Witness to the slaughter

It happened before we were ready, which is often the way with death.
Walking toward the barn, a 22-caliber rifle popped once. Then again. The sound, unmistakable.
Despite being barely 8 a.m. in the morning, Chef John Stewart and I rush toward a small pig sty in the freezing hills north of Santa Rosa. "Damn. We missed it," I said, having spent the previous 24-hours emotionally girding myself to watch a 300-pound animal die at my feet. The pigs had been shot. The slaughter doesn't wait.

pig1.jpgIt happened before we were ready, which is often the way with death.
Walking toward the barn, a  22-caliber rifle popped once. Then again.
Despite being barely 8 a.m. in the morning, Chef John Stewart and I rush toward a small pig sty in the freezing hills north of Santa Rosa.  “Damn. We missed it,” I said, having spent the previous 24-hours emotionally girding myself to watch a 300-pound animal die at my feet. The pigs had been shot. The slaughter doesn’t wait.
Stewart purchased one of the Duroc sows last July, banking on juicy hams come winter. For the last five years he’s been curing pork for Black Pig Meats as a side project to his two restaurants. When I first heard about it, he was doing most of the aging in his garage for friends and family. Now he graces the celeb-salumi circuit and cover of Wine Spectator.
Great prosciutto, pancetta and ham, however, all start with a pig whose fate is sealed the day it’s born. A very real part of being a meat-monger is overseeing their demise, and on this cold January morning Stewart’s Slow Food philosophy extends to watching Sonoma County’s last remaining mobile slaughterer kill, skin and gut his pig.
pig3.jpgEntering the sty, the pigs already lay dead. Still twitching, blood gushes from a deep slash in each of their necks. Steaming. The heart continues to pump the blood out of the body in amazing quantities. The lone executioner, John Taylor of JT’s Custom Slaughter, claims that the single shot to the head immediately kills the animals.
Still, it feels intrusive to watch the death throes of these 8-month old creatures. Taylor impassively wades through the muck, straw and blood, impaling the now-still animals under the jaw with a steel hook and dragging them to a small bulldozer.
The bodies jiggle and fluids leak out of every orifice. It’s graphic. Unconditioned to knowing meat any way other than in a neatly wrapped package it’s easy to ignore the reality of death. But, I’m here because I eat pork and it seems only fair to acknowledge how it gets to my table. I want to know.

I can’t help personalizing it, though. Rolling around in bed the night before, I wondered if they somehow knew today was their last day.  I have to ask if they had names.
“Pork and chop,” Taylor deadpans. After years of killing and gutting livestock the act of death is unemotional, quick and skillful.
Did they have a good life, I wonder.  “Never a day of stress. Until today,” the owner tells us.
Not even today,” said Taylor, slicing off the pigs’ forelegs, using them as blocks to keep them from rolling over. Because he is here, there is no transporting or stressing the animals which otherwise would have had to travel three hours north to a slaughterhouse in Orland.
Taylor spends his days driving around the North Bay in his custom-built truck which includes a “gut bucket”, winch and hanging rack for the carcasses. There used to be others, but Taylor claims he’s the last in the county who’ll come to your farm and do your dirty work. “This is a dying art.”
pig2.jpgDespite a renewed interest in humane treatment of animals and small farm operations there isn’t enough money in on-site butchering to attract many takers. Plus it’s a damn lot of heavy, unpleasant work. “I’m getting to old for this,” Taylor tells us, leaning over the hosed-down animals, slicing through skin and bone. Well-honed knives make it look as effortless as slicing butter.
He’s becoming a meat-lebrity lately, after a few magazine articles about his work as a mobile slaughterer. “It’s a novelty, now.”  Taylor never stops moving, slicing, cutting, finally hacking the animal in half. In a little over an hour, the two pigs are simply two carcasses ready for processing in the back of his truck. Taylor heads out to the next kill. It’s over.
Wiping the blood off my shoes, Stewart and I walk toward our vehicles. He loads two garbage bags filled with hearts, livers and heads into his truck for pate, heart sandwiches (a favorite of his wife) and pork jowls. But its the short, stubby legs he’s most excited about getting his hands on next week, after they’ve been processed.
Those are going to be some nice hams,” he says dreamily. I can’t help but think he’s right.



10 thoughts on “Witness to the slaughter

  1. I found this post while Googling “Sonoma Slow Food.” Great article, lovely photos and wonderful side note on the voluntary responsibility of carnivorism.

  2. Everyone should witness the reality of where their food comes from. We are a freedom of information society always searching for truth. I watched my mom slit the throats of many chickens and ducks for dinner when I was young. If you’re too much of a coward to understand the slaughter than you shouldn’t eat meat.

  3. Yay! Thanks. Interesting article. And such attractive and tastefully done photos, I didnt find it disturbing at all, just facinatingley informative.

  4. Thank you Bite Club! This is a fascinating and unique article. It just so happens that I have had the opportunity to sample Black Pig salumi and other goods, and let me tell you, it is amazing. Anyone who has the chance to eat Chef Stewart’s porcine creations is a lucky person. He and his wife are amazing chefs.
    In addition, thank you, eat_gator, for summing up one of the main ideas behind compassionate carnivorism. If you can’t handle how meat and animal products get to your table, you don’t deserve to consume them.

  5. Fascinating article. Thank you for posting it. I’ve seen a lot of things like this- including what is on the PETA website and nothing so far has deterred me from wanting to eat meat. I suppose that’s the sign of a true carnivore!

  6. If we as Americans knew more and saw more of blogs like this, we would eat more respectfully and less wastefully. Jamie Shannon spoke about this and is a good google search. If you saw what a chicken slaughter factory or a pig factory looked like, you would never again eat meat sold to you on a little yellow tray wrapped in plastic. The reason it’s on sale and so cheap is because it was slaughtered in a way that is inhumane, unhealthy, and wasteful.
    We need to understand and respect people that still do these time-honored professions, and understand what it is that we eat everyday. And change what is wrong for the environment and humanity, such as factory slaughtering.
    I would like to say, That I have been a chef for 30 years, I have shot,dressed, cooked my meals before. Raised and slaughter my meals. and support local farmers.

  7. all meat sold in a restaurant, need to be graded and slaughtered in a certified slaughter room under U.S. guidelines. The only way legally around this is, you slaughter your pig, deer ect. bring it to restaurant for them to cook for you and your friends.

  8. Let’s not see this type of graphic again… Shall we??? I am by no means a PETA member, but I am probably one who will admit while eating meat, I sure as heck don’t want to see the graphics of where it came from. Yes, I live in a world of denial, and it is our nation’s right to publish such articles. I love your articles and look forward to reading them every time, and thank you for the warning prior to entering this page. But please… can we do with out the graphics and let us paint what ever picture we want???

  9. Question: What is the legality regarding selling meat (in a restaurant)that has not been gov. inspected.
    One of the problems of using localy raised meat these last 30 years has been finding an inspected processor. They come and go, mostly go.

  10. we still do this in Louisiana, in the winter with big pigs its called a Boucherie and in the spring we have a pig roast called a cochon de lait .
    this blog is a great story, lets see more stuff like this . . .
    if you want to now more about the Boucherie, hit me up at terrellbrunet.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *