Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Meeting One's Meat

I am the cmty btucher. While others do it also, I do it most. 

Yesterday morning, Gigi and I cut up the final deer of the season, providing one last chance to get acquainted with next year's roasts and hamburger. I had missed most of this year's harvest because I'd been traveling Oct 15-Dec 7, and was glad for this opportunity to have my hands on our meat.
(Northeast Missouri has proven to be a so-so habitat for people and excellent habitat for deer. During Sandhill's one-third century tenure in the area, the human population has been in steady decline while the deer population has been on this rise. Though the hunting season definitely endangers the deer in this part of the state, there is no danger of running out of them.)
Like most of us at Sandhill, I'm an omnivore. Because we are a homesteading cmty, we do all we can to raise our own omnis. That is, we try to have the same up-close-and-personal relationship with our meat that we do with our grains & vegetables. We also place a high value on a healthy diet and being environmentally sensitive about what we eat. Both of these values have led us to a low-meat diet (at least by US standards)—we serve meat perhaps once or twice a week; more in the winter, less in the summer.
While I have no interest in hunting, I enjoy butchering. It's a ritual for me, honoring the animal that will be sustaining me and my family. In addition to deer, I've butchered steers, pigs, goats, and all manner of poultry and fish. Regardless of the species, there is always reverence for me when taking a life and I consider it a sacred trust to make the fullest use of the animal. For me, time in the kitchen with a carcass is akin to time in church.
While many people I know are squeamish about the idea of butchering, or having a personal relationship with with one's food (how can you eat your friend or pet?!), I was influenced in this regard by Robert Heinlein's classic novel Stranger in a Strange Land, which included the extraterrestrial concept of ritually drinking the fluids of the dearly departed. This was a way—literally—of having some of them inside you and of honoring the relationship. That turned my conditioning inside out and helped me down the path to where I am today—wanting to know my food as fully as possible.
Yesterday there was the added pleasure of passing on to Gigi some of the art of butchering: which muscles are too tough for anything but ground meat; where to look for the glands buried in the fat which imparts an off-taste to the meat if not excised; how to muscle bone a leg roast; the value of cutting bones in half to expose the marrow before consigning them to the stock pot; how to fillet out the major tendons so the ground meat won't be so sinewy; how to hand sharpen the blade on the meat grinder; how to wrap the meat for an airtight seal that will retard freezer burn; the secret of not using water to remove stray hairs from the meat. There's a lot to it.
Cutting up in the kitchen brought back fond memories of the year before, when I was home for the entire season and I worked up seven deer and two pigs with the help of my two adult children, Ceilee & Jo. Working with food is a bonding experience for us, and that's especially true when we butcher together. In addition to the regular cuts, we also prepared varieties of sausage and jerky, and specialty items with particular menus in mind (corned deer leg for a wedding dinner, crown rib roasts for holiday meals, sirloin cubes for grilled shish-kabobs or stroganoff).
Growing up on a farm that emphasized self-sufficiency, my kids learned skills that were altogether different than I learned in the suburbs of Chicago. This was highlighted for me two years ago when Jo was in culinary school in San Francisco and it came time for the butchering intensive. When word got out about Jo's background, for some of the techniques the chefs wandered over to watch how Jo did it, so they could learn from her.
A proud papa moment.

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