Sunday, November 23, 2008

Honor thy meat

At this time of the year, we’re approaching harvest of the lamb crop. I don’t like to use that euphemism for slaughter, but it is becoming more and more common as civilians try to reconnect with their food supplies – an effort that I try to support with all my energy. If a little bit of euphemism is needed to blur the line of sight between the conscience and the appetite, so be it. (That clever turn of phrase is from Maxine Kumin’s poem, Taking the Lambs to Market, published in her 1992 book, Looking for Luck.)

When I started this business, most of my lamb customers were older than me. They were remembering what lamb was like when their parents or grandparents kept sheep when they were kids. While many of those folks are still with me, more and more, I’m finding that my new customers younger than me. Not just because I’m getting older, but because young families are starting to feel that they need a better connection to their food supply than an array of Styrofoam trays in the meat department at their local supermarket.

But they’re still not 100 percent comfortable with the fact that they’re eating an animal that was once alive, and buying it from someone that had a personal relationship with it. Here are some common questions from people who are negotiating this road:

Q: “How do you eat meat from animals you knew?”
A: “I don’t like to eat meat from an animal I didn’t know!”

Q: “How can you slaughter those sweet lambs?”
A: “Precisely because they are so sweet. And juicy, and nutty, and …”

Q: “Don’t you feel bad when you take them to the butcher?”
A: “No. I feel pride in a job well done. I feel thankful for the lambs, the ewes and rams that produced them, the sun and the wind and rain and minerals in the soil and all the other millions of things that have come together – yet again – to put high quality protein from happy, healthy animals in your freezer.”

What always strikes me as odd is the fact that most of these people have fewer questions about the meat displayed so tidily in the back of the supermarket than they do about my lamb. They are faced with the choice of mindlessly picking up a package of steaks at Price Chopper or thinking with me about how they want a whole lamb carcass cut up. Sure, the Price Chopper thing is easier on lots of levels – less planning, it’s ready to cook tonight – but even the ones who know the production system that produced that steak seem to be able to turn off that part of their brains long enough to get the stuff cooked and eaten.

My lambs live a very good life that ends very quickly. The feedlot steer that produced those steaks at Price Chopper probably lived a life where slaughter would be a relief of suffering rather than the quick end to a good life.

But still, in a time when people have lost touch with their food, I suppose that if it helps to talk about harvest rather than slaughter, processing rather than butchering, and schedules rather than kill dates, it’s a small price for me to pay. It’s interesting how many people who start out worried about being responsible for the death of a cute and happy lamb end up being lamb customers. You can almost see the change in their body language when they make the decision to overcome their squeamishness and place the order.

I don’t ever want to give the impression that I take slaughter lightly. When I hand over my lambs to the care and custody of the place that will end their lives, I do everything I can to ensure that the end will be quick and painless as possible and involve as little fear and stress as possible. There are good food science reasons for doing this: meat from frightened animals can be tough and taste off. But that’s not why I take the care I do. It’s because these are my lambs. They’re good sheep. They’ve done all that I’ve asked of them. There’s no way I’m going to let the last day of their lives be any worse than it has to be.


  1. My husband and I have raised pigs for the past two years. The first year we kept them on our farm. It was great feeding them, knowing what they ate, that they were happy, that they loved getting out and running in with the horses. My In-laws loved to come feed them but when it came time to eat them, the refused. They could not eat it because they knew them. They would rather, go to the store and by the packaged meat - just like you said! I will eat our pigs, and our chicken eggs. I will eat venison. I refuse to eat any meat from commercial slaughter. I don't think I have ever had lamb.

  2. You should try it, Beth. It's yummy!

    I wish I could say I refuse to eat commercial meat, but I can't. I eat very little, but I do eat some.

  3. Hi Bill,
    I have 2, possibly 3 lambs that I have ear marked for "harvest" right now that we'll be doing over the Thanksgiving Holiday. I have no problem eating them, its the harvesting that bothers me the most. DH will do the duty in the most humane and least stressful way possible, as I have been very firm about that factor and he not only sympathizes, but understands the reasoning as well. I do look forward to eating what I have produced, but mine is such a small flock, that I know these sheep intimatly, and still it is difficult to deal with the loss of the individual personality. I feel a sense of greif like loss afterwards. But I do feel the same way as you have described, I feel pride in a job well done. I feel thankful for the lambs, the ewes and rams that produced them, the sun and the wind and rain and minerals in the soil and all the other millions of things that have come together – yet again – to put high quality protein from happy, healthy animals in my freezer. Thank you for putting that so eloquently for me to remember at this time, so close to the harvest.

  4. Hi Darci,

    Enjoy those lambs, both before and after harvest.