Freedom’s Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose

I wasn’t in Portugal — but I have seen a freshly dead pig. So has Tony Bourdain, it turns out. I’m reading A Cook’s Tour. When I’m finished, I’ll write a kicked back, going over the whole of it review, but right now, I’m struck with the opening. For the first time, at a family get-together on his boss’s farm, he watches his dinner die.

He slows down for it. If you’ve ever seen or read Tony, you know he delights in innards, butcher’s blocks and adrenaline. Here’s a guy who once tore headlong down a mined jungle road toward a stronghold of the Khmer Rouge. He can anatomize a pig as easily as peeling a carrot. And yet a jovial working day on a Portugese farm knocks the sarcasm out of him.

He’s just kicked off the pilgrimage, and he’s in the hazy morningtime, still blinking around at the grass and shingles and beams and mountains that are impossibly not on the same ground he stood on yesterday. Hot soup sets him dreaming. Two locals gear up with a trestle and a knife and some of last season’s homemade wine (probably in an old milk jug). They wrestle with the pig as their wives wrestle with the stove.

The whole day feels like a family reunion, like a Sunday when your parents roused you out to help rake the yard. They work together, they drink a lot, they eat large meals, they play ball in the yard. My grandfather built a cabin on weekends like that and recorded how much gin it took. Tony enjoys it… and he has a hard time with it. He doesn’t like hearing that pig scream. He doesn’t like how little the family reacts to it.

I’m glad he has a hard time with it, because he takes time over it. The family language, the roughness of the shed walls, the tang of the rough wine and the shouts of the kids kicking the inflated bladder around, the feeling of full stomache and aching arms and camaraderie, come through gently and fully. He’s a writer who rushes a lot, from one high to the next, and as vivid as that can be, it’s good to feel and smell this new place.

But — though his respect for these people is tangible — still I wanted to shout at him that their efficiency is not unfeeling. If you hang around a farm much, you will walk into the barn one morning and find a white piglet hanging by its neck from the rafter, and if you’re a farm kid, what you will remember with surprise is that it has such thick hair. You’ll see the discharge of a dying cow and, if you’re me, you’ll write her an awkward lament in your head, and say it aloud as the bucket tractor caries her off, and feel glad she died quietly on the grass. You’ll walk up the driveway before Thanksgiving and see the axe still leaning against a folding table, and a white bucket splashed with blood, the day the capons are due to be dispatched.

And you will know that the farmer is gentle. You will know that his cattle rub their heads against him at the fence. And you will know how many hours he has spent growing and cutting and stacking their feed, breaking the ice in their water buckets, kneeling on frozen ground hauling early calves into the world, warming abandoned lambs by the wood stove. He has the guts to hold their lives.

Wringing a chicken’s neck is not cruel. Cruelty is inflicting unnecessary pain and enjoying it. A man who looks his dinner in the eye before he beheads it, and cleans it afterwards with quiet skill, is not delighting in death. We take life for every meal we eat. I can understand the argument for vegetarianism in terms of efficiency: it takes more grain to feed a cow until butchering time than it takes to feed the people who will eat the cow. But I do not understand it on a moral scale, not because I do not value other lives, but because I value them all. Why should a a cow mean more than a cowslip, or I mean more than either?

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2 Responses to “Freedom’s Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose”

  1. Dave Says:

    We used a hatchet, crooning, and hypnotism. And held the decapitated bodies behind the blade of a road-scrapper until they finished thrashing. Never once did we let them run around, chickens without a head, for our idle amusement. It was grim work. Only the bantams were smart enough to know what was coming, and resist all efforts at pacification. Unfortunately, they were also the best tasting.

  2. rbarenblat Says:

    There’s great description of what it’s like to kill chickens in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma — in the excellent section of the book describing his stint on an organic farm run by a crotchety Christian who stewards his land like most farmers can only dream of doing. Also the section in which he hunts and kills the wild boar is pretty terrific.

    The folks at The Jew and the Carrot have been posting periodically about their intention to shacht (ritually slaughter) a goat at an upcoming food conference. Also interesting is this post on becoming a shochet.

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