CAUTION: This post is not for the faint of heart.
Do you think you can stomach watching the death of an animal? The exact moment in which life escapes the body.
Hearing its desperate cry?
Smelling its fresh blood?
Plucking its feathers or shaving its hair?
I surely don’t. (Hell, I‘ve been working tirelessly on converting to veganism because of that, but being vegan in itself is problematic — that’s a whole other conversation for another time, though). And I bet many other people wouldn’t want to see their food murdered before their eyes either. That’s exactly the issue at hand: the disconnect between us, humans, and our food.
I distinctively remember my grandfather roasting his own sheep at dozens of family gatherings back in the day, but somehow I always seemed to missed the main event: the sacrifice of the animal that’s meant to fill our bellies. Likely to protect my innocence, my family never let me experience the gruesome slaughter of an animal. (But the infamous plastic bucket filled with two veiny blue-grayish balls hidden away to scare the kids actually scarred me.)
With the rise of butcher shops and slaughter houses, the average human is given the option to turn a blind eye to the bloody processes that transform a living being into an object for consumption. Too often, we refuse to acknowledge what has to happen for food to reach our plates and fancy packaging is purposely designed to trick us into ignoring these stories.
Sure, groceries and butcher shops display signs with the names and locations of farms to make you feel closer to your food, but have you ever done further research on these sources or visited their land? After this week’s farm visits, I can confidently say this:
Knowing where the animal lived, walking in the space where it pastured, seeing what it ate, learning how it was slaughtered and understanding the art of butchery lends you deeper appreciation for what’s on your plate.
After discovering the difficulties in caring for her own compost, Fabrizia Lanza, owner of the Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School, decided to invest in livestock. To dispose of the kitchen’s food scraps in a more sustainable manner, she fed organic waste to her new pigs: Pina and Pasquale (who were named by popular vote on Instagram). Both had a purpose: Pina, the female, needed to reproduce and Pasquale, the male, was perfect for feeding. So, three months before his expected death day, dried fava beans and legumes were added to his diet to fatten him up for a feast — our feast, to be precise.
Although pigs can live until 13 years of age, most are slaughtered as soon as they pass 100 pounds. Pasquale’s life ended just one month short of a year.
When the team informed us of “Butchery Week” and explained that we’d spend an entire day butchering Pasquale, I felt puke sitting at the tip of my throat. Would he squeal? How would it smell? Would I be able to stay in the room? Would I ever eat meat again — or would this be it for good? I tried my best not to think too much about it. I was extremely curious, but also scared shitless.
On the morning of the butchery class, I brave walking into the kitchen. There he is, hanging from the ceiling. Pasquale (although it could be any other pig at this point — nothing defines him anymore).
Two pastel-coloured towels spotted with cartoon owls sit about a foot apart, wrapped around one of the roof’s wooden beams. This softens the tension from a double-knotted rope securing a metal hook that’s keeping the two halves of a now-smooth-and-hairless Pasquale dangling in the center of the room. A deconstructed cardboard box protects the floor from any proof of suspicious activities and the stainless-steel counters are sparkling, adorned with ten blades ranging from a small pairing knife to a machete. It’s so quiet you can hear a pin drop.
To my relief — but also to my disappointment — Pasquale’s slaughter took place a few days prior to allow his blood to drain thoroughly. We didn’t experience the saw dividing his carcass into two parts, nor the removal of his guts (heart, lungs, liver, bladder, etc). This show is fully PG13. And again, the most hideous bits of Pasquale’s sacrifice, like that of so many other animals, were performed behind closed doors. But having said that, I was fortunate enough to marvel at a master butcher quickly, yet delicately, process pork meat.
From nose to tail, Emanuele Cottone and his nephew Salvatore, nicknamed “Toto”, spend 12 hours on their feet walking more than a dozen students through all the different cuts (guanciale, pancetta, prosciutto, spalla, sottofiletto), how to identify them and their best uses in the kitchen. Hailing from Antica Macelleria Salumeria Emanuele Cottone — arguably the best butcher shop in Palermo known for its hand-sliced salami — the Cottone family serves as protectors of this precious, artisanal practice.
Born into the butchery business, Emanuele is a fifth generation butcher. Precise and careful. Logical and methodological. Years of knowledge are used to guide his hands while Toto watches meticulously, accepting that the future of the shop lays on his shoulders. Every move is choreographed — he dances with the knife, forcefully with finesse. Switching the blade depending on what he tackles next. Slicing through fat is the most satisfying; slabs just melt away from each other. Pasquale is naked. Flesh-on-flesh. This intimate session suddenly seems sexy.
This is not something you learn in a book but the type of wisdom that is passed down from one generation to the next.
