Eating our friend, Mr Pig, or: Why I Respect Vegetarians

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[By David]

Yesterday (Friday) I did a bundle of things for the first time.  I’ll go through them one by one (with pictures – click for large versions), then go through the things that have been going through me.

Here are the firsts:

08:00 – Went to collect the head and offal of our boar.
08:15 – Talked to the butcher, who skinned the head for me.
08:30 – Took the head, kidneys, heart, liver, trotters, & ‘mountain oysters’ (testicles!).
09:00 – Bought a meat saw.
09:30 – Laid out plastic bags to catch blood; sawed the pig’s head into quarters; cut out the tongue; chopped off the ears; extracted the brain.
10:30 – Ate pig-brain for breakfast (w/ scrambled egg, parsley, & rocket/arugula).
12:00 – Put all the bits of pig-head into pots and boiled them up for a few hours.
16:00 – Scalded myself with boiling pig-stock; spend 45 minutes icing my stomach.
17:00 – Put all the bits of meat and stock into dishes to make brawn/head cheese.

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And what I want to talk about is:

a)  The process of an animal becoming food.
b)  Why it’s important not to hide from the gruesome stuff.

When does ‘pig’ become ‘pork’?

Mr Pig was a nice boy: no hassle at all, and liked to lick my boots for some reason.  On Thursday lunchtime I gave him an apple and said goodbye; on Friday morning I saw him again, post-butchering, and his face looked just the same.  It was still Mr Pig.  Even when skinned, the head was very familiar (see top).  Two hours later, I was eating him.

[By the way, a skinned head is very slippy, and I discovered that the best way to hold it still is to grip the eye-sockets.]

Mr Pig is now meat, but from my perspective he didn’t cease to be Mr Pig at any specific moment: he turned into meat gradually.  While the moment of death was technically when he ceased to be him, it didn’t feel like that for me.  It was only when all the meat had long-since fallen off the bones and I was actually pulling out the teeth (I want to keep them as a kind of memorial) that Mr Pig genuinely ceased to exist in my eyes, yet even now the meat he has given us is completely distinct from any other food I’ve ever consumed.

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What relationship do you have with your food?

I have a lot of respect for people who have chosen to do without meat because of the way in which animals are often bred, raised, transported, culled and so on.  Vegetarians may get laughed at and stereotyped as ‘bleeding hearts’ or whatever, but they’re far more in the right than most of us, who are happy to eat meat as long as we can forget that what we’re chewing was once a sentient being (who very probably had a crap life because that’s what suited us).  I don’t want to be that guy, any more than I want to be the guy who demands cheap clothes, yet is horrified when confronted by the sweatshops in which they were produced.  If I’m going to eat meat, I want to do it with integrity.

So farewell Mr Pig.  I know what he ate, where he lived, and how happy he was when we scratched his back; I know that we treated him well, that the culling process was as stress- and pain-free as possible, and that he didn’t exist just for money; and I know that we are not taking him for granted now we are eating him.  If I had known all of the biographical details of the last pack of suspiciously cheap bacon I bought, I doubt very much that I would feel too good about it.

photo[I’ve intentionally been a bit ‘explicit’ in this post (in pictures and descriptions).  That’s because this process has left me exposed with no place to hide, and I wanted to share that uneuphamized nakedness.]

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On food, life and death

mrpigEarly this morning, our first Tamworth pig – this beautiful guy above – was slaughtered. David has gone to the butcher to pick up the head, trotters, and possibly other bits to make some sort of bizarre concoction that I’m sure is delicious but that needs a name other than “head cheese”.

This week we have been talking about having integrity whilst eating meat: being fully aware that a living creature – a beautiful miracle of a living thing – is giving up its life (by my hand) in order that I might eat and live. It’s both a heavy and beautiful thought, and we want to linger in it rather than forgetting about it and moving straight on to the pâté.

