This is the second in a series of posts on politics and food. Please forgive us if it gets a little heavy in here for the next few weeks. Your regularly scheduled programming will resume shortly.
Beliefs are based on many different factors. Some we inherit from our parents, some from our teachers and peers, and others from media. But the most lasting and powerful beliefs come from personal experiences. Sometimes the circumstances are right and these things align to make us passionate about something. This is how I became interested in food and farming. I hope that the story of my influences will help you consider why you believe the things that you believe.
It began, as many great things seem to, on the couch. Several years ago I was looking for a way to kill a few hours in front of the television, and popped in a DVD that had been collecting dust for several weeks on my bookshelf. It was a Netflix mail order disc that I’d received by accident and felt compelled to watch before sending it back for something more action-packed. It was a little documentary called Food, Inc., and it made an impression on me.
Still, I didn’t act immediately. Sure, I started “voting with my wallet” and buying more local and organic products. But I didn’t drop everything and become an activist waiving signs and stomping around Washington. My life continued pretty much as it had for the last five years.
A few months later I picked up a copy of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dillemma. At this point I was a vessel primed for Pollan’s preaching, so he converted me to the ways of the green revolution fully. This was no longer just something I thought about; it was part of who I was.
My diet in college consisted of prepackaged foods filled with preservatives and chemicals. Now I was eating better and my body was thanking me for it. I felt better waking up in the morning and going to bed at night. Maybe cutting out drinking thirty beers every other night helped too, but we’ll never know. Anyway, I felt like a million bucks and that was good enough for me. If other people were still eating fast food and guzzling soda that was their problem.
And then Christina came home one day from work (she was teaching fourth grade in the South Bronx) and told me about the breakfast program at her school. The previous year, the school began supplying students with a small breakfast: cereal, milk, sometimes fresh fruit and yogurts. Some of the kids went from eating nothing at all before school, or worse, guzzling an energy drink loaded with caffeine and sugar, to being provided a real, reasonable meal. According to her, productivity skyrocketed. The morning became their most useful time. Behavioral issues disappeared. Students were more focused and had fewer “stomach aches” that were really just hunger pangs. A simple breakfast transformed her classroom and thus the lives and futures of the students in it. Oh, and her principal was considering cutting the breakfast program because it was too expensive.
This sent me into a blind rage. “How could anyone be so short-sighted? What is your principal thinking?! Find the money!” I know the realities of budget management require tough decisions, but Christina’s descriptions of the students before and after the breakfast program were undeniable. Kids need food to learn. Have you ever tried to dig a hole without a shovel? Having the right tools are essential parts of a job, and food is the most basic of our tools.
Now I was ready to act. I couldn’t do much to save the program at her school (which actually received an eleventh-hour stay of execution), but I could take some action in my own eventual backyard. So I’m in New Zealand, learning a trade and traveling the world, with my loyalties to home stronger than ever. I’ll return to the US armed with the skills and knowledge to bring more good food to markets where it’s needed most. Stay tuned for more about that last point, serving the underserved, next time.
It’s not all tomatoes and bacon, people. We’ve been in New Zealand since August, and every one of our WWOOFing experiences has been awesomely positive. Until now.
It began fine. The first few days of any relationship, let alone one that insists on working and eating three meals together, can be rough. We’re accustomed to a short “breaking in period” where conversations are a little awkward and we’re walking on eggshells. This time there were a few condescending comments sprinkled in here and there from the male head of the household, who shall remain nameless. We shrugged it off. We thought we were being overly sensitive.
But our host had continued difficulty controlling his frustration, and that manifested itself as anger towards us and his family. We talked with him about changing his tone around us and he was receptive, for a short time. We gave it another week, but little changed.
Yesterday was the last straw. He and I were moving cows to get ready for slaughter and he berated me for not moving quick enough to block the path of an angry heifer that didn’t want any part of this activity. Oh, and it was 6:30 in the morning. I’m a pretty agile guy any time of day, but diving in front of a hostile 800-pound animal is something I’m instinctually wired to avoid. No, thank you very much. He flew off the handle.
