If you type the word slaughterhouse into a search engine, you get a scroll of Web sites exposing the evils of animal torture, authored mostly by animal rights and vegan apologists. The images of bucking cows and blood-stained pigs confirm your deepest fears about the steak you just ate. But you already knew that, didn’t you? How else did that tail-swishing cow turn into last night’s rib eye? It had to wind up at a slaughterhouse, a place so abhorrent that the word has become synonymous with torture. But you don’t hear “slaughterhouse” in the farmer’s vernacular. You hear euphemisms like “harvest my pigs” or “process my cows” instead. Stockyard signifies mega-processors like Swift or Smithfield. Small, independent processors are called abattoirs, which sounds so much more civil. Now, if you believe, as I do, that search engines reflect our social mores, it’s funny how easily you can find animal torture sites but not one link to an actual slaughterhouse. It’s as if they don’t exist. As if killing animals is so reprehensible, so misunderstood, it needs to remain invisible.
As a chef, I wear many hats. Most recently, I’ve taken up slaughtering. Not the demonic, sacrificial kind, but the industrial, silent kind. There was a time when killing an animal was accompanied by a public ritual that demanded worship, respect, kinship, and dependency. The annual slaughter was worthy of bonfires, dances, incantations, and prayers. But today I’m just driving down to Boone’s Butcher Shop in Bardstown, Kentucky, to kill my pigs. I say “my” like I own them, but they belong to Jim, a kind, affable man with a dinner-table’s-worth of stories behind him and a rough divorce ahead. He raises Black Heritage pigs, a breed hard to find and harder to make money from, but they are his: stubborn pigs for a stubborn man. He drives a white pickup truck with a red trailer rigged to the back. Jim can be up to an hour late, depending on how long it takes to load the animals. Today he’s bringing twenty pigs, and the morning chill will have helped stir them a bit. It’s a two-hour drive from his farm in Rome, Indiana. I leave from Old Louisville and meet him in Bardstown. It’s a pretty drive flanked by uneven hills interrupted by evergreens and the Jim Beam distillery pumping steam into the sky. The road is lonely. The houses along the freeway are simple and sad. Every time I breathe, I fog up my windshield—it’s that cold.
I skirt Bardstown itself. Rituals of absolution have been tossed out by modern society. Keeping a slaughterhouse hidden on the outskirts of town is the best method for avoiding our guilt. An extreme example of this sleight of mind was the Japanese burakumin. During the Meiji period anyone working in the animal or human corpse industry, from butchers to leather workers, was classified as subhuman. These workers were not only segregated geographically, they were restricted from interacting with upper-caste citizens. An entire caste was relegated to the dirty work of keeping a society that wanted to eat meat guilt free. It’s hard not to see parallels in my own society as I coast to the bottom of the hill and enter the concrete building in a secluded cul-de-sac.
I can smell Jim’s pigs even before he arrives. They live on unique soil, more loam, more grass, and clover. They get to play around in mud, and it cakes onto their quill-like, porcine hairs. Their ears are so large they drape over their eyes so all you see are their quivering snouts. They smell like shit—a rich, fecund, herbaceous shit. Our order of business is to move the pigs from their trailer to the holding pens. I’m new at this and am slowing down the process. The guys around me are baffled, if not annoyed, that I’m here messing up their day. I’m thinking the same. Until today I’ve enjoyed the privilege of turning carcasses into pretty food. Until now, I’ve never killed a pig. Will doing so make me a better chef? Does a carpenter need to cut down trees? Probably not. But if killing is a ritual, it’s one that I need to experience. What I find is that it’s less a ritual than a process.
From the pens, we bring in the pigs, one at a time, to the kill floor. There they meet an electric rod that shoots 1.5 amps into their necks. It takes two to three minutes for the legs to stop kicking. Once dead, the pig is hoisted by its rear legs with a chain onto a conveyor, where its throat is slit and its blood drains out. The tricky part is making sure the animal is dead. If not, it endures the pain of the hoist and the bleed out. Most of the outrage in stockyards is due to this oversight, when animals, not properly killed, are pushed through the conveyor howling in pain and thrashing as they struggle hopelessly to survive.
And that’s what brings me to this kill floor. I need to see firsthand what happens to these animals, to determine if the Internet images are the exception or the rule. But, far from squealing bloody pigs, I find the process to be remarkably mundane. The animals are handled one at a time, and death, though never the same each time, has a disturbing predictability to it. The animals drop, shake, and sputter out in a routine that goes from briefly violent to calm. And yes, for a moment, I wonder if my own death will be as uneventful, but then I hear Donnie slam the scalder lid, shaking me awake. Donnie runs the kill room and has done so for the past ten years. He moves through each step of the process without saying much, but when he does, he is humorous in a way that is unexpected from the grim reaper of farm animals.