Joel Salatin rather brilliantly says:

The fact that life requires sacrifice has profound spiritual ramifications. In order for something to live, something else must die. And that should provide us a lesson in how we serve one another and the creation and Creator around us. Everything is eating and being eaten, the perpetual sacrifice of one thing creates life for the next. To see this as regenerative is both mature and normal. To see it as violence that must be stopped is both abnormal and juvenile…

The life well lived bestows upon the sacrifice its sacredness. And so how the chicken or carrot or cabbage lives define the life’s value consummated in the act of death-chomping, masticating, burying in our intestines to regenerate flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone. That no life can exist without sacrifice is a profound physical and spiritual truth. And the better the life, the greater the sacrifice.  (from Folks, This Ain’t Normal)

Going back to my anthropology days, it reminds me of the Yup’ik (a native tribe in Western Alaska) Bladder Festival. The Yup’ik believed that the soul of an animal resided in its bladder, and when an animal’s body died to provide food for the hunter, its soul would stay alive in the bladder until it was returned to the sea. The Yup’ik would save the bladders of all the animals they killed over a year, and every winter they would hold a festival in celebration of the animals’ souls before releasing the bladders back to the sea. It was essentially a celebration of the cycle of life, a recognition that there can be no life without sacrifice, and a respect for the connectedness of humans to the earth. Pretty good theology, if you ask me. “To eat with reckless abandon, without conscience, without knowledge,” according to Joel Salatin, is downright crazy. To not be aware of this cycle of life and death, with all of its injustices and paradoxes, is a lesser way of living.

Yesterday we said a prayer for our pig, thanking him for his gift to us and hoping that he enjoyed a peaceful last day alive. And we will continue to think of him every time we eat his flesh, which will be often and with great enjoyment.

Settling in

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We’ve been in Fredericksburg for just over three weeks now, and our life here is very slowly beginning to take shape. David is doing most of the farm work at the moment, which is evenly split between “on the farm” labour and “off the farm” planning, sales and marketing. I have been meeting with the owner of a fitness studio downtown about potentially working with him as a trainer, as well as looking for other work. The rest of the time I am trying not to miss kiting too much… although I have gone twice since I’ve been here (SCORE!).

Because David was able to spend a few weeks here before I came, we basically had a little community of friends waiting for us when we arrived. Our neighborhood is very friendly, and this is the first place we’ve lived together where we actually know most of our neighbors (and see them regularly).  Downtown Fredericksburg, which is not huge but has enough to keep us entertained, is a 5 minute bike ride/15 minute walk from our front door. Our church is about a 10 minute walk from our house and already feels like we’ve been there forever (it probably helps that the leader lives around the corner from us!). We even seem to have started a tradition of Sunday afternoon hookah and hangout…

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That may or may not be our church leader to the right

Although home life is pretty good, there are still a lot of uncertainties. What are we actually doing here? What is the big picture? We know we mainly came here because of David’s opportunities to work with/for the Anglican church and Fresh Expressions. But we (I) also feel like we’ve given up a lot moving away from my family, the beach, and a good job. Have we just made a really stupid mistake in taking this risk and giving up our tiniest bit of security? On bad days I am full of fear and anxiety about it because I can’t see the way ahead and frankly don’t trust that God will show up. On better days I am reminded/challenged that faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not yet seen. That living by faith implies not being able to see ahead, because if you could see, then you wouldn’t really need faith to believe in the first place.

Me on a good day

One of the better days

All of this is especially challenging because for the last 10 years or so, my faith life has looked a lot like the picture on the top of the page. Rocky. Deserted. I’ve struggled to believe that God is good and that he’s on my side. I’ve had my good days and bad days, sure, but for the most part there has been a huge silence/absence from him in all my/our major life decisions, which has been disorienting, confusing, and discouraging to say the least.

Do things feel different now? Maybe. While I’m not going to win any competitions for my amount of faith or produce any Gandalf-like fireworks with my prayers, it does feel like there’s a very, very slight breeze (pardon the wind metaphor) blowing the dust from this dry soul. And it does seem like there’s an very, very tiny, elusive hint of a Voice calling us on, encouraging us to keep going and keep hoping. That possibly what we hope for may yet come true.