Taking Apart Animals

Preamble (Preramble)

Ultimately, the phase of humanity’s history where it’s possible to eat meat your entire life without ever once seeing an animal get butchered will be an anomalous, transient one. Less than a century ago, only really rich city-dwellers, and maybe sultans and kings, could count on having all their meat delivered in clean-looking packages or already cooked on a platter. For everyone else, there would always be times when, at the very least, you went to the butcher shop and there was a pig hanging from a meathook, and for a pretty healthy chunk of the world, it was even more direct than that, because you or someone you knew was a hunter.

I’m not anywhere close to the first person to point out that supermarket meat is built on a basic dishonesty: refusing to acknowledge that the meat you eat was alive once, and mooed or oinked or clucked, ate and drank and pissed and shat. And as the petroleum-based, just-in-time, high-precision infrastructure that gets our meat to us becomes more brittle and overstressed, supermarkets will stop being able to count on refrigerated trucks to bring in cuts of meat packaged in plastic, and butchers will start popping up like in olden days, with meathooks in their shops and maybe pens behind, in order to take advantage of nature’s way of keeping meat fresh: life. Country folks will once again all know how to gut a rabbit, because when McDonald’s fails you, there will always be rabbits.

That trend is on the uptick already, but it’s at the bottom of the upward curve, and there are a lot of people who still need to learn these basic skills. Misty and I are two of them. Pretty soon, I think we’ll be able to say we were.

The Squirrel

A few weeks ago, Misty—fresh off of reading Unlearn, Rewild, a book full of primitive skills that I bought and read years ago, then mostly forgot—noticed a dead squirrel in the street next to our driveway, looking almost as if it were just asleep. We weren’t sure what its cause of death was, but it wasn’t squashed or pulped. We usually would’ve let it alone, but because of that book, Misty picked it up and put it in the cool shade next to our driveway. In there, she’d read that meat can and will keep for several days outside of a fridge, so we weren’t worried.

A couple days later, Misty finally grabbed a knife and took the squirrel down to a tarp she laid down next to the front porch. I went down with her to watch and help out wherever a third hand would be useful. It lay there placidly, the way dead things do, and Misty poked her knife through its belly. From there she got a slit all the way up and down the belly, and slowly opened the squirrel up. She cut through its ribs—they were unexpectedly fragile—and pulled out its organs; we saved the heart and the liver. When we got to the pelvis, we discovered it was shattered, and the squirrel probably died from getting its back half crushed by the tire of a (not-very-heavy) car. Misty’s goal beforehand was to make a candle from squirrel tallow, so she piled up the litle bits of fat that the squirrel had put on for the winter.

I helped with a little knifework, and together we eventually got the whole skin off for tanning later, even around the eyes and nose. We set the pelt to dry; it was a beautiful, fine fur, which Misty hopes to use to make one of a pair of squirrel-skin moccasins. She was planning to just use that and the fat, since this was a city squirrel and who knew what it’d been eating. But I pointed out that we’d opened up its stomach and inside we found only what looked like chewed-up acorns, and nothing that looked like plastic or cigarette butts. She agreed, so I cut off its legs and backstrap, and we took them inside for a squirrel lunch.

I fried the legs up whole with salt and pepper in a little lard left over in the skillet from something. Misty put together some beets and cabbage, and we ate it very slowly and contemplatively. This was my first time eating squirrel, and also my first time butchering roadkill. I liked Misty’s assessment of it: tastes like steak, feels like chicken. It was amazing. Misty also said that it made her body say, “Hey, this is good food!”—probably owing to the free life it had.

Later, we found out from Grandpa that squirrel is usually really tough, not tender like ours, and you have to steam them for hours. Miles Olson, the author of Unlearn, Rewild, says leaving the meat out for a few days isn’t just convenient for the back-to-the-lander with a busy schedule, it also serves to let the meat tenderize itself with enzymes that are already in it. So, by being lazy, we also ended up with some incredibly delicious squirrel.

We both found ourselves eating with what Sam Thayer, the wild edible plant wizard, calls “skimpy meal syndrome”. This is the phenomenon where people who are eating a food they’ve never tried will find it totally delicious, but they’ll still only eat a third of what they might normally eat at a meal, because their body is going, “Whoa there, hold on, are you sure this stuff is safe? You want to maybe be a little more cautious here?” And then they’ll go off and sneak in some snacks later on. But I’m looking forward to eating more, until it becomes normal to my body’s reflexive programming.

The next day, we walked to the local cafe, and on the way we saw squirrels running around, gathering nuts, climbing on people’s houses. I felt like I knew them on a much deeper level than I had before. Now that I’d seen one up close, and I’d felt its fur and seen its four big teeth—just four!—and even checked what it was eating, I could imagine being these squirrels. Jumping around, finding acorns, grinding them up, just the way my mouth is built to do. I looked at them and saw through their eyes.

And that’s the unexpected thing I got from this whole project. I had done it out of an impulse to get closer to nature, but I’d only really expected to feel more like a real predator, and here I ended up feeling like the prey too, and learning even more from that.

The Pig

Road trip!

Last year I wanted to make Korean blood sausage, 순대 soondae. I’d had this notion before I even left Cincinnati, but it turned out that no one but no one sells pig’s blood. Something something lawsuits something. I thought about it again my first fall in Minneapolis, and realized I knew someone I could ask: the family who sold pork at the farmers’ market—two parents and occasionally a shy daughter. I’d gotten samples from them of breakfast sausage and vegetables, but I’d never quite struck up a conversation. One day in October, I did.

