I was just an unassuming 10-year-old kid when I sat on the couch one night and put on the PBS show Frontier House. The premise is that three families have to “live on the frontier” and imitate life in Montana in 1883.
At first it was entertaining, watching one family’s teenage daughters sob over the idea of not wearing makeup for six months. Then the camera focused on a tree stump in the yard, and I didn’t really understand why there was somber music in the background.
A chicken came into view, and then the father of the family. He was holding the chicken by its feet in one hand and a hatchet in the other. Chicken on the stump, he swung – and missed.
Before he could give it another try, I ran over to the TV, heart racing, and frantically hit the on/off switch. I then began to cry uncontrollably at the horror of it all.
If I remember correctly, my family served chicken that night.
I don’t think I ate it.
It took me until after college to “officially” become a vegetarian, but there were many years in between that I avoided thinking about processing animals for meat, and when possible, avoided eating it, too. I just couldn’t stomach it.
When I stopped eating meat all together three years ago, I made myself a promise: I’ll only consume it again if I can raise, care for and kill it myself, all in a humane way.
I didn’t see any of that ever happening.
Then I began my job at the Monitor.
I encouraged my editors to let me pursue a farm and food beat, having previously worked in Vermont and seen the value placed on agriculture there.
Understanding food supply and culture, I thought, was relevant in any state, even if it’s not home to Ben & Jerry’s and Cabot cheese. We all have to eat.
Much to my own surprise, I then pitched my slightly disbelieving editors an idea: What if I followed a pig from birth to slaughter? In a time when local food is a growing trend, wouldn’t it be interesting (and important) to learn exactly how it’s raised?
I was feeling brave about the story, having just read an essay by another 20-something vegetarian who decided to buy her own chicken to slaughter and eat. I was taken aback at how I felt after reading the piece: less horrified, and more in awe of the intimate experience she had killing her own food.
As she described it, it wasn’t violent, but quiet and methodical. It wasn’t a cruel act, but a respectful process acknowledging the animal’s life with gratitude for what it would be supplying.
And the resulting chicken soup – made with a day’s worth of labor, mindfulness of its source, and totally self-sufficiently – was the best, the author said, she’d ever tasted.
In my case, I didn’t raise the pig myself. I was lucky enough to know Carole Soule, a Loudon farmer who is passionate about local food.
She let me visit a pink heritage pig, which I dubbed Pink 2.0, every two weeks after he was born on Valentine’s Day (there was an original “Pink,” though the piglet lived only a week before being fatally injured by her mother).
Though he wasn’t in my backyard, I got to know Pink 2.0 pretty well. I held him when he was still small enough for me to, and when he got bigger, he let me rub his belly, scratch behind his ears and put my camera right up to his snout.
I witnessed him eating and sleeping, playing with his sibling pigs, and even getting castrated. Any romantic notions I had about farming were all at once shattered and reinforced.
And while I started out the project in February with some trepidation about the end – the slaughter of Pink 2.0 – that feeling grew less as time went on. Death was still an uncomfortable, but not unthinkable, conclusion.
That’s not because I’m cold-hearted or was immune to Pink 2.0’s cuteness. As anyone who knows me will tell you, I love animals probably more than the average person and go out of my way to be around them.
But the longer I was immersed in the pork-raising process through my reporting, the less barbaric Pink 2.0’s slaughter seemed. When we were actually at PT Farm in North Haverill and when I looked through a door and a window at the “kill floor,” my stomach didn’t turn. Instead, I was gratified to see no suffering pigs, to hear no frantic squeals, and to know that the process was quick, as stress-free as possible, and done with the best of intentions.
When I returned to Miles Smith Farm a week later, it was the first time I felt unconflicted about purchasing meat. I knew full well what had gone into it. I also understood the price another being paid to nourish me and the others I would be cooking for.
On the day of the slaughter, I drove through the White Mountains and silently gloried in the setting golden sun. I knew Pink 2.0 was gone by then, and I grieved that his last moment of consciousness was in a chute of a sterile, white-walled room. Meanwhile, I was still here, experiencing the beauty of another evening.
It’s not a perfect setup, humans having the ability to empathize as well as the carnivorous desire to eat meat. But it seemed like a waste of a life – and of a special relationship – to not fully express my thanks for Pink 2.0.
So I ate some of the pork chops and ground pork nachos we made with the meat, timidly at first, and then with enthusiasm.
As we chewed, one of my co-workers said something to me that may have been half-joking, but came across as a deep, comforting truth.
“Now,” he said, “Pink 2.0 will always be a part of you.”
(Elodie Reed can be reached at 369-3306, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @elodie_reed.)