I told him that there is a nice way to give instructions, and a not-so-nice way, and I preferred that he used the former. He became more disgruntled, words were exchanged on both sides, and he stormed off, leaving me alone to move the agitated cow into the adjacent pen, where she most definitely didn’t want to go. I tried in vain to get the cow to cooperate, nearly getting stampeded multiple times, before he returned and told me to stop because he didn’t want the beast’s adrenaline to effect the quality of the meat.
This interaction proved that this situation was not tenable. First, this was the latest in a string of moments in which we were treated with disdain and condescension; not the pastoral ideal of a working environment. But most importantly, leaving a greenhorn such as myself alone with a massive, angry animal is grossly irresponsible. I could have been seriously injured, had I not been quick enough to dive from the path of the cow. So rather than endure a moment more we decided to it was time to pack up and leave before breakfast.
Now we’re sitting on a riverbank, surrounded by wildflowers, listening to the gurgling water and wind rustling the trees, about
to eat a fine feast of beans and veggies. A huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders. Why didn’t we do this a week ago?
If it were another situation, I might have stuck it out. Sometimes one needs to grin and bear it for professional reasons. But this was no paying gig. It was a short-term work-trade arrangement on a farm. I felt no loyalty here, no reason to fulfill my intention of staying the full three weeks. We have the means to move on, so we rid ourselves of this source of stress. Suddenly, I feel powerful again.
I’m not free of regret, though. In the heat of the moment, I was so blinded by emotion that I couldn’t properly articulate the damage he’s doing to those around him. I felt as if my blood might actually boil. And I had grown fond of his wife and child. They were pillars of kindness and compassionate throughout this ordeal, and remained graceful and sympathetic when we told them that we were moving on. I hope they understand that it’s not them we were fleeing, but their arrogant, delusional husband and father. We’ve learned a lot from this experience, but my suspicion is that he, unfortunately, hasn’t. Good riddance.
Saying things out loud makes them seems more real. And what could be louder than broadcasting something to the world via the internet? It’s probably obvious to those of you that have been paying attention, but for the slackers (and myself) I need to declare my latest and greatest revelation: I want to be a farmer.
No, not the conventional “rows of corn as far as the eye can see” farmer of yesterday, but the “self-sufficient 10 acre plot with a diversity of animals and plants” farmer of tomorrow. Or the day before yesterday, depending on your point-of-view.
When we left New York I was leaning in this direction, but I hadn’t admitted it to myself yet. So we didn’t plan to travel with any kind of specific purpose. We knew we wanted to try farm life through WWOOFing, but we weren’t sure that it would work, so we built in some flexibility to do other things – things like lay on the beach in Thailand for a month, sipping local hooch and sweating it out immediately.
But we were right, we want to be farmers. And now I don’t want to do other things. I want to do things that continue my education and development as a farmer. So maybe we’ll still go to the beach in Thailand, but we’ll keep it to a week then hop on a bus to a peanut farm.
In some ways, the best plan was not planning at all. This allowed us the space to explore and get more focused as we went. It can be difficult to set out into the unknown, but if we’d followed a prescribed pathway we never would have found the right direction for us.
Travel with purpose, but don’t let it determine everything. Maybe you want to learn to cook in Europe or build houses in Mumbai. Or you might just want to test drive life outside of your comfort zone. Vague purposes are the best of all, by nature they allow the kind of flexibility necessary to focus on something clearer later on. Take a step back, and then two steps forward.
According to the Great Code of the Omnivore, we should try our damnedest to use as much of a slaughtered animal as possible. Our recent experience butchering a pig has given us a chance to put that in practice. Here are some of the things we’ve done with commonly discarded parts of a pig.
Head: Pâté de Tête. Also called headcheese or brawn. Not pretty to process, but delicious. Every soft part of the head, save the eyes and ears, is used. Cheeks, tongue, neck, snout, lips, etc.
Ears: Crispy Pig Ears. Fry ‘em up. “Sounds” good, eh? Eh? Sorry, that pun was “offal.” Oooooh!
Brain: Again, fry it. A helluva challenge to extract in one piece, but, like most things deep fried: tasty. Unique texture. Watch out for shot.
