Sunday, March 4, 2007
The farmer raises his rifle shortly after 8 am as the sun emerges from behind a stand of oak and hickory trees. We've been waiting for full light to illuminate our deadly business. Now the moment has arrived. Except for the soft grunting of the pigs, all is calm. Then a single report from the farmer's .30-calibre Winchester cracks the air, and the first pig slumps to the ground: It is dead instantly with a bullet in the brain, but still thrashing and kicking involuntarily. We wait for the animal's spasms to subside, then grab its legs and drag the 325-pound carcass out of the holding pen. The farmer cuts a long incision along one of the pig's Achilles tendons and runs a steel chain through the hole. Moments later, the hydraulic lift on the back of a John Deere tractor hoists the pig into the air. We watch man, tractor and pig rumble and bump their way toward the barn where the pig will be gutted, skinned and cut into parts.
So began the first day of our matanza on Even' Star Farm outside Lexington Park, MD. For two years I'd been hearing stories about this annual weekend pork fest, named for the Spanish custom of community gathering and merry making around the slaughter of a large animal. The farmer, Brett Grohsgal, his wife, Christine Bergmark, along with several friends pool their funds to purchase and feed six pigs for the eight months or so it takes the swine to reach butchering size, then take the booty home to fill their freezers. I had heard there was much toil involved in turning the animals into roasts, chops and sausages, but that periods of hard work were bracketed by aggressive consumption of excellent vittles, spirit-enhancing liquids and lively camaraderie. I had groveled, pleaded and harangued for an invitation. And this year I came up lucky in a somewhat circumscribed fashion. I would not be one of the actual shareholders in the matanza, but a volunteer helper and chronicler of the event. Oh, and might I and my wife be able to provide breakfast and lunch for the first day's activities?
So we loaded family, grub, buffet platters and a few bottles of booze into the ol' Corolla and headed for St. Mary's County, about two hours south of Washington, DC.
Right here I will address some of the thoughts I know some of you are thinking, such as, Ew, yuk! Are you really going to look those pigs in the eye and then kill them? Don't you think that's cruel? And then you're going to cut them up and get blood on everything. Isn't that disgusting?
To which I respond, yes, no, yes and no.
In fact, I wish I could reply that I've given these matters a great deal of thought, but I haven't. I don't consider myself a deeply philosophical ethicist where animal rights are concerned. Perhaps that is a failing on my part, but certainly it is a common fact of our current condition. First and foremost, I consider myself a human who exists at the top of the food chain, and who is happy to occupy that position and not one farther down. Humans are omnivores, meaning they have evolved to eat almost everything, including other animals. I eat other animals. It only follows that the other animals must die and be made ready to eat. The question is, how humanely was the animal raised and killed that was meant for my consumption? And I happen to believe that the most humane treatment for such an animal, in this case a pig, is to give it plenty of room to romp out of doors, to feed it regularly with wholesome food, and then make its death as swift and painless and reverential as possible. Most of us--even the most sanctimonious--have simply removed ourselves from the process. We don't care to know that the animals we eat were raised in factory feedlots, then killed and sliced in assembly-line fashion by human drones. We sleep so much better at night oblivious to the way our food is mistreated on an everyday basis. We prefer to imagine that the pork chop staring at us from our dinner plate arrived there by some bloodless miracle of modern science, the spiritual connection having been drained out of the equation in the interest of efficiency and corporate profit.
The plain truth is, we are complicit any way you look at it. You can't eat meat without first killing an animal and spilling blood. And although I did not come face-to-face with this truth until later in life, I do not flinch from it. I have helped Brett Grohsgal butcher deer that he has shot on his farm. I have helped him kill and butcher sheep. Brett may be unusual in that he does not shrink from the fact of death preceding life. He lives off the land and is reconciled to that most primal of needs to kill in order to survive. He brings life out of the ground with his crops, and he puts meat on the table with his gun.
Fortunately, he also knows how to have a good time in the processs. So we spent our first night on the farm not with polemics, but with some excellent prosciutto made by one of Brett's cohorts in the matanza, chef Jeffrey Heineman, owner of Grapeseed restaurant in Bethesda. We followed that with grilled burgers wrapped in baguettes, a pleasant malbec wine and eventually a few rounds of some potent homemade schnaps.
Memories of the evening are a bit vague. We were steeling ourselves for the work to come. At one point there would be 13 adults and five children involved; pigs to kill, gut and skin; roasts and chops to carve; fires to stoke; fat to separate for rendering lard; hams and bacon to salt; 300 pounds of sausage meat to grind, season and stuff into casings; many more pounds of meat to label and package. All that awaits.
To be continued...