Growing up in New York City, unlike many people these days whose only concept of meat is an amorphous blob sealed in plastic in a supermarket case, I was accustomed to the sight of meat carcasses hanging in a butcher shop's window. Though I loved animals — and hated the thought of hunting — I never gave much thought to the source of my meat until adulthood, when I began to read about the horrors of slaughterhouses, particularly in the beef industry.
For a time I swore off beef, then realized that the conditions for poultry were about as bad. Later, I discovered the appeal of vegetarian cuisine, reveling in brown rice, pita sandwiches filled with falafel or babaganoush, and other delicacies. So I thought, “Why eat meat?” and became essentially a vegetarian for several years.
Eventually, I reluctantly began adding meat back into my diet. This was partly due to health concerns, but there were other, more compelling reasons. First, I had long been interested in sustainable agriculture and had made a tour of organic farms and homesteads, staying for a few days or a week as a volunteer worker and learning about organic farming. I learned that, while not absolutely necessary, animals make an important contribution to our ability to grow and harvest food from the earth.
Second, I had come to realize that any use of animal products — including eggs and milk — requires the killing of animals, if only excess males. For every female calf or chicken born there will be approximately one male, and very few males are needed or can be kept in the flock without male-on-male aggression. Weaker or less desirable animals need to be culled in order to maintain and improve the quality of the herd.
Third, I realized that our beloved farm animals couldn’t even exist — except in zoos and preserves — if they didn’t have a job providing us with meat and other products. In return, we provide them with food, care, shelter, and protection. In the words of one formerly-vegetarian farmer: “I’m giving them the only life they have.”
One of the advantages of living where I do, surrounded by hunting properties, is that one of my hunter neighbors offers me deer meat whenever deer season opens. This is great, because I’m on a rather slim budget and my farm-raised chickens can only supply a small portion of my meat intake. I feel I need some red meat in my diet, and the cost of humanely-raised, grass-fed beef is almost prohibitive for me. This way, I’m eating an animal that got to have a normal life up until the moment it was shot, and that hasn’t been fed hormones and antibiotics or made to spend days or months in terrible conditions — crowded together with strangers and up to its ankles in manure.
When I embarked on my current project of raising my own food, I expected to be killing and processing some of my own chickens. The little experience I’ve had with that so far has been challenging, and this will probably always be my least favorite farm chore. Aside from the daunting task of humanely slaughtering an animal, I’d had no experience with butchering and, except for roasting a few chickens and turkeys, have never had to deal with a complete carcass.
Last year when my hunter neighbor asked me if I’d like some deer meat, I said “Sure!” He asked how much I’d like, and I said as much as he wanted to give me. So, when he had shot a deer, he gave me a call, and I came over with bags and a cooler to where he had the deer strung up. He and another guy were cutting the meat off the bones and throwing it on a table where I could bag it, all except for a portion that he was keeping to make jerky. Even as it was, it took a couple of hours to bag up about 34 pounds of meat, and about five more hours at home cutting it into smaller portions to freeze. But I ended up with a year’s supply of meat.
Imagine my consternation this year when he and a companion showed up at my door — about noon on the first day of muzzleloader season — with a cooler that contained the major portion of a deer cut into about four pieces — bones and all! My inner butcher was about to be born. The entire hindquarters were in one piece, weighing probably 30 to 35 pounds, and I knew that wasn’t going to fit in my refrigerator.
To make a long story short, I spent the next several days in meat-cutting purgatory. In the process, though, I found that butchering is somewhat intuitive and gets easier with practice. Along with another year’s supply of red meat, I ended up with almost a cup of lard and several containers of meat stock, plus a collection of bones, some of which will make good gifts for dog-owning friends.
Now that my freezer is packed and I’ve reclaimed my refrigerator, I can relax a bit. What a relief!