Heart: Some of the inner bits are very tough, but cooked right the meaty parts can be interesting. Note I didn’t say “good.” Could also be thinly sliced and layered in a terrine with a pate for a completely different texture. Maybe with some fried brain?
Blood: Black pudding, also known as blood sausage. Delicious.
Liver: Pâté, duh.
Kidney: Deviled Kidneys. River Cottage has a recipe that looks good, but I haven’t tested it.
Small Intestine: Sausage casings. Not sure what crazy bastard had the idea to clean the poop out of the small intestine and stuff it with bits of spiced meat, but s/he was a genius.
Stomach: Some people love tripe. I’m not one of those people. I prefer my food to smell like things other than poop. Pretty much anything else.
Caul: This is a net-like layer of fat attached to the stomach. It’s handy for wrapping up roasts and rolled loins. Or herding cats.
Skin: Left on the meat for delicious cracklin’, or could be processed for fine. leather. goods. Treat yo’ self!
Trotters (feet): Added to brawn, or their gelatin extracted by boiling and reducing and used in place of, well, gelatin. Bill Cosby would be so proud.
Tail: Also added to brawn. Watch out for a million increasingly tiny bones.
All joking aside, imagine how many of these items are discarded daily, and how much food they could produce. A little bit of creativity makes the animals killed for prime cuts go lot further. Any other ideas for making use of these or other commonly discarded pig parts?
We’ve spent the past four days up to our elbows in either pig or pork. Literally. Part of me thought that the process of slaughtering and butchering a pig was going to be sad and disgusting. But it just wasn’t. It was intense and it was challenging and there absolutely was one sad part and one disgusting part. But that is nothing compared to the rest of the process, which was absolutely invaluable. This is the story of how it went. Note: I feel that pictures are absolutely necessary to this post, but some images are quite graphic.
Around 2pm, Lyndal and Steve’s friends came over to shoot the pig. After discussing whether to use a .22 or a shotgun, and how to kill the first pig while keeping the second calm, the six of us headed out to the pig pen. Lyndal gave Squeak a pile of acorns to munch on while their friend quickly and calmly loaded the gun and BANG! Bubble let out a short squeal and fell to the ground.
GATE! EVERYBODY GRAB A LEG! NO CHRISTINA, LET THE BOYS! DRAG HER OUT, QUICK! SOMEONE MAKE THE GUN SAFE! BUCKETS, GET THE BUCKETS!
Bubble was dead within seconds of being shot, but the muscles in her legs continued to thrash violently, making it tricky to grab on. Squeak barely noticed that anything had happened. She was eating acorns while we were outside the pig pen, holding Bubble still and collecting the blood from Bubble’s jugular, both to drain from the carcass and to use for blood sausage later. The four guys loaded the pig on to the back of the trailer and drove her around to the front of the barn to hang in the gallows. “You alright?” Lyndal asked as we walked across the warm, sunny field, back toward the barn. “Yup. Just a little adrenaline-y” I said, as that was the only way I could describe it. Watching Bubble get shot and collecting the blood was uncomfortable. But after that, the pig stopped being a pig and became a carcass.
After the pig is killed and before it’s butchered, it has to be either skinned or scalded to remove the hair and then gutted. Otherwise we would have hairy bacon and our tenderloins might smell like poo. If a farmer is going to sell the meat, slaughtering, scalding and gutting must be done at an abattoir. Since this meat is for personal consumption, it can be done at the farm.
The boys took Squeak to be scalded in a bathtub full of hot water while us girls skinned Bubble, who was too big to fit in a tub. Using a skinning knife and starting at her ankles, Lyndal and I carefully cut the skin away from the fat and meat. This took about an hour and required intricate knife work since we didn’t want to damage the meat or puncture the belly, where the organs were held. When we got to the head we stopped, cut a circle around the head, and removed the head and the skin from the rest of the animal. This went into a wheelbarrow to bury in a hole.