It turned out they farm and live at the Lake City Catholic Worker farm. That’s part of the Catholic Worker Movement, which is a quietly revolutionary movement that started with Catholics who noticed that the parts of the Bible that mention charity toward the poor are pretty roundly neglected these days, and thought that seemed very wrong. There are a bunch of cities where you can find a Catholic Worker House, offering up a meal and a place to sleep for the poor and homeless and disadvantaged. I almost stayed at one in Vancouver, in fact, but I had a friend to stay with instead. They’re one of a small number of Christian organizations these days that genuinely practice Christ’s teachings, which, despite the earnest attempts of centuries of church leaders to pervert his words in favor of colonialism, domination, and bigotry, are still right there in black and red and white saying a lot of good, necessary things to anyone who cares to actually read them.

Paul and Sarah were living at a Catholic Worker House in Winona, and decided to split off and form a rural house, which is a bit out of the usual but was calling them. Eight years later, they’ve built an entire house, learned the coarser and then the finer points of raising pastured pork, and had two daughters, and another friend has moved in. It’s fair to say they’ve made it happen and gotten it done.

Now, because the US food system is petty, nonsensical, and horrendous, farmers aren’t actually allowed to butcher the pork they sell in their own barn, unless they spend a good $100,000 on upgrades to make it a USDA certified slaughterhouse. On Paul and Sarah’s scale, that’s not going to happen, so they send their pigs to a butchering factory. But you are allowed to butcher pigs for personal use, and for five years they’ve been doing that every November with pride and a party.

I got my pork blood last year, but much more importantly, I got out of the city and spent some time in a genuine community with genuinely good folks, all the farm’s dwellers and their friends, out for a rousing day of butchering in brisk early-November weather, followed by a blazing bonfire and a pork barbecue that couldn’t possibly be fresher.

This year I wanted to get down there again, for another dose of rural community, and I knew Misty would too. So we drove an hour and a half down the St Croix and the Mississippi, through Prescott with its picturesque highway liftbridge and other little towns, and up and down in the driftless bluffs of the rivers, and ended up at the farm again this last Saturday morning. The scene was just like last year: out in the yard, a dead pig suspended snout-down, on hooks through its shanks, from the scoop on the farm’s bulldozer, and a group of people standing around it. Paul was there, and he greeted me like an old friend; he and Misty introduced themselves to each other, and we were on the farm.

We spent the morning in the barn, where a bunch of folks in knit caps were helping cut up and put away the pork from the four pigs they’d killed yesterday. Friday night is when all the serious butchering gets done, and Saturday was there for us who don’t quite know what we’re doing or where to find a tenderloin or a pork chop. Misty and I both bustled around and helped, packing cuts fresh off a side of hog into freezer paper, pulling apart big pieces of pig while other people sawed through them, getting our hands generally bloody. But through all of it, I (having forgotten way more than I’d like to admit since last year) had no real clear idea of where everything fit into the big picture.

Luckily, after a nice warm lunch inside the house, everything got demonstrated. Paul gathered a group around the pig hanging from the scoop, and showed us all how you eviscerate it, and where you find the precious caul fat, and he put aside the heart and liver and some other organs. We teamed up to skin the pig, and then he drove the bulldozer over to the barn, where two guys used a Skilsaw to cut the pig neatly down its spine into two halves, even going directly down the center of the skull to make it easier to get at the jowl fat, the tongue, and possibly the brain, though I’m not sure if anyone wanted that this year.

We started with one side and left the other hanging. Two guys hoisted it onto one of the big stainless steel tables they have, and we divided it into three sections—shoulder, belly, rump—and one of the guys, a competent butcher whose name I’ve forgotten but whose town (St Louis) I remember, showed us where to find all those cuts that most people these days only know from labels stuck to cellophane. Thus I learned that the pig’s “loin” is for some reason in its back. The hams, of course, are from about where it keeps its butt, and the pork chops are all along the spine. We cut the belly up and freed thick, heavy slabs of what would become bacon. It all came together (by coming apart).

Later, Sarah gave a demonstration of how to make maple syrup bacon, which I’m planning to try. In fact, I’ve been thinking lately that I should take up charcuterie. That’s definitely a homesteading, olden-days skill that’ll be useful in a low-energy future, because everyone who eats meat needs to preserve meat, and those who raise meat doubly so. Soon people will start reconciling themselves to eating stuff made from organ meats too, and well-seasoned charcuterie seems to be the way that most people prefer that stuff. (I brought a liver home: braunschweiger time.) Besides all that, it’s tasty.

We finished cutting up the other side of the pig, and when we were done it was all in freezer bags, in the sausage-meat bin, or in the lard bin waiting to get rendered. And that evening Paul and a crew of helpers cooked some of the belly, and we all ate it as part of the night’s feast—from walking around to hanging on a bulldozer to cut up on a table to our plates, all in the same day, and we’d been there for every part of it.

The day finished out in the dark around the bonfire, with a little band teaching us all songs about local produce and people in community and bats that fly in your face. I sat with Misty and our housemate Annabelle, who’d shown up by surprise in the morning because she knows the people at this farm, and we sang until we were too tired to do anything but lay out our sleeping bag and wriggle into it. (Misty and I had to share one sleeping bag, and there were so many people staying the night that we slept in the greenhouse. It was not the most comfortable night, shall we say.)

Annabelle, by the way, is a photographer, and so far you can look at one of the photos she took, with more to follow. She told me it’s going to be odd writing the text for these photos, because she’s drawn to take photos of the goriest, most macabre scenes, being a bit of a Wednesday Addams, but she actually feels really good about the butchering event and how it’s a part of a real small-farm culture that makes sense, and she doesn’t want to portray it in a negative light. When she’s done figuring out that contradiction, I’ll post a link here. For now, I’m heading to bed—indoors and with more than half a sleeping bag’s worth of space.

File under: food, land skills, meat, nature, deep thoughts

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