Chris “Mac” McKenzie first started his business, Mac’s Local Buys, to find good food for himself and his family. These days, he has a far-flung network of Missouri and Illinois farmers, who supply him with everything from berries to eggs to beef, which he then offers to a growing audience of buyers.
Distributing both to local restaurants and those buying into his seasonal CSA programs, McKenzie has a relationship with farmers and growers across the bi-state area, including Kenny Meyer of tiny Zell, Missouri, in Ste. Genevieve County. There, Meyer and his brother Keith tend to their family’s farm, which dates back generations.
While Meyer raises hogs, he doesn’t kill them. On the day of our visit, he was delivering a handful of hogs to M&M Meats in nearby Perryville, Missouri, for processing.
Two neighboring brothers came over for the kill: Tom and Mike Thomure, lifelong Ste. Genevieve residents, one more colorful than the next. Asked when he first killed a hog, Tom Thomure replied, “when I was old enough to walk.” This didn’t seem an exaggeration.
Earlier this year, I’d said goodbye to my mostly vegan tendencies – with the caveat that I’d only eat meat if I was involved in its killing. So I wasn’t sure how this would fit into my Ax to Table Experiment: The actual kill was going to be handled by the Thomure brothers.
This caused some issues in terms of approach and food ethics to my mind, which we’ll explore below.
The Date: March 10
The Background: Though the Meyer family’s land is located within eyeshot of I-55, you need a couple of muddy side roads to take you there; the rough, sloppy terrain and late-winter snows caused McKenzie and Meyer to delay two trips to the Meyer Hog Farm in previous weeks, before a rainy, cool Tuesday finally allowed for a visit. In addition to myself, Meyer invited Bob Brazell, founder of the much-anticipated chicken-and-beer restaurant, Byrd & Barrel, along with Brazell’s sometimes-associate Ryan McDonald, head butcher at Truffles in Ladue.
The Kill: After driving home back for supplies, Tom Thomure strode up a hill to the holding pen, hopped a fence, pointed a .22 at the nesting Berkshire hog and executed a single kill shot with remarkable confidence. Aim, pause, gunshot. As the hog flipped about in his death throes, Thomure applied a wader boot to the animal, attempting to calm the thrashing, as the dead hog’s muscles fired. (A “stress kill” like this is frowned upon by butchers, as blood enters the meat’s grain when an animal is under duress in its last seconds. For this hog, that happened a bit, and the meat that was tinged by blood went “into the grind pile,” for sausage and links.)
The Butchering: The process of disassembling the hog began quickly. After the hog is shot, it’s held down, dragged to tractor and winched up by two chains. There, the hog is “stuck” and bled before being raised by the tractor to skin. (McDonald took the blood home for blood sausage.) The animal, hanging head-down, was then stripped of its skin by both Thomures, who used an exacto knife and pair of pliers, methodically cutting and peeling the skin, until the strands resembled a mop head. While gutting the animal, all involved decided that the offals looked a bit discolored, so the heart, liver, kidneys and other offal were discarded from use. The theory was that the cold weather had affected the hog’s internal health.
The animal was sawed in half by McDonald, who then further sawed the hog into sixths for iced transport back to the city. The process took over an hour, but less than two, about the same time it took to travel to Meyer’s. All viewing the activity (Brazell the chef, McKenzie the distributor, McDonald the butcher and myself, the neophyte journalist/vegan/would-be-animal-killer-in-’15) found it a humbling experience.
The Cooking: I didn’t kill the animal, so I didn’t cook it. More below.
The Intensity Level: The process was fascinating, but not necessarily emotional, as such. As McKenzie noted during our subsequent leisurely afternoon lunch at Quincy Street Bistro (necessitated by the need to flash-cool the meat at his nearby house), the pig had lived “a great life all the way up until that day.” (In fact, he was sleeping in a hay nest he’d created for himself as we waited.) With the Thomures on-hand, the ease of the kill was assured and the stress level on all parties (the hog included) was reduced. There were moments of “oh wow” as the butchery proceeded, especially when the head was being stripped of skin, or when the offals were being dispatched, but it was clinical, overall --- even as it took place in the soupy mud of a Ste. Gen field. There was a sense that really experienced hands were handling the process in “the right way.” Which leads us to my decision to not partake in the distribution of the pork…
The Overall Experience: By any measure, Mac put together this outing for the purposes of “Ax to Table.” That particular hog died on that particular day solely thanks to my request that he arrange an experience. In the build-up to that day, he was clear that the kill wouldn’t be mine to execute, so there shouldn’t have been any doubt on my part as to how it would all go down. But once on-site, the project felt different, vastly so; my involvement was completely hands-off and observational. Though committing money for the pork and spending the better part of a day with the project, I didn’t take any pork home. Even the hog’s eyes, which I had planned on pickling, I instead wound up burying in a lettuce patch. It simply didn’t feel right to leave with totems of the day’s event.
If conflicted about the experience that day, I’m even more so now. Yes, the process was humane, but when I began this experiment, I’d envisioned being the person to take the animal’s life, all through this year.
It’s obvious now that in certain environments and with certain animals, this is absolutely not an option; I can’t imagine I’ll have the access, much less the means, to kill a cow.
Why is the kill so important? Well, it’s the extreme edge of the experiment, the furthest I can go to that edge. This particular experience, though seriously evocative, reduced and removed me to a spectator. As a practical matter, I understand that decision. But on site, in that moment, the distance felt vast; I was reduced to a consumer -- albeit one of the best meat I could possibly hope to have, in an environment dedicated to the best tenets of husbandry. I had no concerns about the process other than this: By not personally participating in the kill, had I distanced myself from the act of taking the animal’s life? It felt wrong to eat the pig under these circumstances.
Confusing to read? Well, it was confusing in my head, too. This process has taken a turn and the next steps aren’t as clear as they seemed even a few weeks back.
Feast freelancer Thomas Crone is open to interesting and unique experiences for this Ax to Table Experiment; email him at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’ve got leads.
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