life as we make it


Cows are BIG. Fat is GROSS.
November 17, 2009, 7:55 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

********UPDATE********My very talented friend Kirsten (AKA Malady) illustrated a highly amusing, slightly incriminating companion piece.  Check out her take at missmalady.blogspot.com

The craigslist posting seemed too good to be true:  two cowhides in Woodburn free to the first caller.  I’m NEVER the first caller.  Trying to time possibly pointless forays into little-known suburbs between naps and diaper changes just rarely feels worth the trouble in cost-benefit analysis.  But I’ve been wanting to tan a hide for years, and the rabbits and raccoons piling up in the freezer just weren’t motivating me.  Two whole Black Angus cows.  Now there’s a worthy endeavor.  So despite the lack of visible enthusiasm on Jana’s part (Jana is my brother Gabriel’s girlfriend, has tanned a deer hide, and was my likely partner in this project), I shoved the crying children into the mom-mobile and headed into afternoon Vancouver bridge traffic in the darkening rain.

As we swung the sopping, bloody skins into my trunk from the back of Steve’s (Mr. craigslist) truck, he asked skeptically over Thor’s frustrated wails whether I had done this before.  I now understand why someone with experience would doubt the ability of a woman with 2 kids under 3 to scrape and tan this kind of square footage in a timely manner.  I saw the same look in Jana’s eyes when I plopped the monstrosities under her carport the next morning.

Four days later, the lessons are many.  First, get an ulu knife.  Alaska natives use its sharp, curved blade (imagine a cross between a nut chopper and a Klingon Bat’leth) for all stages of skinning and scraping, and it is the perfect tool for the job.   I switched between a very sharp long knife given to me by a butcher for just such purposes, and a shorter  pointy blade that gave me a bit more dexterity in tough spots.  Struggling ineffectually for purchase on the slimy integument, I slipped and sliced open my rubber gloves over and over,  muttering enviously at Jana’s superior implement nearly the entire time.

Second, get a babysitter.   While this mother relishes the opportunity to address the matter-of-fact  life and death questions of an almost three-year old, the interrogation became repetetive.   For example:

“Is that dead?”

“Yep.”

“Those are guts?

‘”It’s meat and fat.”

“What are you doing?”

“Making leather.”

“What are you doing?”

“What AM I doing?”

“Making leather?”

“Yep.”

“Is that dead?”

“Yep.”

“Why?”

“Ummm…so we can eat meat and make leather.”

“Why?”

“For yummy protein and sturdy shoes.”

“You making leather?”

“We’re making leather.”

“Is it dead?”

“It’s dead.”

“Why?”

This continued ad nauseum with little variation.  But with wicked sharp tools and greasy innards lying around, “why” fatigue is not the only reason to find another supervised activity for the kiddos while concentrating on this tedious but potentially injurious task.  Bringing a little friend along only compounds the problem.  I tried leaving them in the house to fend for themselves.  When I checked on them thirty minutes later, Bandit the salamander was dangerously overstuffed on crickets and the boys were spitting chewed-up sunflower seeds from one end of the house to the other.  Also, babies should obviously not be crawling around in cow juice and freezing rain, but strapping them to the back is not ideal for this kind of work either.  Thor napped through much of the action, but I was not so comfy.  See photo exhibit A.

Third, get a crew.  Cows are big.  Stretch a cow out into two dimensions, and you have something like a king size sheet that weighs as much as a full grown man–and smells much worse.  Scraping a hide is a clan activity, not a solitary one.  And putting out the facebook call is useless.  Both Jana and I posted what we thought was a cleverly worded, very enticing work party announcement which was met only with jokes and half-hearted “would if I coulds.”  Useless!  Personal calls to a hand-selected, hearty of heart few yielded some willing assistants, one of whom showed up.   James, a semiquasi-vegetarian with eastern Oregon roots and antlers on his motorcycle, came with pie.  Oh!  That reminds me of lesson four:  eat before you begin the day’s work.  You will need your energy but you will lose your appetite.  Fat is gross before it becomes the marbling in your steak or the lard in your pie crust, and meat does not smell good until it hits the barbeque.  Incidentally, I can now see how lard makes a superior crust.  The fat naturally occurs in flaky strata that resemble perfect pastry dough.  But noticing this does not make you hungry for pie.  So perhaps the best reason to muster a team is for comiseration.   James joined us on our third day of work, by which time Jana and I had run out of ways to talk about how difficult and disgusting it was.  Thematically, the conversation differed little, but working through the retches with another person made the experience seem fresh and new.  In a few hours with just one extra blade, we nearly finished the second hide.

