Tuesday, September 22, 2009

My omnivore's dilemma

Looking out at the hen house from inside
the poultry processing shed.

(The following post discusses the slaughtering of animals, in some detail. You may want to put down whatever you are eating.)

On September 8th, I followed through with a strange promise to myself. It went thusly: that, no matter what fear or trepidation I might have, I would kill - with my own hands - some of the animals I was choosing to serve for a farm to table dinner at Dog Mountain Farm, in Carnation, Washington. I asked the farmers, Cindy and David Krepky, to raise the Pekins for my 72 seat dinner and Cindy graciously agreed to teach a few of us how to slaughter, scald, pluck, and eviscerate them. The ducks were 7 weeks old, about 3 pounds each, white with yellow beaks. In the short time since they'd been in this world, they ate feed, waddled around, drank water, quacked along with their fellow ducklings, thought their duck thoughts and successfully avoided death by hawk attack or other means.

Until we walked up one warm fall morning (cue iconic gun-slinging cowboy shoot-out music).

I think my expression here says a lot. A shot of tequila
at 11 am didn't do much to ease my discomfort.

And here is where my thoughts, emotions and writing sort of gums up. I am struggling with how to express the complexity of my thoughts about how these ducks lived and then came to meet their "one bad day" at my hands, because truthfully, any words I use are rife with cliches, despite all attempts to avoid them. Frankly, I don't want to use words, yet know I must because interpretive dance would be silly and still wouldn't communicate how twisted up this experience has left me (though perhaps it might, on second thought).

The scalder is on the left. We dipped the ducks in here
for about 60 secs. to loosen their feathers. Then they went into the
"plucker" which has many rubber "fingers" that pull the feathers off.

I don't know what these ducks are capable of feeling or sensing but I would be a liar if I pretended I think animals are incapable of emotions. Anyone who owns animals as pets knows that they experience emotions (and I'm smart enough to know that just because we call them "pets" doesn't confer emotions onto them, it just makes us acutely aware of their existence).

The ducks were scared when we approached them. They were in a crate, scrambling around, attempting to get as far away from our hands as possible. They were making noises that seemed stressed. I did what any compassionate person would do and held "my" duck and stroked its feathers and seriously wondered how my compassion would allow me to go through with killing this animal.

Being in a group with 3 others helped ease some of my nerves. The macabre mood inspired much gallows humor, our laughter being matched, call and response style, by the gobbles of neighboring turkeys.

We held the ducks firmly around their wings, inverted them into a cone attached to a wall, so that their feet stuck out of the top and their heads hung below at the bottom of the cone. Cindy instructed us in how to hold their beaks firmly and locate the tiny arteries that ran on either side of the trachea. Using a small, hooked, sharp knife we punctured through the skin and severed, with a quick pull, their carotid artery. It took about 6-8 minutes for them to bleed out.

It was. really. really. really. hard.

3 really's are such a poor, insufficient and repetitive way to express myself and yet, that's all I've got, for now.

After the ducks were killed, we saturated their down with water to aid in removing their feathers and moved into the shed to begin processing them. It was extremely hot in the tiny, confined space with the scalding tank on and the 5 of us packed in there shoulder to shoulder, feathers on the walls, blood drying on our aprons. We went about our work, dipping, plucking, gutting as Cindy patiently guided us each step of the way.

Angela Garbes, Amy Pennington, and Katie O.

And then, at some point, we were done. Angela, Amy and Katie went home and I began to break down the 40 ducks into legs and breasts, much more comfortable with the individual pieces, as familiar to me as the blood and death were unfamiliar. I cut and stacked the meat, started a stock and sharpened my knives and operated in a sort of robotic, unfeeling manner. Maybe I was in a mini version of shock, but I realized I had a big dinner to do and a lot of work in front of me and I didn't even know what I was feeling so there was no time to ponder the unknowable.

I used every last little bit in the stock that wasn't destined for another use.
Heads, feet, gizzards, heart, carcasses, necks made it in
the pot, which cooked for 8 hours.

The dinner was a huge success, a 6 course affair where the ducks were featured in every course from duck pate and smoked duck, to confit, seared breast, cracklins and stock (given to guests in small containers to take home). Oodles of generous volunteers helped me get the food to the table and pour the lovely wines from Alexandria Nicole and I am deeply grateful to all of them for their help. I'm especially appreciative of the farmers, Cindy and David Krepky, for their graciousness, generosity and hard work.

But back to those sneaky emotions, that eventually, a few days later, started to surface.

Essentially, I think it's safe to say that I feel altered by taking an animal's life for the purposes of eating it. It's messy and somewhat brutal, especially when a novice like myself, is holding the knife. In the hands of farmer Cindy, it was quicker and cleaner. I feel, on the one hand, it is what my omnivorous DNA is programmed to do. It is undeniably a very natural act for an animal to kill another animal.

