Requiem for a Pig
I grew up on a farm. Not the modern, industrial sort of place with 2,000 cows and a barn as long as a football stadium. I mean a small mountain farm where, on rainy afternoons, I'd shoot at rats in the hay barn and flick the metal tops of cream soda bottles for sport. We had no more than 20 milkers on any given day, and our meat was never store-bought; it was slaughtered out back and then brought down to the meat locker to be cut up and wrapped in pale green butcher paper.
But that was years ago, and now I shop at a supermarket, just like you. I buy milk in plastic containers and purchase antiseptic, shrink-wrapped pieces of meat with names like rib eye or top round, labels that mean about as much as brougham or cabriolet to the average car buyer.
Last year, I decided it was about time that my family knew something about where meat comes from. I have always believed that unless one opts for the vegetarian lifestyle (which I have done upon occasion), eating meat carries with it a certain responsibility that should not be casually avoided. The taking of a life is serious business and-as is the practice in kosher slaughterhouses-this process should be accorded time, attention, and thoughtfulness. My plan was simple. I would buy two pigs to raise at the farm in Vermont. Then, after the first frost, when my kids were safely back at school, the animals would be slaughtered and brought down to the local meat locker.
Plenty of farm animals were missing in action when the brains were handed out. The list includes cows, oxen, and even horses, which are large, skittish, and unpredictable. But pigs, contrary to their cartoon image, are actually intelligent animals who prefer clean living to rolling in the mud. Our two young ones were long and black, of a breed chosen for the flavor of the meat, not for quick weight gain or pink-faced good looks.
Keenly aware of the endgame, my wife and I tried to avoid naming the pigs, but the kids were soon calling them Daisy and Boris. Around August, my oldest daughter was spending more and more time down at the pen, having fully accepted the pigs as pets. This was to be expected, I told myself. This project was going to teach everyone a thing or two about country living, and if that included a dose of reality, so be it.
Labor Day came and went and our family had moved back to Boston for the winter. In late October, the pigs had hit 180 pounds each, so I called Porky, a local farmer who used to do all of the butchering when I was a kid. He showed up at 6:30 one Saturday morning in a blue Ford pickup. We filled a 55-gallon drum with water, and he pulled out a furnace blower to heat it up. When it reached 160 degrees, I started up the tractor and moved the drum to the pen.
It was a glorious fall day, cold, but the sun had risen over Tate Mountain and was beginning to clear the frost. Porky loaded his .22 rifle, culled out the sow, and dispatched her quickly. The carcass was dipped in the hot water, scraped, trimmed, and loaded onto the truck. The whole process had taken about an hour.
I was taking this pretty well, having seen my share of butchering as a kid. But the sow's brother, Boris, had become agitated and was scurrying back and forth in the small pen. He couldn't see what we were doing, but he knew that on this perfect October day, some connection had been broken with his sister. It reminded me of a duck I'd once seen in the middle of the road. Its mate had been run over, and it was dazed, waddling in circles around the body, stunned and lonely.
When winter came, we ate the meat. It was tender, juicy, and flavorful-vastly better than the supermarket variety. Although my oldest daughter had lost her taste for pork, her siblings soon developed an appetite for the bacon, chops, and sausage.
We had made the effort to confront the ultimate truth about consuming meat, but, to my surprise, I had taught myself, rather than my kids, a lesson. Death is common, but love is fleeting. Love today, not tomorrow. Don't forget to kiss your kids goodnight, and when things are finally going just right, keep a keen eye out for a farmer in a blue pickup.