Last, think about drainage.  After scraping comes salting, which draws moisture out of the hide, preventing rot.  We salted the first hide after scraping it as clean as we had the patience for and hung it in the garage overnight to stay dry.  We had to splash through an inch of pinkish juice the next morning to get to the second hide, thankfully still in a garbage bag.  Jana swept the liquid out to the driveway, where it mixed with standing rainwater and sawdust to form a slurry of biomass that I can compare to nothing else in odor or appearance.  The salted skins release moisture quickly and in surprising quantity, even after second and third applications.  With this new knowledge, and in order to spare my brother’s tools from a second dip in the au jus, we decided to move the skins to my neighbor’s covered deck before we salted the second hide.  The deck is covered, roomy, and elevated.  A tarp and bucket system contains and diverts the salty excretions.  We’ll continue periodic saltings until the hides stop weeping, and the salt stays white and crystalline when rubbed in.    Hopefully we will reach that stage before Thursday, when we’re expecting about twenty guests for Thanksgiving.  But if not, the seepage will surely discourage overeating.

Pardon a little black humor.  I take no pleasure in the death of a cow.  They are gentle creatures with soulful, sentient eyes.  If allowed, they live peaceful lives seeking only sun, shade, grass, and water.  As an omnivore in boots, however, I feel compelled to participate at least sometimes in the unpleasant aspects of the life and death agreement we make with livestock animals, our partners in evolution.   To honor their sacrifice, we must do the dirty work.  And this is dirty work.  In fact, taking on such a large scale project that filled my hands, nostrils, and brain with bloody meat for most of four days gave me some insight on a meat industry implication I hadn’t much pondered.  What is the psychic effect of constant immersion in gore and death?  Who performs this work?  Should this be anyone’s full-time job?  Like so many dirty, dangerous and undesirable jobs in our country, slaughterhouse and tanning work is done by immigrants and poor people with few options and little recourse for injury and exploitation.  In India, caste-less untouchables slosh through toxic tanning chemicals and slice off fingers on the dis-assembly lines that are subject to no safety standards because their workers are entitled to no protections.   Their plight is worse only by degrees than that of other marginalized people worldwide who deal with death, refuse, and excrement.  Labor unions, inspection systems, and international trade agreements can deal with health and safety issues.  But does outsourcing all contact with death violate less obvious human rights?  When killing and dismembering  are a mere job, a purely physical act devoid of ritual and reverence, for some to perform in degrading drudgery while others remove themselves from it, we are all robbed of an elemental existential experience:  meaningful confrontation with death.  We commit a spiritual oppression, causing either traumatic overexposure to or infantile denial of mortality.

The people doing this work are feeding our collective prodigious appetite for meat, without which it is unlikely we would have come this far as a species.  But if we had to produce our own meat, how much of it would we eat?  How much of it would we want to eat?  Raising it  takes work, water, land and time.  Killing for it requires looking death in the eye.  Cutting it apart forces contemplation of the eventual fate of our own mortal remains.   When we eat the meat, when we wear the skin, we literally assimilate the animal that gave it’s life to us.  We consume it’s flesh and assume it’s shape.   This is a sacred communion lost to many, but not to all.   Most of us are unlikely to stop eating meat completely or to begin raising and harvesting all we consume.  But when we divorce ourselves from death completely,  we lose.  We remain as children.  We live blindly, fearing death, ignoring social, economic and spiritual consequences of our most basic consumption–food.

