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Righteous pork chop

(article, Anne Zimmerman)

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Watching a pig be slaughtered is not on the list of things I’ve always wanted to do. Nonetheless, there I was: up at 4:30 in the morning, driving to a farm 90 minutes north of San Francisco, to watch a pig be killed.

Everyone I told beforehand thought I was either crazy, or trying to capitalize on the hipness of butchery born out of the nose-to-tail meat movement. But my journey wasn’t about a desire to witness the realities of slaughter, or to question the politics of meat. It came from a deep interest in changing my approach to the food I eat and the land it comes from. 

There was also my companion. If I was going to watch a pig be slaughtered, I wanted to do it with Laura Parker.

I had met Laura, a visual artist, through her art installation called “Taste of Place,” a sensory exploration that proves the significance of healthy soil to the food we eat. One afternoon, she asked casually if I wanted to accompany her to a farm in Sonoma County, where a pig that she had watched grow from a piglet into a 200-pound beast would be killed. There were tears in her eyes.

Over glasses of chilled rosé, we discussed the significance of life — human and animal — and the beauty that can come from a thoughtful and humane end. It was a provocative conversation, but really, I’m not quite sure I understood what it all meant. I’d never witnessed an animal’s slaughter. And though I tried to eat seasonally, I’d never pondered where the meat I ate was raised or how it got to my plate.

[%image pig float=right width=300 caption="Laura's pig."]As the day marked on my calendar loomed, I considered backing out. I felt like I was going to the funeral of someone I didn’t really know, and was concerned that my presence wasn’t entirely appropriate.

And maybe it wasn’t.

After the pig was shot, it tumbled from the small trailer where it was penned and onto a concrete landing. Laura cried while I tried to dispel the awkwardness with pithy stories about anatomy and my childhood love of Little House on the Prairie.

The animal shook and bled before being strung up with a meat hook and dipped into a vat of boiling water, its hairy skin scrubbed clean. Next, it was efficiently prepared for butchery. I asked the mobile slaughterer, a capable and quick man, numerous questions so we wouldn’t have to stand in silence, watching as he pried the hooves off the dead pig.

Its ears were cut, the innards removed. The heart and lungs were red, the intestines slick and shining. Everything was slung into industrial-sized ziplock bags that, when touched an hour later, were still faintly warm.

But the image of the pig’s opalescent skin is what was embroidered into my memory. I could never think about eating pork in the same way again.

After the pig had been hung in a trailer, ready for transport to the butcher who would fully break down the body, Laura and I stopped for coffee and then took a walk around the vineyard.

It was barely eight in the morning and the pink light was rising over the soft, round hills of the Dry Creek Valley. Laura guided me past expansive gardens and vineyards to a far back corner of land where the pig had lived. It was cool and shady, full of tall grasses and several deep pockets of mud where the pig and her companions had wallowed. A half-dozen chickens wandered around; they are important companions for pigs. Pigs, I was surprised to learn, are not solitary animals.

Laura had visited the pig several times, the last time just a few days ago. She’d watched the animal grow, always aware that its final journey would be from the farm to her freezer. Though watching the pig’s death that morning had been hard, she believed in her choice. 

These days, Laura has a profound commitment to knowing where her food comes from. But there was a time when she hadn’t cared as much. She’d happily purchased fresh crab and pre-made garlic bread from the vendors at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, carrying her loot home to serve to friends. She relished not having to cook.

Now, however, she’s decided that the choices she makes about her food are more than a hip or convenient lifestyle; they constitute a philosophy. She believes, deeply, that it’s important to know where her food comes from and how it was raised. 

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Pork roast."] This was the second pig Laura had purchased. The first had fed her and a circle of friends and family for almost a year. “We used nearly every part,” she said. “It seemed unethical not to.” In addition to the luscious pork shoulder, chops, and belly, they’d made sausages and pâtés. They’d eaten innards and cuts of meat normally discarded. They would do the same this year, perfecting techniques and recipes to ensure the maximum enjoyment from their considerable investment. 

At four dollars a pound, Laura paid nearly a grand for her pig. Yet her price per pound was still considerably less than what I paid for organic pork at the grocery store.

That afternoon, as I drove from dusty countryside into concrete jungle, I pondered my dinner reservation at a popular farm-to-table restaurant. How would I feel if pork was on my plate?

That night, we ordered pork roast, served thinly sliced with cheesy polenta and a pile of cooked greens. When the plate was passed to me, I paused. The creamy pink meat on my plate was clearly related to the raw flesh of the animal I’d stared at that morning. I couldn’t help remembering the pig’s shimmering body, hanging in the dawn.

I took a deep breath, suddenly curious to know not just where this meat came from, but the origins of the meat at other restaurants and the grocery store. I wondered about my neighbors and if they cared (or could afford to care) about such discriminating things.

The source of the pig on my plate that night wasn’t obscure; I was dining at a restaurant that proclaimed its relationships with local farms on the menu. In the past, I’d found this local-food convention a bit pretentious; now it pleased me. 

But the meats on other menus — where had they come from? How had those animals been raised and killed? Suddenly I had an urgency for knowledge about my meat that I’d never experienced before.

I sat for a moment, fork and knife poised, staring at the sliced roast pig. I felt my friends’ eyes on me. Would I pass? I cut and I chewed. 

My morning hadn’t changed my carnivorous approach to dining; it had made it more measured and profound. Eating meat with trusted origins was exactly what I wanted to do.

p(bio). Anne Zimmerman is a writer and editor based in the Bay Area. Her book, An Extravagant Hunger: The Passionate Years of M.F.K. Fisher, is due out in March.

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