There's no pretty way to say this. I was present for the death of the pig pictured above.
It was a grim, sodden day on an upstate New York farm. A local meat sciences professor named Eric explained to the pig's owners that the most humane method of slaughter was to shoot it at close range between the eyes with a .22 rifle - a stunning blow to knock its central nervous system offline - then slit the main artery so the blood loss would bring about swift, arguably less painful death. The blow would also supposedly reduce the stress on the animal, allowing for better meat quality.
The farmers, having researched the matter thoroughly and consulted with the Humane Animal Farm Care project, believed this to be true. Still, as they stood several yards from the slaughter, half sheltered in the doorway to their goat barn, they flinched at the stark crack of the rifle, and then they cried.
For as charming and vibrant as they are, it is simply impractical to keep pigs as pets on a farm. They don't produce milk like the farm's dozens of goats, can’t be sheared for wool like their sheep, don’t lay eggs, herd, chase vermin or scare away predators. They're simply not useful, from a strictly practical standpoint, so to buy and raise a piglet is a commitment to turning it into food. That doesn't make the act of their slaughter any easier to watch.
The vast majority of the Beekman Farm's livestock, over 120 goats at last count, along with chickens, a turkey or two and a llama who earns her keep as comic relief are housed in a clean, spacious barn. They are tended to, most affectionately, by Farmer John, who knows the name of every single animal on the premises. He, along with help from Brent (who lives there full time) and Josh (who commutes back and forth between Manhattan and Sharon Springs, New York) feeds them, cleans the barn, grooms them when needed (a llama's coat can get terribly matted) and harvests the goat milk that's used to make the Beekman 1802 soap and Beekman Blaak cheese that, in addition to Josh's salary as an advertising creative director, sustains the farm.
Walk into the barn, and roughly 120 heads crane in your direction and acknowledge your presence with a friendly baa. It's a really warm, friendly place to be. The pigs' sunken silo was like that, too. Porky and Bess would caper around the perimeter, accepting offerings of whole vegetables, wallowing in the mud, luxuriating in the sun or nestling together in the cool of the shade.
It's a comfortable place for a pig to be, which is why Eric advised that the slaughter take place there. Experts agree that often, the most traumatic part of the process takes place when an animal is uprooted from its home and led to an unfamiliar location, separated from its brethren, so Porky and Bess were killed where they lived.
For safety and filming reasons, I was tucked back in the barn, watching from a production monitor, and still overcome, Josh wandered over. He's a quick, funny man who wears his emotions right under the skin. Though the tears were no longer flowing, he was still wiping them away and was slightly choked in tone.
"I was worried...Brent and I were so worried that they'd kill the first one and the other one would be so traumatized, seeing its friend die. But Eric shot and the other one ran from the noise - and then came back and started eating like nothing had happened. I thought there would be more…"
He trailed off. I knew what he meant: Sorrow. But there wasn't - only a few minutes while the pig was still a pig, bleeding on the ground from a small neck wound, looking for all the world like it would roll back on its feet and get back to the business of rooting.
Eric and his two colleagues quickly attached the back legs of each pig to hook, chained onto a tractor and hauled the carcasses out of the pen to process, hanging, while they were still fresh. These things are calculated to take place on a cold, autumn day for longer working time and minimal stench.
I was allowed to emerge from the barn. This is why I was there. I'm not a morbid person by nature, but rather joyful and celebratory of all forms of life. My husband and I have two dogs, including an ex-racing greyhound and two rescued rabbits. We live among and adore animals of many species.
I was not there to exalt in the death of these pigs. Rather, I needed a gut check. While I spent seven years as a vigilant vegetarian, I am now a meat eater, and write frequently and passionately about my fondness for offal like sweetbreads, liver, tail and tongue. I love the flavor and rich history of these otherwise discarded and overlooked parts of animals. To many offal eaters, the enjoyment thereof is a sign of respect to the animal from which they came. If you're going to take away its life, you might as well use the whole thing.
I'd thought long and hard and made a bargain with myself. If I couldn't go and be courageous enough to see an animal I'd known alive, dead and turned into food, I had no right to keep on writing about it - or perhaps even eating it. If these animals were going to be forced to be sacrificed against their will, it was only right of me to use my own to be there, in witness.
Eric and his team made very short work of the pigs, flaying, beheading, gutting and cutting off the feet. In a matter of minutes, the creatures that had been Porky and Bess, snuffling in the mud just that morning, became a commodity.
Eric worked neatly and methodically, flaying off the pelt with a long, wickedly honed knife. In a manner befitting his professorial status, he explained each part to me as he unspooled it, steaming, shiny and shockingly clean from the hog's belly. Here's the liver, these are the kidneys - we'll toss this one out because I feel something hard - this is the "pluck" which is the lungs, et cetera. Don’t want that? Okay. Here are the intestines and the bladder. Make sure you don't nick them with the knife. You want the heart? Okay. In the bag it goes. If you're taking the pelt, I recommend using boiling water to get the fur off.
I listened and took pictures so I could remember for later. This felt like meat class, rather than a memorial service, and in that, I felt oddly comforted and numbed.
The meaty parts - belly, haunches and so on - were hauled away to a processing facility to be turned into the ham, bacon, ground pork, lard and chops on which the Beekman residents would sustain themselves all winter. The offal - including the pelts, heads, feet, tails and innards - were handed to me in plastic bags so I could take them back home and process them to be eaten.
This was, quite literally, my gut check - standing in my yard with a clear plastic bag, filled with the unsorted intestines, stomachs, and other warm, quivering innards of an animal I'd seen alive just an hour before. I stuck my hands in, extracted the lacy caul fat (prized as a delicacy in classical French cooking) and uncoiled the many yards of small intestine.
From a separate bag, I hauled out the pelts and sawed off the tails and ears. Time was running short and the sun was emerging, so I stopped short of shaving the furrier parts - necessary before consumption. The saying goes that it's possible to eat "everything but the squeal" from a pig, but I've yet to find someone who's happy chomping into a mouthful of bristly pig hair. Once all the parts were sorted - I ran out of time for the stomachs and large intestines and left those for a friend's boyfriend to come and haul off for coyote bait - I lugged all the offal inside for packaging and refrigeration and spent the next hour washing, rewashing, washing again and then yet again the small intestines that Josh and I would eventually stuff with ground pork for sausage links.
Like Josh, my husband and I, much as we'd love to, can’t spend all our time upstate, so we packed the food into coolers and trucked it the four hours down to Brooklyn, praying for gentle traffic flow and no overly inquisitive state troopers. In the car, I sent a text message to my friend, former Gourmet Magazine test kitchen chef Ian Knauer, another fan of offal, and avid hunter.
Ian came over later that week, toting a canteloupe-sized hen of the woods mushroom he'd foraged from his land in Pennsylvania. Under his expert guidance, we crafted a deep, earthy, cognac-laced pork liver pate and a star anise-accented head cheese, complete with a middle layer of apple dice - a play on the fruit often served in the mouth of a roasted pig.
I tuned out for a few minutes, focusing on shaking up a sidecar cocktail. While Ian is an accomplished chef, I'm an avid amateur - but I'm serious about my cocktails and know when I can be of use. When I handed him his drink, he pushed over a bowl. "Eat this."
While I'd been turned away, he'd shaved and rendered down a patch of the pig pelt from which I'd doggedly been carving fat. The cracklings he'd made were perfectly crunchy, soulfully flavored, purely and utterly pig.
I took a moment, nodded upward to the memory of Porky and Bess, and reached for another handful.
Learn more about ethical slaughter at certifiedhumane.org and share your thoughts in the comments below.