Unfortunately, Saturday was a long-planned steak night.  Feeling uncertain, I toasted to cows, and after a glass of Spanish red I was able to enjoy the smell of a NY strip searing in cast iron.  But I am eating less meat remembering the innard immersion of the past week, which is right and good.  The first heavy, wet slap of the bloody hide on the plywood sent a quiver through my guts as we unfolded it.  My nostrils involuntarily twitched when the smell hit.  The knife in my hand was less than steady on the first few passes, as it is everytime I face the animals that have died for me.  But I would not want to lose this visceral reaction, to become too accustomed to death.  Nor would I feel completely alive without sometimes standing before it with a knife in my hand, renewing the bargain, feeling humble and sorry and grateful.

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Comment by Mr WordPress

I remember slaughtering a couple of pigs and cows with my father when I was young. We had a house in Largo Florida where we grew all kinds of food and had some livestock. I remember seeing a pig hang for the first time over the tub draining the blood into large buckets. I have skinned deer, rabbit, snake and squirrel in my older years. I say this to explain my experiences and to qualify my perspective. It was not spiritual for me, it wasn’t as desensitizing as I perceive your statements to be. I still get teary eyed when I see a dog hit, a horse hurt or any animal harmed in an unjust way. I am no less sensitive to all these things. The lessons of using my hands and performing the act of skinning a full size deer didn’t make me squeamish or think this was Bambie. I was fulfilling a different side of my humanity. One which was not disrespectful of the animal just killed, but the one where I had earned my keep to a portion of food. All the participating parties took their portion home to feed their families. We hunted, we killed, we cleaned and we ate. It is as simple as that. If I come upon a wild animal today, I am as gentle as I would be with a child. I ponder there majestic beauty and thing, “wow, how awesome creatures are”. I worm hunt with my three year old and teach him he has to put them back in the ground or they will die. I believe in the stewardship responsibility of all men. The evolution of man doesn’t remove the need of substance or the desire to provide though. I see it as taking dominion of the land. You plant or feed, you harvest or fatten, you reap or prepare, you give thanks for the bounty and you eat. This cycle will continue. When it doesn’t we will not need to be concerned about how far we have or haven’t come. We will cease to exist.

I know there are foreign slaughtered meats in our markets, but I try to buy local or at least meats from the US. We have several farms around here that do have grass fed herds. I have a tougher time with the meats density but the taste is much better. We prefer the healthier leaner beef or bison. Several of the larger grocer chains buy local as well. I think you may be surprised how much meat is provide by local or US slaughterhouses. I have worked for people that order or provide the meats and they buy as much as possible from the US. There are a lot of imported chicken though, sounds funny but it is CHINESE Chicken. We have found 4 stores that use local “free range” farms from the US. I say “free range” because they are not truly wandering completely free. I call it “LARGE” outdoor coup chickens.

I am not sure where my rambling is going. but I think it has to do with the difference in the spiritual connection to your food and food being substance for your well being. I look at it more as substance. Nutritional value, protein and so on. Having killed the animals and cleaned them does keep me ever mindful of waist though. We go as far as to make our own stalk from all the bones and we can it for later. I mean all our bones. We have beef, pork and chicken stalk. Probably 100 or so 1 quart jars. There is SOOOOO much nurturance in the bones and cartilage. It is time consuming but my wife has it down to an art. Since we have been eating this way I feel much healthier. Again, the substance part is the focus.

I will admit there are several people that are ignorant on what has to happen for them to have a steak, but this doesn’t give me any right to judge their lack of spiritual to their food. Even in older times trades were exchanged for meat. Not everyone participated in the slaughter. I think the biggest issue dealing with all of our food is the waist which I am not sure what or who to place full responsibility on. We live in an age when it isn’t just population we contend with, but the over prepared products that get thrown out or hidden in some obscure store when they are out of date. I read somewhere over 27% of processed fish products in stores go to waist. Think about how that has effected the natural population of fish. I think if we did have a more of a local connection to our food we would at least see the need not to waist.

