Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Considerable Pathos

Last week our three pigs were slaughtered for food. This was the plan and we did indeed see it through. Though I feel like a bit of a cheat as I happened to be at work when the local guy came to shoot, skin and butcher them. I didn't mean to be away. In fact, I’d been steeling myself for the hard reality of slaughter as I stood by the pig pen through the increasingly cold days of autumn, trying to fathom how these three affable “Daves” would become bacon and pork chops and ham. I felt I owed it to the choice I had made, the choice to get to know my food on a personal level, to be there to see the thing out. But John, the “pig processor”, could only make it on my working days and so Dan helped out instead. I returned home that day to a pile of pig skins, a few puddles of blood and a heavy heart.

We tried to raise and slaughter these pigs as humanely as we could, arranging for them to stay home rather than be stressed in a slaughterhouse somewhere. We gave them plenty of room and pig goodies, gave them no reason to stress or fear up until this day. The night before the slaughter, I even went down to town and bought the largest cheapest bottles of vodka in the liquor store (The clerk had a good laugh when I explained they were for my livestock) and Dan made the pigboys “White Russians” with the last few cartons of milk. Even so, when I returned home the day of, Dan was pretty tight-lipped. So I am left to imagine that even with the pigs drunk as skunks, it was not a thoroughly an easy passing.

These days, I've been avoiding the pig pen, and I do not quite look at the drying hides in the barn. BUT, I must also admit that when the meat arrived a week later, wrapped neatly and in such amazingly plenty—enough to feed us and several other families for a good long time-- I felt a sense of pride. We had done what we set out to do: Provide for our family in a sustainable way, provide for our pigs a healthy, free ranging environment where they could root and graze and eat healthy whole foods, work hard from May to November, recycle loads of organic groceries that would have filled landfills rather than swine bellies. (Pigs are the ultimate in recycling…) And be part of the food chain again.

But How does it feel? You ask.

Hmmmm…… so, so.

On one hand, pigs are curious, trusting creatures (At least compared to sheep, who fully expect that you will eat them every time you so much as glance in their direction) and this makes the idea that we would violate the “trust” and actually eat them all the more awful.

On the other hand, the Daves were gobbling close to 20 gallons of food a day, an untenable situation. I could not imagine standing out in the lower barn an hour a day plunking frozen yogurt out of frozen 8 ounce tubs with frozen hands to keep the boys plump and happy. The cost of their feed skyrocketed towards the end there. And they were eating vanloads of donated food a week. Not easy to fit in between ferrying kids and playdates and work responsibilities and hay for the sheep. Owing to the confluence of weather, school and size, three, 300 pound pigs began to feel like one thing too many.

On the other hand, the pigs were pleasant and sweet and so easygoing compared to the nervous flock of sheep. They were fun—if stinky—to have around. My oldest had taken to riding them! And they could be counted on to eat every kind of table scrap—much more efficiently than the chickens. I didn't mind the half sandwiches left in the kids' lunchboxes when I plopped them into the "pig food" bucket on the counter.

On the other hand, I truly believe that death is a natural part of life and that by removing ourselves so thoroughly from the food chain (Many folks get squeamish just thinking about the “cow” in their burger) we have created a sort of strange new taboo. Yes it is scary and awful and I have experienced death on many very personal levels, but it is real.

On the other hand, it is much harder to look at a pork chop when you remember the pig it came from happily slurping up gallons of milk and grain, its stubby tail waggling.

On the other hand, as barrons (Castrated Males), the Daves had no other “purpose” other than to feed us.

On the other hand, do ANY of us have a "purpose"?

Will we do it again? I’m not sure yet.

I believe that it is natural and right to have a personal relationship with your food. But it is also a whole lot harder.


Christy said...

So well put! This is how I felt when I did the meat birds. I'm glad I did it, but I'm not sure I'll do it again. We have a sheep that is supposed to go the the butcher soon. She is still scared of us, so we have no attachment to her, but it is still suddenly very real.

Robin said...

I'm sure I will feel the same way when it comes time. We don't have pigs yet but I tell Lee that I think it wouldn't be to bad. I am kinda scared of pigs to start with though. But when we get to this point I'm not sure how I will feel. The full freezer is a great feeling.

Cheap Like Me said...

Thanks for this great, thoughtful post. We just ordered a pig from our CSA, and even knowing we have seen where they are raised and we eat some of the same food they are eating, and imagining them "happy," makes it that much more real.

Leiah said...

Kudos to you for having the courage to follow through with a difficult decision.

I've come to the same conclusions about the moral necessity of growing and butchering my own food and I intend to stand firm in my convictions. I don't expect it to be easy. I fact I don't think it should be easy, it would demean the sacrifice of the animal it were.

P said...

Thanks everyone for the moral support. I was a vegetarian for close to ten years and, although it seems like I've gone to the opposite extreme, I do feel I am closer to the ideals that led me to that decision than I was buying supermarket meat.

A CSA is a great way to do this too-- We buy grassfed beef from a local place, sometimes trade lamb for hamburger with them.

oh, and Robin, pigs are surprisingly cool. I wasn't sure how I'd been about such powerful omnivorous animals either. It helps to start with piglets, though.

Christy, last year's slaughterhouse drop off was much harder emotionally. Not sure if this was because we brought them somewhere stressful and scary or because a two of the ewes had been with us a few years, and so seemed more pet like (although they, too were terrified of us). Good luck.


C-re said...

It is hard. My husband is wanting to get a feeder pig for us but I'm still hesitant. And I grew up on a farm!

For me, I have to set it up as what it is. This is not a pet. No matter what I want to do, it is not a pet. You provided a wonderful environment. It was probably better that you weren't there honestly. I find it fascinating that they did it on the farm for you. I don't think you can do that here.

We've got 5 hens and I've made it perfectly clear that they are for eggs and they will die a happy death at a rip old age! lol. I have retributions to pay for a previous line of work. It's a long story.

Enjoy your meat and know that you did them right. Our job is to provide for them, shelter them and to care for them until their time comes. You and your family did that. Congrats!

P said...

Hi C-re,

It IS better to have someone to come out to the farm for slaughter. I learned about him through word of mouth. And he was a big factor in our decision to raise pigs. In truth, we would never have considered getting pigs if we hadn't known from the start that we'd be able to slaughter them here (After vodka). It seemed a humane decision at the time, but as the pigs reached nearly 300 lbs, it became a practical decision as well. There was no way they would fit into the back of the mini-van and we have no other transport for them.

One of these days we'll be able to afford a trailer...


Leigh said...

Very interesting post. I contemplate raising our own meat and am uncertain of how I will ultimately feel about it. I've helped butcher chickens, but never anything else. Yet, the prospect of raising all of our own healthy food is a goal. I agree that death is a part of life. Our culture has just gotten so far away from the reality of that. Makes it harder to adjust to, I think.

Caboose said...

Thank-you for your story on hogs. I have 4 hogs that I have raised from pigs and now it is time to butcher them. It is not a easything to do, or for me any way. It is costing me to much time and money to keep them. I have loved very much raising them and they are very smart and easy to train. You have help me out to make it easyer to do the butching.

carol said...

I LOVE the fact that you got your pigs drunk first! I think that should be a new standard. I feel your dilema. Proud of you for doing it but know that I could or would...I live in a state where there are lots of hunters and I can't do that either.