The Death of a Pig, Up Close and Personal
This story originally appeared in the Athens Banner-Herald in May 2014. Hold onto your Cheerios.
Scrubbing the dead piglet’s body with a brick proved most effective in removing its hair. Its skin had gone limp in a scalding bath, and lying there on a steel table underneath a shed roof in a Winterville backyard, human hands gloved in white powdered vinyl scraped away the young Berkshire’s black cover with the wide side of a brick.
These were experienced hands. Last time they killed a pig, they sheared with a knife. And not just any knife: chefs knives, butchers knives, professionally fine blades. But not one sharp edge could abrade like a brick. It piled up hair in mounds with each block thrust, unveiling the piglet’s ghost white hide.
But not the ears. Nothing worked on this piglet’s ears. The lawyer who purchased the little hog, weighing maybe 60 pounds before it died, the guy who paid to have it killed, gutted and cleaned for his bachelor party, would have to slow cook it without them. The lawyer had wanted the ears, just as he wanted the head and the feet (with the toenails removed) left on the body. But he wasn’t dismayed when Trey Rayburn, the Branded Butcher chef leading this piglet slaughter, gave up on rubbing the last tufts from the piglet’s middle ear and coolly sliced both ears off. The lawyer shrugged, then dumped ice into a cooler and Rayburn threw the piglet on top.
The ears, a heart and a liver — the latter two for Rayburn to cook at home — were all that remained of its body. Maybe a pig’s heart could replace a chicken’s ticker in a Bolognese recipe.
Anyway, sorry about the ears; congratulations on your wedding.
An annoyingly cold and rainy March Monday figured to be appropriate conditions to witness my first pig slaughter. People often visit farms on summer days, weeks after planting, weeks before harvest. The work is steady; busy, but not frantic. People visit chicken farms on grazing day, not ship-off-for-the-slaughterhouse day. The weather, I felt, added sufficient gravitas to an experience I expected to be revelatory for an infrequent carnivore, a flesh eater still figuring out if old vegetarian ethics had any place in my current diet.
Our culture moved animal slaughter indoors — into factories, essentially — to protect us from the stink, the blood and the pathogens. The relocation removes us from the truth behind our pork chops: a life ends to feed us. Call it precious, call it pointless, but I wanted to get closer. So I stood in the icy rain and watched. Maybe the day wouldn’t be so epiphanic. But at least one thing was certain: I came home soaked and frozen.
A slaughter like this one isn’t a frequent outing for Rayburn and his staff (a team of three from the Butcher killed this pig). Regulations prevent a pig slaughtered on-farm from being served in the restaurant. But when a friend or loyal customer, like the lawyer, wants to buy a piglet from the restaurant’s owner — who raises a drove of pigs on his land for family consumption — the kitchen crew hones its butchering skills. Despite the weather, they relished an opportunity to practice slaughtering, at the source, a food stuff often just pulled from a cooler. When I write “relish,” I mean a professional excitement, as there was nothing light or disrespectful in the way they handled the pig’s death and disemboweling. It was a somber affair. Quiet.
With a slice up the pig’s middle, a split of its pelvic bone and a bit of butcher sawing, Rayburn and his cooks removed the intestines, stomach and spleen, setting aside the liver and hearts for cooking experiments.
At this point, the event felt culinary, scientific. Only minutes earlier it seemed primal as the pig bled out. Before that, another level of brutal.
The piglet squealed within a bottomless and topless dog cage, a layover between its familial pen and whatever afterlife awaited. Obviously stressed, the piglet quieted once a handful of corn landed before its snout. I watched through my camera’s viewfinder, the shutter flapping and then pow. Smoke. The crack of the gunshot reverberating between pine bark. I saw it coming but didn’t. Once the bullet entered the piglet’s brain, I quit with the shutter.
It was almost over.
I made myself watch as close as possible, documenting each twitch, each proof of violence. I wouldn’t eat this piglet, but my witness was an attempt to honor its life, a meager redemption for all the death I’d consumed so far, a stand-in for future unspoken devotions. I wouldn’t look away.
Everyone agreed that this slaughter went smoother than last time. If that first shot misses, more bullets are necessary, or a up-close knife plunge. Nobody feels good about that.
A friend, upon viewing the photographs included here, asked if my pictures were akin to posting scenes from a murder. “Of course,” I answered. A living thing died and not by accident. We sanction its slaughter. We’ve codified its death. We snuff it out and eat it.
I witnessed this death to remind myself that consumption leaves a trail; following it tells a story about ourselves, our habits, our ethics. I know now that I am not as affected by animal slaughter as I once was — at least, when said slaughter happens honestly and viscerally, even transparently compared to shrink-wrapped loins at the supermarket.
I had figured the piglet would haunt my dreams. I wanted its death to gnaw at my conscience. But I slept fine that night and all the next ones, too.
I ordered a grilled heritage pork chop at a restaurant the day before I typed this story. Death didn’t cross my mind then, either. I sliced off bite after bite, chewing it along with arugula and tzatziki sauce. I brought the bone home to my dog.