Anyways, thank you for the blog and I will continue to read.

Jacob

Comment by TechyJake

My wordpress is flipping out. I posted and now it is gone? I will Try it again.

I remember slaughtering a couple of pigs and cows with my father when I was young. We had a house in Largo Florida where we grew all kinds of food and had some livestock. I remember seeing a pig hang for the first time over the tub draining the blood into large buckets. I have skinned deer, rabbit, snake and squirrel in my older years. I say this to explain my experiences and to qualify my perspective. It was not spiritual for me, it wasn’t as desensitizing as I perceive your statements to be. I still get teary eyed when I see a dog hit, a horse hurt or any animal harmed in an unjust way. I am no less sensitive to all these things. The lessons of using my hands and performing the act of skinning a full size deer didn’t make me squeamish or think this was Bambie. I was fulfilling a different side of my humanity. One which was not disrespectful of the animal just killed, but the one where I had earned my keep to a portion of food. All the participating parties took their portion home to feed their families. We hunted, we killed, we cleaned and we ate. It is as simple as that. If I come upon a wild animal today, I am as gentle as I would be with a child. I ponder there majestic beauty and thing, “wow, how awesome creatures are”. I worm hunt with my three year old and teach him he has to put them back in the ground or they will die. I believe in the stewardship responsibility of all men. The evolution of man doesn’t remove the need of substance or the desire to provide though. I see it as taking dominion of the land. You plant or feed, you harvest or fatten, you reap or prepare, you give thanks for the bounty and you eat. This cycle will continue. When it doesn’t we will not need to be concerned about how far we have or haven’t come. We will cease to exist.

I know there are foreign slaughtered meats in our markets, but I try to buy local or at least meats from the US. We have several farms around here that do have grass fed herds. I have a tougher time with the meats density but the taste is much better. We prefer the healthier leaner beef or bison. Several of the larger grocer chains buy local as well. I think you may be surprised how much meat is provide by local or US slaughterhouses. I have worked for people that order or provide the meats and they buy as much as possible from the US. There are a lot of imported chicken though, sounds funny but it is CHINESE Chicken. We have found 4 stores that use local “free range” farms from the US. I say “free range” because they are not truly wandering completely free. I call it “LARGE” outdoor coup chickens.

I am not sure where my rambling is going. but I think it has to do with the difference in the spiritual connection to your food and food being substance for your well being. I look at it more as substance. Nutritional value, protein and so on. Having killed the animals and cleaned them does keep me ever mindful of waist though. We go as far as to make our own stalk from all the bones and we can it for later. I mean all our bones. We have beef, pork and chicken stalk. Probably 100 or so 1 quart jars. There is SOOOOO much nurturance in the bones and cartilage. It is time consuming but my wife has it down to an art. Since we have been eating this way I feel much healthier. Again, the substance part is the focus.

I will admit there are several people that are ignorant on what has to happen for them to have a steak, but this doesn’t give me any right to judge their lack of spiritual to their food. Even in older times trades were exchanged for meat. Not everyone participated in the slaughter. I think the biggest issue dealing with all of our food is the waist which I am not sure what or who to place full responsibility on. We live in an age when it isn’t just population we contend with, but the over prepared products that get thrown out or hidden in some obscure store when they are out of date. I read somewhere over 27% of processed fish products in stores go to waist. Think about how that has effected the natural population of fish. I think if we did have a more of a local connection to our food we would at least see the need not to waist.

Anyways, thank you for the blog and I will continue to read.

