I've been busy the last few months, partly dealing with the stresses of studying a subject I have no interest in, but mostly getting over the Cubs hang-over (something which is quickly becoming an annual October "occurrence").
I've discovered a small but thriving community of passionate food bloggers based in Chicago. The Local Beet is a site dedicated to everything about eating locally-grown food in Chicago, and one of the contributors there also runs a blog called Vital Information. There is also a site named Sky Full of Bacon. It's run by a guy who makes very well produced podcasts about food, usually with a focus on Chicago restaurants and the stories behind their chefs. It's really something special and I highly recommend checking it out.
The newest podcast at Sky Full is actually a two-part series. You can watch part 1 here:
Sky Full of Bacon 05: There Will Be Pork (pt. 1) from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.
The second part here:
Sky Full of Bacon 06: There Will Be Pork (pt. 2) from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.
The series follows three pigs from farm to abattoir to butchery to table at a dinner hosted at Blackbird (in Chicago). It's an incredibly wonderful statement of the care that can and should be taken (but often is no longer) in raising and slaughtering animals. I think the most important part of the video lies in the discussions with the farmers themselves about the importance of raising these heirloom breeds, the emotional connection they have to the animals, but the necessity they see in raising them to be eaten. As one of them points out, it's not the job of a farm to raise zoo animals.
When I first started reading widely and deeply about food, I was always struck by the obsessiveness so many of the writers I read placed on being a part of the slaughtering process. Videos like this podcast, as well as articles like this one just didn't make sense to me. I didn't think they were mistaken - respecting the animals we eat is something I was raised with. What struck me was how novel the idea seemed to them and how much garment-renting went on. Whenever numerous writers (Bourdain, Pollan, even Gordon Ramsey) wrote about their experiences, I felt left out of their reasoning and emotions when I usually followed it so closely. Their descriptions of the emotional trials they endured during the blood-letting always struck me in the same way as Troylus' whinging about his love of Criseyde.
At first I thought it was me; maybe a faulty ethics switch somewhere or too many years of indoctrination in the prepackaged meat culture. I found the same problem when I spoke to vegetarians in college; when they spoke of ethics, I just didn't get what they were talking about. With the food writers, the disconnect was on a more emotional level, but it came from the same place. Taking an animal's life struck everyone else as something barbaric and unknown, while I didn't feel that way at all.
I've thought about this a lot over the years, but it wasn't until this podcast that it struck me why I feel that way. During part 2, which is much harder and much more important to watch, chef Jason Hammel talks about how the experience of watching the slaughter wasn't what he thought it would be; there was no moment when life ended, rather life was ending during the whole day. His words caught my attention and stirred up memories that I'd all but forgotten about and I knew why I've failed to connect to much of the writing on this topic over the years: I've already gone through the ethical and emotional turmoil which is so new to these writers.
A little background explanation might be useful. I'm from a northern suburb of Chicago and I really identify with the urban side or the area. I'm also pretty liberal, so I've run in left-leaning circles since before college. I haven't fired a gun since I was a senior in high school, and I haven't gone hunting since I was 14. So, the years between then and now have made the memories of that period of my life hazy. But, as I'm sure you know if you're reading this, those last two sentences are not normal for an urban-dwelling liberal. And that's something I forgot; I come from a strange background for someone in the Whole Foods marketshare.
Hammel's words about the process reminded me of the first time I helped my dad with a deer. It was November in the northern Wisconsin woods, a brisk day, but the sun was still giving warmth. I remember the pile of guts, the split-open carcass, the blood-stained leaves. Blood pooled along the spine of the upturned deer, and the bluish glean of fresh meat is something that I have never forgotten. Dad and I carried the carcass by the hooves - me at the back - to the car and hoisted it up onto the roof. There was, as Hammel said, no clear cut moment of ending, no moment at which you could say that the disturbing part had happened and on either side it was merely a deer and then meat. The whole day was infused with a sense of malaise, but there was also an excitement to it. And you'd be a fool if you thought any part of that deer was wasted.
It's important to know that killing is disturbing, very much so. But it's an important process. Eating a vegetable will never give you the same sense of thankfulness as eating an animal you've seen butchered. Meat deserves its revered place at the center of the meal because life was given to place it there.
I know where meat comes from. I've known for a long time and that knowledge, without my even realizing, has influenced my opinion on the meat industry and meat-eating. Gebert's podcast clued me in to that, which is a testament to how good a piece of journalistic art it is.