Next, a line was cut down the center of the body to expose the organs. Not going to lie, this was the disgusting part. It smelled like hot poop. Because it was hot poop. Most of what is inside the pig is a gigantic large intestine that looks like a very full balloon, about to explode. Lyndal asked me to press against said warm, gigantic poo balloon to keep it from falling out. This way, she could remove the organs that she wanted to use for pate and terrines. I stepped to the side and gingerly put one hand on the large intestine.
“No, I mean really hold it,” she said.
So I lifted the other hand and leaned into the sack. Am I going to barf? No, you’re not. We’re cool. You got this. FUUUUCK that smells bad. Oh my god. Stop being a baby. But my finger is sliding in. And if it explodes… A few minutes later we were done. It didn’t explode. The mass of intestines slid into the wheelbarrow. It was bad, but the impending shit storm never came.
Shortly thereafter the boys returned with Squeak. We compared pigs, shared about what each technique required, cleaned up and collapsed with a glass of wine and a plate full of cassoulet, made from last year’s sausages.
To get ourselves warmed up for the Day 2, day of marathon butchering, Zach and I had watched Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Pig in a Day, a DVD about butchering and preparing cuts of meat. The DVD was an hour an a half. While both instructional and exciting, it turns out they skipped some parts.
The first step to turning our two pigs into pork was to saw the pigs in half down the middle and then in to quarters so that they could be carried into the house where they would be butchered into cuts of meat. They skipped this part in the DVD. This first step took two hours. I was pretty bad at sawing. The handle got slippery with pig fat and it was a very awkward task, moving in and out of the gutted body cavity, but I tried. Zach picked up where I fell short. (Thanks, Zach!) I do think that we will raise and butcher our own pigs, but I am also keen on getting a fancy electric saw to make the job a little more bearable.
Once inside, we were set up so that Zach and I each had a half a pig and Lyndal had two halves. She would demonstrate on one half and we would watch, then we would each make the cuts on our pig. After staring at my pig for a few seconds, I had a Eureka! moment, “OOH! I think I found the tenderloin!” I did a little dance and pointed at it, nestled next to the ribs. I was very proud of myself for recognizing it from the DVD. “Cool, cut it out!” Lyndal told me. What? Stop. These pigs are their livelihood. They will provide meat for the next year, and here she is telling me, a totally inexperienced non-butcher, to go cut out one of the most prized cuts of meat. Just go do it. You’ll be fine. If you need help, just ask. That is kind of how they run things around here. They trust us to do a good job and to ask for help when necessary. It is wonderful to be trusted, but I often feel like, Who? Me? Do that? Okayyyy…. Which is exactly how I felt as I carefully cut away the connective tissue that held the tenderloin in place.
We cut tons of bacon sliced noisettes, deboned hams and removed ham hocks. We trimmed cuts from the belly and back and rolled them up for roasts, butterflied loins that would later but stuffed with pate, and cut up bits for stir fries, stews, and sausages. They butcher for the cuts of meat that they like to eat, which meant no chops and no ribs. Because they had not had good ribs. Okay, fair enough. But I make good ribs. So I took on making convincingly good ribs and Lyndal let us butcher them out.
This went on until both carcasses were gone, which was about 7pm. The sun had gone down and the foot and a half tall piles of bacon were threatening to fall over. Cutting boards and piles of fat littered every imaginable surface and each of us just stared at each other, knives dangling beside us, totally exhausted. Time to call it a day.
I by saying that this experience was intense and challenging. Carrying a quarter of a pig, or sawing through bone requires strength and the tiny knife work it takes to debone a piece of meat requires focus. It is no wonder that I was wiped out at the end of each day. I just had no idea how much work went into making something as commonplace as bacon. Just throw it in the pan, right?
We feasted on plates of huge ribs, mashed potatoes and Caeser salad. After a few bites, Lyndal pointed at her bone and said. “I like these.” Simple as that, and yet it meant loads to me. I represented Amer’ca well and won the approval of a farmer, our teacher, and fabulous chef.