Jacob

Comment by techyjacob

Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Jacob. I don’t think our perspectives are very different. I undertook these hides because I wanted the leather. I kill chickens and rabbits because I want to eat them, and I take the occasional shot at a deer for the same reason (though I confess to being a terrible shot). Food is sustenance. But it is more, too, whether we recognize it or not. To a parent feeding a child, food is love. In stressed or lonely times, food is often comfort. On days of feast and thanks, food is celebration. But always, food is connection to the cycle of life and death. We need not contemplate this with every bite, but taking occasion to acknowledge the sacrifices that make our lives possible is a universal human practice. There are monks that practice mindfulness with each mouthful of food for their entire lifetimes. Many indiginous peoples honor and thank each animal that they kill. Many of us pray each night before dinner. But these days most of us reserve those moments of meditation for occasional rituals like…… well, like the one that’s happening tomorrow. My favorite holiday! On Thanksgiving we give thanks for abundance and for the continued life and health of those we love. These things are intrinsically connected. Without food there is no life and health. Without death there is no life and health. And while we may not usually say it overtly in the blessing before we carve the turkey, this knowledge is at the heart of the gratitude we feel.

I hope I didn’t imply judgement of those who have no hand in killing for their food. I do think it’s an elemental human experience and that anyone who eats meat should perform the act from start to finish at least once. We would perhaps not be so cavalier in wasting valuable, nutritious bones and organs. I like what you said about waste. Scraping the huge hides, performing such a repetitive part of the process for so many days in a row, really got me thinking about and sympathizing with the people who do this kind of work day after day, week after week, in industrial settings. They see too much death disconnected from the life it gives and allow the rest of us to think very little about any of it. In my mind that is a loss for everyone. Slaughtering, gutting, plucking, skinning….dealing with blood and carcass in no way desensitizes me (though I do like to spin a yarn, and a little humor can be found in most any situation). Quite the opposite. I do it to remain sensitive, and I always emerge from these experiences feeling more reverence and gratitude for all life, including my own.

Comment by lifeaswemakeit

Wow. I called it quits at the drainage part. This is not great reading for the queasy. That said, I just LOVE the way you write! Today I’d like to weave in the phrase “slimy integument” into conversation.

Comment by mentalweather

Nice work Ivy. Really like your point of view. Been thinking about this stuff alot. Recently read fast food nation. living in Texas where food politics is an unheard of concept ( cheapest=best). Soon I may have to kill a rooster or two ( either that or our cleaning staff will sell them into cock fighting . . . which is huge here). I think Id rather eat them. You have the best stories. keep them coming. Love ya.

Comment by Jessi

comment?

Comment by lifeaswemakeit

LOL! I hear ya. Sorry!

Comment by TechyJake

Ivy
I love my ulu knife. I use it all the time for chopping. Never tanned hides so will have to remember your expeirence and my knife.
I am on my way to butcher deer with my hubbys family. Its deer season in Ohio. 2 days of hunting have only gotten 1 deer so far. Cound be an easy season this year. Of course I remember that last year they took 4 deer on the last day.
Blood and guts here I come.

Comment by Allison

you forgot the most important part. who was it who found it on craigslist? mikiel, that’s who!

oh-yeah, update. the yeldin’s are out of the garage thus making it less “ork-breathy”.

Comment by mikiel

Ork-breathy. That is a perfect description of the smell. And props to you Mikiel for scouting the CL. I’m surprised, however, that you couldn’t find some way to use all that fat. Soup? Sweet and sour? By the way, we were discussing how good your turkey was last night. You should open a bbq shack. Food cart or something.

Comment by lifeaswemakeit

Fantastic writing. And you are a brave and thoughtful person indeed.

Thanks to Malady for sending me. I’ll be back for more of your unique perspective.

Comment by IB

(no pun intended but…) You’ve given me great food for thought, Ivy! Thanks!

Comment by Mary MacVoy

Very interesting read, good writing. I was directed by Malady to your posts and I’m glad I did.

Comment by Ellie Belen

Thanks! I’m getting this figured out and trying to post a little more frequently, so I hope you’ll keep reading….

Comment by lifeaswemakeit

Wow,that takes guts. Write on Ivy. Your proud dad.

Comment by Dad




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