. I've never seen pigs butchered, but lots of cows and goats and a couple water buffalo. My friend Quinn in New Mexico did just this for a new girlfriend of his years ago, and I thought it was a weirdly good idea. He shot the animal in the head himself. Then they had a big old pig roast. Made a slide show. Gruesome but he said the pig was delicious. Best to know, but you and Pollan are probably right: best not to get too used to it. Thanks.

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