On Saturday we’re butchering two nine month old Saddleback pigs named Bubble and Squeak. They’ve lived the last nine months together in a big paddock between the goat pasture and the pines at the edge of the property where they have plenty of room to run, root, and roll in the dirt. In addition to their grains, Lyndal and Steve feed them everything from table scraps to garden weeds to castoffs from the local fruit and veg store. Sometimes, if they’re lucky, they get tummy rubs between meals. The pigs live a great life, but they’re being raised for their meat.
A few years ago I watched Food Inc. and read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which was how I became interested in where my food comes from. It pissed me off to see a billion chickens crammed into a tiny little box, pooping all over each other, gobbling antibiotics for breakfast, just to make a profit. And there I was thinking that chicken is healthy, while it’s full of chemicals that can kill you. I felt like I’d been lied to.
So I started paying attention to where my meat comes from. It turns out that meat from local, small scale farms is usually more expensive, which just means that you can’t afford to eat a lot of meat. And that’s fine by me. Let it be special, and tasty, and exactly what it claims to be.
We came to this farm specifically because Lyndal and Steve invited us to participate in butchering Bubble and Squeak. Their pigs are raised humanely, and they’re killed with a single shot in an environment that’s familiar to them. They’ll be killed together, so that neither will be traumatized by the loss of their friend. Then they’re butchered into the cuts of meat that Lyndal and Steve prefer, reducing waste.
I suppose I’m writing this because at some point, I’ll be helping to cut off a pig’s head and I’m a bit apprehensive about that. But, some animal’s head had to come off every time I eat a pulled pork sandwich, or a steak, or a salad with grilled chicken. Someone had to raise that animal, to care for that animal, and then butcher that animal so that I could buy it’s meat in the store. I feel that if I can purchase meat in the store, I should be able to stomach where it comes from. It also makes sense that everyone involved cares about how it’s done.
Uma Rapiti may be the only place in the world where you can watch your neighbors landing their helicopter while squatting over a composting toilet. That’s also what makes it perfect. Bankrolled by two American expats, it’s a permaculture “lifestyle block” on the once-crunchy-but-rapidly-gentrifying Auckland suburb of Waiheke Island. Operated by youthful farm managers and staffed by young travelers seeking adventure and knowledge, it’s a rotating door of energy and enthusiasm, but not always expertise.
It’s edges are rough. Staying there as a WWOOFer (named for the program that connects young travelers and farms: Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) means working 4-5 hours a day, seven days a week, and living almost completely outdoors, but its benefits are great: free accommodation in a beautiful setting, ample healthy food, and most importantly – knowledge.
Make no mistake, living outdoors is vastly different from the average day spent on car camping jaunt. There’s something psychologically jarring about being exposed to the elements: rain, wind, mud, and cold, year-round with no hope of a warm fire and a good book with a cuppa tea. All the routines of daily life are more difficult. Oh, it’s raining? Your shower will be colder than you’d like. Is that a bit of wind? Good luck keeping the propane flame lit to heat up dinner. But the rough life can be rewarding. Bad days are tolerated, while good days are cherished.
The farm was established in 2007 adjacent to a newly constructed home in the ritzy development of Park Point. Nestled between million-dollar houses designed by award-winning architects and panoramic vistas of looming Auckland, it’s a bit of an oddity. While the neighbors are planting olive groves and pinot noir, Uma Rapiti is fretting over kale and brussels sprouts. Why are these grungy kids rubbing elbows with Auckland’s elite old guard? Why are they huddled around a pile of soil, examining it as if it were nuclear launch codes?
According to the US Department of Agriculture, over the last century, nearly 70% of the farms in the United States have closed. Without the small farmer, our food choices will skew increasingly toward the easy-to-grow and easy-to-ship, rather than the healthy and delicious. Imagine a world where our most basic of needs are monopolized. It’s a scary thought, and we’re headed straight for it at dangerous speed. Uma Rapiti is one of those slowing us down by training young people to grow their own food.
The potential power of this type of arrangement is immense. Each year, several dozen young people interested in farming arrive at Uma Rapiti starry-eyed but ignorant, and leave armed with the knowledge and motivation to start their own version of the farm in their own corner of paradise. With small family farms disappearing, programs like WWOOF and facilities like Uma Rapiti are essential to the health of our society.