Ancient techniques are all about touch and detailed repetition. It takes experience to understand which fat is used for what: the soft internal fat is rendered for the lardo (lard) but “fatback”, hard fat from the back of a pig, is chopped and mixed into the salsiccia fresca (fresh sausage). The meat for sausage and salami is pretty much the same: scraps seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic powder and fennel seeds. To disperse flavors evenly, you massage the meat, bringing all the bits together. To my surprise, eating raw pork is totally ok, so to test it, Cottone separates tiny piles of meat, drizzles olive oil on top and offers a sample over a slice of sourdough — like tartare.
Once it receives everyone’s stamp of approval, he charges his fist and pounds down on the chunks to soften the fibers. Strictly relying on touch, he decides when it’s ready to be transferred to the “sausage gun”, where it’s strategically stuffed into silky strings of small and large intestines. Now, we dance. Wrap your hand around the casing; open your hand when you’re ready to begin filling and make a fist to mark the end of each link. Open, close; open, close.
To tie them off, you need butcher’s twine, really strong fingers and rhythm. Cottone polishes off an entire string of links in just two minutes, dancing again: pinch, over, under and through. Turn. Pinch, over, under and through.
He steps onto a ladder and proudly hangs sausage and salami necklaces on the hooks that were once meant for the carcasses. It’s now a trophy display of sorts.
Cottone arrived at 7 a.m. It’s now 1 p.m. and we’re only halfway there. The remaining trimmings along with few prime cuts are tossed into an oversized pot. We’re making ragu for lunch — Palermitan-style. It simmers away while we work on the other half of Pasquale’s body. We practice our dance routines, hoping to perfect every step.
We take a short break for a late lunch — obviously fitting in the four courses of a proper Italian meal: mains (today’s special: ragu and blood sausage), salad (Enza’s beloved mix of wild greens with fennel from the farm), dessert (coffee Jell-O with sheep’s milk ice cream) and coffee/tea.
We wrap up our butchery lesson around 7 p.m.; twelve hours later. I hardly lifted a finger, yet I feel physically, mentally and emotionally drained after watching the greatest show of all time. This was equivalent to experiencing the butter sculptures at the state fair — you’re sitting in suspense, anticipating the next step and gaping in silence over the Cottone’s tender ninja skills. Not a single piece of meat went to waste. It was simply beautiful.
I thought this experience would turn me off of meat indefinitely, but it had the opposite effect: I developed a newfound appreciation for the entire process — farm all the way to fork.
So you might be asking yourself, “Is it possible to eat meat responsibly and sustainably in today’s world?”
Long story short, yes.
But nowadays, the demand for proteins is so high that industrial meat and dairy farms turn to inhumane and cruel practices to efficiently fulfill orders from supermarkets and restaurants, all while depleting our natural resources. And the amount of protein we’re “told” should fill our plates is fueled by greedy corporations and nutrition panels whose politics are in a twist.
You can only begin to understand the outcomes of your choices after discovering the differences between industrial and small-scale practices. Overconsumption of meat is directly linked to cancer, heart disease, obesity, stroke, and other degenerative diseases. But not all consumption is bad. We should be eating less meat of better quality.
Although the Cottone family doesn’t raise their own animals, they work very closely with farmers to choose and specify the breeds and conditions of their meat. Emanuele knows the history of each breed and the practices of each region on the island.
I’m not perfect. I only very rarely eat meat on occasion and when I do, it’s always grass-fed or organic. But I don’t know where the restaurants I love source their meat from. When the production of our food becomes invisible to us, we lose our connection to the very thing that sustains us, and to nature.
There is only beauty in eating meat when you recognize the animal, make a connection to it, and find gratitude for its sacrifice.
Today’s Lesson: Eat meat with understanding, gratitude and connection.
Here are the main reasons (among others) why I attempted to go vegan last year:
- In Trinidad, where I was born and raised, almost 90% of all our food is imported. We are anything but self-sufficient, which means our food supply strictly depends on the political, economic and social stability of other countries. God forbid, but what happens if another World War breaks out?
- I’m so completely removed from the farm that raised the animal because it must travel by boat or plane to reach our shores (helloooo, this too is problematic). Where did the animal live? What was the animal fed? How was it slaughtered? I don’t know and I’m sure the vendors on our island don’t even have exact details either.
- The rise of industrial production brought about unfriendly factory farming methods, inclusive of confined spaces and the excessive use of antibiotics, and the increase of carbon emissions. (If you’re interested in learning more, watch the Netflix documentary Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret.)
- Countrysides suffer a massive loss of biodiversity as they’re turned into agricultural land to grow animal feed. The draining of rivers and lakes to irrigate land that’s used to grow corn and other grain is depleting the world’s water resources.