A while back, I went down to New York City to visit Jake Dickson at his butcher shop, Dickson's Farmstand Meats in Chelsea Market, where about half of the pigs I raise end up.
Because I drop the pigs off at the slaughterhouse and then Jake picks them up and trucks them down to New York, I do not often have an opportunity to see firsthand how the pigs turn out, pork quality-wise, and the quality of the pork that I produce is as important to me as the way in which the pigs are raised and the effect that my farming practices have on the farm ecosystem.
Since I was interested in checking out the quality while I was at the shop, Jake thought, and I agreed, that the best way for me to do that would be for me to handle the pork directly, so I donned a white shirt and apron, hung a hand towel over my apron string, and went to work helping to break down the seven pigs I had dropped off that week into primal cuts -- loin, leg, belly, shoulder.
My job in the process was to place the cuts into cryovac bags and then set them aside for another worker to place them in the cryovac machine. The cryovacing process works such that the pork, which is sold over the course of a week, comes out of the bag in the same state of freshness that it went into it.
During the beginning of the process, while the butcher was finishing up breaking down a beef forequarter, we bagged up the pork organs -- the liver, the heart, and the tongues. When I have pigs slaughtered and cut up for myself for retail sales at the farmers market or from the farm, I will often get the organs back because there are occasionally people who ask for them. When I get them back, however, they are frozen, and well sealed in cryovac bags. At Jake's, however, I found that they were fresh and unceremoniously thrown together in a plastic bag inside a box.
When I opened the box, I saw a jumble of soft hearts and bloody tongues. I am not sure why it happened. I have no idea what it was about seeing the hearts and tongues like that -- after all, I have watched my pigs be stuck with a knife and have their blood gush out onto the floor, I have watched them skinned, have their feet cut off, and their bellies sliced open and their innards come tumbling out, I have seen them cut up into retail cuts -- but when I opened that box and saw that jumble of soft hearts and bloody tongues I was physically and emotionally overwhelmed. I felt like I had been punched in the gut. Suddenly, through unfiltered, raw emotion, I felt, quite frankly, like a cold-blooded murderer waking up to the reality of what he had done. I nearly threw up.
Of course, I couldn't let on to anyone what I was experiencing; I couldn't pause even for a moment. I am a professional, after all. I am a livestock farmer, and livestock farmers don't get overcome by the results -- the consequences -- of their profession. They just do their work. So, I clamped down, grit my teeth, and went to work without missing a beat.
The first tongue I picked up nearly buckled my knees. The tongue was dripping with a thin bloody liquid that had accumulated in the bottom of the box, and since it was fresh, it was pliable and spongy to the touch. The only indication there was that it had come from a dead pig was that its color was very pale.
With the tongue in my hand as I slowly placed it in the bag, I couldn't help picturing the pigs as they were when they were alive, the same pigs that were hanging on hooks behind me. Whose tongue was it? Was it Table Top's? Did it belong to Great White? Had that tongue only two days before been inside the mouth of She Who Hates Us? I pictured them flicking their cute, pointy, pink tongues out, lapping up bits of feed out of the trough.
"What have I done?" I asked myself as I reached down into the box and picked up another tongue to place in the bag.
I carried that question without answering it while I methodically placed the tongues in the bag and then passed it off to the person that was placing the bags in the cryovac machine. I worked silently and without making eye contact with the person with whom I was working. I was ashamed and felt stricken with guilt.
Continuing to work, I moved on to the hearts. Again, I have seen dozens of pork hearts, but never like this. The hearts were soft and heavy for their size. With the first heart in my hand, I believed I could feel it still beating.
"What have I done?" I asked myself again.
I placed the soft heart in the bag while I tried to deal with the questioning, the doubt, of my own soft heart, which was still, unlike the pigs', beating, loudly and heavily, inside of my chest. I wanted to cry, but of course I couldn't, so I clamped down again and kept at my work, placing first one and then another and another of the hearts in the bag until all of the hearts of all seven of the pigs that I had cared for for six months and then had killed were in the bag. Then I passed the bag off to be cryovaced, to have all of the air sucked out of it, to be sealed with a vacuum, which would preserve the hearts in their soft, heavy state so that they could very soon become bits and pieces of delectable, savory treats like paté.
"What have I done?"
I pushed the ends of the empty plastic bag back into the box and folded the box flaps down. I slid the box under the counter with my foot to be taken care of later and then took a step back and slowly looked around the butcher shop while I waited for us to move onto the primal cuts. I noticed the customers up at the counter, just about 10 feet away. I watched one of them coincidentally point to the pork chops, my pork chops, from my pigs, that were neatly arranged in the case on pale salmon colored butcher paper. I saw the customer, a neatly dressed young woman with short blond, wavy hair, hold up two fingers, and I heard her say, "I'll take two, please." Then I watched Jake reach into the case, pick out two pork chops and place them on the small square of butcher paper he held in one hand. Then he weighed them and wrapped them up. He handed them across the counter, and as he did so, he said, "That's the farmer right there, Bob, who raised these pigs." He pointed at me.
The woman looked over in my direction and we made eye contact. She said, "Oh, really? Wow, hi," and took a single step toward me, closing the distance between us a bit. And then she said earnestly, "Thank you so much for what you do."
I smiled as best I could and nodded to her and said, "You're welcome. It's my pleasure." She smiled back, paused for a second as if she were deciding whether to say something else, then turned and walked out of the shop.
"What have I done?" I asked myself once more as I watched her leave.
As the door slowly swung closed behind her and she disappeared into the constant stream of people that flows down the corridor of Chelsea Market, I realized that this time I had an answer to the question that had been haunting me since I opened that box. I spoke the answer silently to myself, through the memory of the soft hearts and bloody tongues -- "I have offered her, and others like her, myself included, an alternative, a way out of the industrial food system, and I have given the pigs full and rich, though admittedly short, lives free from the stress and discomfort of being crowded in pens on barren, slatted concrete floors."
I still felt discombobulated, de-centered, unsure, adrift, but I was grounding, finding my way back to confidence, to pride even, in what I do, and what I do is raise animals with compassion and care to be killed so that we can eat their meat.
More of Bob Comis' writing can be found at stonybrookfarm.wordpress.com