The Conscientious Carnivore: Understanding Animal Slaughter
Today's most ingredient-centric, locavore-ish cooks want a clearer understanding of where their meat comes from—and for some, that means entering the abattoir or hunting for food. Writer Kate Sekules explores the issue.
Anyone who observes the behavior of the most committed foodies may have noticed that the culinary cutting edge is now literal. Serious cooks have moved way beyond raising heirloom vegetables in homemade compost. The ultimate food challenge is participating in the animal slaughter.
I tried this once on my friends' venison farm. The deer were raised happy; their end was humane—my friends had even won some big award for their patented slaughterhouse on-ramp and holding pen. All I had to do was pull the trigger. I could not do it; couldn't even watch. And I'd had venison sausages for breakfast.
Both sides of this failure have haunted me ever since—the trusting eyes of the young buck; my hypocrisy. Or was it hypocrisy? Do people deserve to eat meat only if they're willing to kill the animal that provides it? It's an impossible moral dilemma—part of The Omnivore's Dilemma, as Michael Pollan presciently defined it almost four years ago in his influential book.
Yet more and more chefs, butchers, farmers and even home cooks are solving their dilemma by procuring meat in the most elemental way, with help from a growing number of classes and books. Why? I asked four pros who've crossed the line to explain, and to tell me how it's changed their relationship to meat.
Animal Slaughter: Chef Chris Cosentino
Normally, a chef receives a meat delivery already broken down, if not outright shrink-wrapped. The celebrated chef of San Francisco's Incanto restaurant, Chris Cosentino, however, was never content with oven-ready cuts.
"I first harvested an animal—an adult goat and two kids—eight years ago," explains Cosentino, using the politically correct term he adopted after being bombarded by haters. "It's a whole mix of emotions—fear, hate, joy, awe—all the big ones. It was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, holding this baby goat in my arms and petting him until he died, trying to make him comfortable. Did I cry? Yes. Do I cry every time I harvest animals? Yes." There is a slight catch in his voice. "I cry every time I talk about it."
Cosentino continues to participate in slaughter. "My pigs all have names; I've raised some from birth. You need to look your animal in the eye before you put it on the plate," he says. "It's very real. It's hard."
So how does this all translate to the plate? Does watching animals die change the way Cosentino cooks? Absolutely. "It brings you back to the beginning of food," he explains. "Now I look at meat with a clear focus on how I will be cooking and handling the animal. What amazes me is how much of the animal the public won't eat, and I want to change that, one meal at a time."
Cosentino is true to his word. Incanto is a mecca for "whole animal" dishes like grilled marrow bones. Cosentino's message is on the plate.
Animal Slaughter: Hunter Georgia Pellegrini
Humans have always hunted for food, but today, most people regard hunting as a competitive pursuit: Man stalks animal, man shoots animal, man wins. Food Heroes author Georgia Pellegrini, who calls herself Girl Hunter (and whose book of the same name comes out next fall), upends every sort of cliché. She kills not for sport but for ingredients—foods that are, as she proclaims, "anchored to the season and a definite place." A kind of locavore, she calls her culinary philosophy "field to stream to table." "I'm an omnivore who solved her dilemma," she declares.
Like Cosentino, Pellegrini also talks about respecting the whole animal, but taking its life comes more easily to her. Growing up close to the land on a farm in upstate New York, she says, made the cycle of life and death familiar. Hunting was a logical progression: "I wanted to face my food head on," she explains.
Being a chef first and foremost, she says, "makes me a careful hunter." She explains, "I only take the shot if I know it will be a clean one. It makes me very patient in the field. And I hunt only for animals that taste good, or that can be made to taste good with a little effort."
Pellegrini's cooking, in turn, has transformed the sport hunters she teaches into enlightened eaters. "I had them eat the heart of the deer, as native Americans did to inherit the animal's spirit. It was delicious. A revelation." Yet she isn't sentimental about her prey: "It's not about, 'Would you eat your pet cat?' "
Animal Slaughter: Butcher Tom Mylan
Butchers don't kill. They prepare. It's grisly, but home cooks are finding the craft increasingly fascinating. Tom Mylan of The Meat Hook in Brooklyn, New York, whose pig-butchering classes sell out months in advance, is not surprised that extreme urban cooks want to learn his trade, but his own reaction at the abattoir was a shock. "I almost quit butchery after killing a pig," he admits. "Killing animals sucks. Animals do not go quietly into that good night."