And yet.

And yet part of me knows I can survive and thrive without making this choice. I don't know exactly how I will be able to reconcile in my twisted brain eating meat at all or as often in the future. Vegetarians and vegans will certainly take issue with me, and perhaps they should, but I doubt I'll go the route of cutting meat out of my diet entirely. My 10 years as a vegetarian are certainly pulling at me even as, in the week's since I killed the ducks, I've ordered chickens from Cindy and David to teach a butchering class and prepared more duck for an event at our house. I'm not sure how I would answer the question: how, after that, can you justify eating meat?

I think I need more time to think. Or to forget. And the latter thought brings up another wave of analysis.

I must admit that looking down on these gorgeous vegetables David and
Cindy grew was a nice emotional break from a day that started with blood and death.

Gorgeous pic taken by Ashlyn Forshner of the duck confit course
with farm tables in the background. Ashlyn barely had time to
snap it, busy being my sous chef for the day.

Another nice pic from Ashlyn. This course was inspired by a dish they make at
Tilikum Place Cafe. We grilled Italian chicory and served it with caramelized
grapes and pistachios with balsamic and dolce gorgonzola. On top are duck cracklins
made from rendering all the fat from the ducks.

There will be no neat conclusions to this story. Nothing is getting tied up all pretty and I suppose that's appropriate and to be expected. I'm not sure how all of this will settle out and I suppose it's ultimately a personal decision, left up to the individual to sort out. I do encourage you, though, if you are a meat-eater to consider witnessing or killing an animal yourself and draw your own conclusions, as murky and convoluted or as clear and true as they may be.

A view towards the Cascades as you approach the farm. Only thing missing
in this photo is a brown retriever named Shelby loping down the road to greet you.

A final word: Farmers teach their children not to name the animals destined for slaughter. When an alien race of carnivores that fancies an occasional human animal for lunch lands on Earth, I hope that they choose me as a pet and not a snack.

Please call me "Fluffy" from here on out. Thank you.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Mission: Sustainable

duhn duhn DA na duhn duhn DA na duhn duhn DA na
duhn duhn DA na. DA-NA-NA. DA-NA-NA. Duhn NUH!

here's this game called "I never." Most people know how to play, but for those who don't, you sit around in a room and say something (usually something fairly funny or shocking) such as: "I've never had sex with a pygmy goat from Afghanistan." If you or anyone else in the room can't honestly say that's true, you drink. If some dude you didn't invite to the party takes a sip from his drink to my particular example here, I advise you get up, place your drink down carefully, and then run screaming from the room tout de suite.

There's another game. Let's call this game, "I'd never." It's just a simple contraction "I" plus "would" along with "never" signifying the future. We all play this game in our lives.

My particular version of this game has involved sitting around having a conversation and someone says, "would you ever want to be on television?" I say, "I'd never!" which feels true, but I'm finding that if you treat life in this fashion, as if you can read all future versions of yourself and how you'll react to any circumstance with perfect accuracy, you really limit yourself. I've said this for most of my life "I'd never want to be on television." Especially now, with all of these reality shows, with all their drama and stress. I wrote about whether I'd want to be on Top Chef or not, and truthfully a lot of it came down to fear. Fear of failure. Fear of being judged. Fear of not being liked. But the biggest reason I didn't want to be on television was because I didn't feel like it was important enough to me to wade through these fears.

Until along came something different. Something so good, something much, much, bigger than little me and all my fears. Something I could get behind. Something that might land my sorry ass on television after all.

Education is my passion, and food is my muse and along came a television show concept that would allow me to reach a larger audience and teach people how to possibly make the world a slightly better place, by respecting food and who produces it and therefore the environment and community, in a way that is not the norm. The show is called Mission: Sustainable. It's produced by the charismatic and idealistic Rose Thornton. It's an idea built on a dime with an all-volunteer pilot cast of supremely fun and interesting people. Like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy meets What Not to Wear meets a little Extreme Home Makeover for a person who wants or needs a green lifestyle makeover. A show where a person's life is examined and consultants are brought in to lovingly, snarkily, teasingly, sensitively, firmly guide the person to make different choices in their lives, all the while educating the public about reducing one's carbon footprint to- excuse my cliche - make our world a better place (feel free to hum "we are the world" right now).

In short, this is a television show that I can get behind.

For more information, including cast bios and videos check this out. I'm thrilled to be working with such an amazing gaggle of talented experts and plan on looking carefully at my own life to see what changes I can make to live more lightly in my own loafers, so to speak. If anyone reading this is inspired to nominate someone for their green makeover and you live in Seattle, nominate them here. If you are inspired to volunteer along with us to get this pilot produced and then pitched to the cable networks send an email here.

Thanks to St Sandwich, Flikr photo credit

And just for the record, I'm still comfortable saying, "I'd never have sex with a pygmy goat in Afghanistan".


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