The pig’s carcass emerges from a four-minute, 150-degree scalding bath where rubber paddles have removed most of the hairs. The entrails are then removed and checked for parasites by a USDA inspector. The last remnants of hairs are burned off with a torch. Then it’s back onto the conveyor where the carcass is chain-sawed in half, washed, and sprayed with a lactic acid solution before being moved to a cooling room to hang overnight before butchering. This process takes less than fifteen minutes and is handled by a crew of three.
When the crew breaks for lunch, I duck out back to the holding pens for a cigarette. I quit smoking a long time ago. But out here in the December wind with the frozen earth beneath me, bits of pig flesh on my shirt, I want a smoke. The remaining pigs are huddled together, a soft medley of oinks in the air. They are used to humans and hardly pay me any attention. I’m sad for them, not because they are about to die, but because there is no ritual, no fanfare, no prayers or dances for them. Flesh from these pigs will wind up at the best restaurants in the region, brined, roasted, cured, and sliced with culinary charm. Their meat will be praised and photographed for magazines and books. But first, here they are, patiently waiting, quarantined and anonymous. How about I call you Mathilda and make a porchetta out of you? I feel stupid talking to a pig I am about to kill. Another farmer arrives and starts to back his trailer. Lunch is over.
We kill over thirty pigs in one day. By comparison, a company like Swift can do over a thousand pigs an hour. The difference between the two is like a small artisan cheese dairy and Kraft, except of course for the killing part. I sometimes feel discouraged by easy taglines like “Farm to Table, Field to Fork.” It’s a marketing tool—I get it. My farmers use these phrases to sell meat, and I’m sure I’m guilty of using them myself. But marketing overlooks a process between the farm and the table that deserves as much attention as the nurturing and the cooking. You can’t think precisely about a Farm-to-Table movement and not acknowledge the transport, welfare, killing, and packaging that all happen in or around the abattoir. It’s bewildering how much we concentrate on the life of the animal but think so little about its death. The Muslims and Jews historically have known this. Whether it is the dhabiha of Islam or the shechitah of Judaism, the ritual of killing the animal with a swift incision across the neck that both drains the blood and causes unconsciousness was a way to ensure that death was a carefully monitored process. And for all the talk about animal husbandry, the last fifteen minutes of the animal’s life will have a profound effect on the meat. A year of nurturing an animal can be entirely undone by an improper kill.
No one in recent history has had more of a say on how animals are killed than Temple Grandin. Resplendent in her cowboy shirts and lariats, Temple Grandin works tirelessly to convince the slaughterhouse industry that animal welfare is inseparable from meat quality, that humane transport and kills are profitable, that the only standard is a humane one. Animals, far from being just property, are sentient beings. It is her life’s work to eliminate the fear and panic from the process of dying, right up until that last moment when the animal’s life is separated from its body. She encourages cattle ranchers and abattoir owners to take videos of their operations and post them on YouTube. She wants the kind of transparency the industry has always tried to avoid. She is trying to shift perceptions. From shame to pride. From invisible to responsible.
The first few animals I killed were a shock to me; I felt a jolt and a cognitive disturbance. It’s not easy to watch anything die. Watching the blood disappear in the floor drains, I could feel the evaporation of life. The pace was fast but not so fast that I didn’t have time to notice how one pig had ears that were lopsided, how this one’s back fat was thicker, how that one’s tail was the longest I’d seen all day. It gave the pigs meaning. Facing a 250-pound carcass is different from receiving a case of cryovac pork loins. It’s hard not to ask yourself: if I only use pork chops, what happens to the rest of the animal? If pork belly is the bandwagon trend and that’s all we order, what does that do to the scale of pork economics? If I’m honoring the animal and the farmer, shouldn’t the entire pig be on my menu? What if, by reading my menu, you could assemble the whole animal from its parts?
I could serve two hundred meals a day, but I choose to serve forty. I could have a brigade cooking uniform steaks all night long, but I don’t. I employ three chefs who rotate positions and understand that every day is a new menu of distinct ingredients. Even so, our meat comes through the back door. Nowhere in the restaurant do we ask our guests to confront the killing that precedes their beautiful meal or to thank the animal that gave its life for human nourishment and enjoyment. Our eating pleasure is abstracted from the crucial step in the Farm-to-Table process.
I’ve been back to Boone’s, and to other abattoirs in the region, and when I occasionally tell people about these places, I get a range of reactions. Some curious, some disgusted. What’s a chef doing killing animals? Shouldn’t I be in the kitchen? I know I don’t belong there, in the kill room. But where do I belong? On a farm, picking berries? Behind an expo line shouting orders? In front of a camera, talking nonsense? They could not have realized it—either the workers at Boone’s or the pigs in the pen—but I never felt more at home than standing there with the smell of shit on my boots, cigarette and all.