A butcher traumatized by slaughter: Does this signify a shift? Will the new focus on the kill cause the cultural repositioning of steak from American birthright to nature's gift? Maybe. It certainly shifted Mylan's thinking about how he himself eats. "I run a butcher shop," he says, "but I don't eat much meat. I tell my customers, why not eat less meat but eat really good meat?"
And, as with Cosentino, slaughter made Mylan an offal-pusher. "Slaughter teaches you very, very viscerally that for you to eat meat, this animal had to die," he says. "You make sure that every part of the animal is used. Nothing goes to waste."
Animal Slaughter: Farmer Severin von Tscharner Fleming
Severine von Tscharner Fleming is not only a farmer in New York's Hudson Valley, she is also the director of The Greenhorns: a group of young, largely college-educated agricultural advocates steering other young people into farming. She is at the forefront of progressive American animal husbandry. And for people like her who are tending the animal on the hoof, slaughter is—or quickly becomes—a practical matter.
When Fleming raised her first pig last year, she invited students from the Culinary Institute of America to watch the slaughter. "Slaughter reconnects people who've become alienated from the source of life. It's high drama and human hormonal response," she says. And the CIA session also happened to cover the pig's costs, birth to bacon. "It falls under the heading 'value added,'" Fleming laughs.
In fact, she says, raising animals for meat can keep farmers afloat, period. "In a sustainable food operation, you're mixing it up. Dollar-to-the-pound, chickens are more profitable than kale or parsnips. Having pigs around also makes a lot of sense—they're garbage disposals, they're incredibly charismatic and they provide a lot of bacon. Get somebody hooked on your bacon and it pays your food bills all winter. And manure—I cannot overemphasize how important manure is. Everyone knows poop is where it's at."
For Fleming, slaughter represents a strong link to the land. Once she'd killed her pig, she felt an innate connection with its butchery. "It's very intuitive how your knife moves around the animal, following ley lines of the flesh," she says. "It's the same in the landscape of a farm—you use your intuition to figure out where to put the gates, to maneuver the farmyard to achieve your goal."
Fleming thinks getting spectators into the abattoir may not be a bad thing, because the number of small, conscientious slaughterhouses is declining, especially in the East. "It's a problem," Fleming explains. "You put all your resources into an animal only to take it to a slaughterhouse that does a hatchet job. We put great care into the animal's life. We put great care into the steak. Why shouldn't the middle part get the same amount of care?"
There is no conclusion to this argument. This is unlike other milestones along the road to sustainable food. But professionals like the four above make it clear that people who eat meat must do so fully aware of how it got to the plate. Not necessarily by slaughtering animals themselves—"It's not for everyone" was a phrase I heard a lot from people who kill their own meat. I doubt that I, for one, will ever be capable of shooting a deer. But my reasons—Bambi sentimentality? Guilt about my carnivorous appetite?—are seeming more complicated. For anyone who keeps meat in their fridge, killing animals is hitting a lot closer to home.
New York City–based writer Kate Sekules, a former editor at Food & Wine, recently launched the curated designer-clothing-swap website refashioner.com.
Meat Master Classes
A growing number of schools and farms around the US teach urban homesteaders and other DIY enthusiasts how to hunt, slaughter and cook animals. A sampling:
© Leitha Matz
Farm Camp; Shushan, NY
Flying Pigs Farm offers new two-day workshops that include lessons on topics like how to slaughter chickens. $250; farmcampnewyork.org.
Portland Meat Collective; Portland, OR
Two butchers, Levi Cole and Camas Davis, teach how to kill a rooster and butcher it for coq au vin. $75 for a four-hour lesson; pdxmeat.com.
Dai Due, Austin
This supper club's new weekend Deer School includes a guided hunt in Hill Country, butchering lessons, a cooking class and finally a wild-game feast. $1,100; daidueaustin.net.
Ebey Farm; Everett, WA
At his farm located 40 minutes outside Seattle, Bruce King holds a "Pasture to Primal" class in which he teaches how to slaughter a pig humanely. $500 per class; ebeyfarm.blogspot.com.