Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Thinking of Eating: Roger and Me

Can I eat an animal I've played tag with?

It's a question I've been struggling with since committing to buy half a pig from my friend Clare Carver at Big Table Farm. Twice a year for the last several years, Clare has bought two organically-certified weaner pigs from her friends Amy Benson and Chris Roehm at Square Peg Farm, and I'd promised myself that someday I'd get one.

Genuine pigtail.

This spring she got two Berkshire Cross pigs, a heritage breed known to thrive on pasture and whose meat is darker and far more flavorful than store-bought. Named Don and Roger after two of the main characters from the TV series Madmen, they're being raised inside an electrified tape corral on grass pasture. The corral is moved every few weeks in a process called rotational grazing, an especially good idea since young pigs like to root around, roll and generally tear up the ground. Their diet consists of grass, organic grain, occasional treats of the farm's organic eggs and scraps and vegetable trimmings from the kitchen.

Clare doesn't believe in moving her animals off the farm for slaughter because of the stress it puts on them and the effect that can have on the quality of the meat (see previous story here). So when Don and Roger reach 270 pounds or so they'll be killed in their pasture on the farm.

One happy guy.

Which is a problem when it comes to selling her pasture-raised, humanely treated pigs to people like me, who are looking for exactly that kind of meat for our tables. That's because the only meat that the USDA allows farmers to sell to the public must be killed in a USDA-approved facility, and there are no USDA-approved mobile slaughter units in Oregon for Clare to call on. But an exception to that rule allows her to offer her pigs to buyers while the animals are still alive in an arrangement where the buyer ostensibly pays the farmer to raise the pigs for them and pay separately for their slaughter and butchering.

Which is where I came in.

Playing in the sprinkler. Roger's on the left.

When she got her weaners, Clare sent out an e-mail to her list of interested pig-buyers offering half a pig to three buyers (she and Brian will keep one half for themselves). I responded quickly to the first-come-first-serve offer and will get half of Roger sometime in September. I plan to attend the killing and slaughter, then take my half to Portland's Culinary Workshop where co-owner Melinda Casady will guide Dave and I in butchering the meat.

So far I've made two trips to the farm to visit Roger. On the first visit he and Don weighed in at around 100 pounds, about the size of a big dog (top photo). I'm always startled at how much like dogs they are as they run around and play with each other, obviously enjoying rolling in the dirt or grunting with pleasure as they scratch themselves against their mobile pig house, dubbed the "Winnapigo."

If this is slop, give me some, too!

They'll even play a piggy version of tag, ears pricked up at attention as you run behind their house, running around to "tag" you when you peek out, then dashing away to start again. On my second trip three weeks later they weighed around 200 pounds (above left and right). Clare turned on the hose and they ran under its arcing spray like kids playing in a sprinkler on a hot summer day.

My next visit is in a little more than a week, with slaughter scheduled for mid-September. And while I have no illusions about developing a deep relationship with Roger, I'm wondering if spending some time with him is going to change the experience of consumption in unexpected ways. Regardless, I'll be sure to let you know what happens in future installments.

Read the other posts in this series: Roger Grows Up, Saying Goodbye, The Day Finally Comes, The Meat of the Matter and Pasture to Plate.


Anonymous said...

Some friends of mine bought a cow to slaughter later in the year. I tried to name it "Chop", their children named it "Annabelle." The Cow is still alive five years later.

Not that they became vegetarians or anything. They just couldn't bear to have someone kill the cow.

Lacy said...

we bought our half of a pig for the first time this year from a local farmer and honestly my whole life I had thought I didn't like ham but I was wrong. This stuff is EPIC. Nothing like store bought crap...I never even thought about killing and butchering our own..excited to hear how it goes!

Kathleen Bauer said...

Honestly, Anon, I'm in awe of farmers like Clare who bond with their animals (versus treating them like objects), and allow themselves to feel the loss each time.

And Lacy, glad you've come around to the ham…it really does make a difference in the flavor, doesn't it? To be clear, though, I'm not going to kill Roger, but I will be there to witness the killing. Clare hires a fellow from Frontier Custom Cutting to do it (see previous post).

Johnna said...

I have hens, silly little birds who each lay an egg a day. I did not expect them to each have such distinct personalities, differing likes in food, ability to connect with the other animals who share our home. One of our hens passed this month and I was shocked at how sad I was, I really had bonded with her. And I know I'll never eat chicken again. I don't know how farmers do it.

shannaigan said...

I was raised with these animals...and your blog reminds me of the struggle with knowing "exactly" where our products come from. My most memorable "pets" were affectionately name Linnie and Squiggy (yes I am 40)...I appreciate the importance of knowing where our food comes from, but I think I am too "soft" these days to actually have "known" my food. That said I appreciate your diligence though if I were in your position, I think I would be happier "sponsoring" my meat and not "meating" it (knowing it's personality). You are doing a good job. Coming from a rural upbringing, I commend you.