Like many people, I have been a vegetarian for at least some part of my life. These days I choose to eat meat but on a very limited basis and I'm very particular about the conditions in which the animal was raised. I've written about my ambivalence towards participating in the killing my supper here before and my coming to terms with that it still an open question. But today I want to talk about a related trend that has hit the Bay Area (and, it seems, NYC) hard: butchery as a spectator sport.
Here in the San Francisco Bay Area we're hard pressed to find a food event where someone isn't publicly 'breaking down' a pig or cow or lamb or even a goat, and sometimes it's all four. You can also hire a butcher to show up at your party with a whole pig and a battery of knives to demo his art for you and your friends. Cocktails are extra. We even have butchery contests and races and art events.
In theory, I support this trend on many levels. If we eat meat, then I believe we should know where and how it comes to us, a fact that cannot be hidden when we witness an animal's carcass being divided up into more familiar chops and steaks. It's good, too, that the skills of the butcher are being elevated to a higher art and that more and more people are inspired to take them up. I'm very happy that several of those folks are women, thus laying to rest the notion that this is all about swagger and testosterone. I can even tolerate the new Celebrity Butcher.
But what stops me cold is when public butchery becomes a spectator sport, when the mood shifts to voyeurism and the cell phone cameras start coming out. What stops me cold is when people think this is just so cool and hard core, when they think it's a freakin' party. Excuse me? That's someone's mother lying there on the table, all skinned and gutted. Have some respect, people.
My personal experience is when I see an animal being butchered, the feeling is so intimate that I'm almost embarrassed. I want to turn away because it seems private. I force myself not to because turning away is disrespectful, especially if I intend to eat if not some of the pig right there, then one of her brothers later on.
I wonder, too, if my response would be different if I was actively participating instead of just watching. It's the voyeuristic aspects that I find the most disturbing in these events. By contrast, this slideshow of two amazing Bay Area women (farmer Novella Carpenter and chef Samin Nosrat) teaching people in Kansas City how to butcher and clean chickens is not. Why? Because the people are there to participate and learn.
Perhaps one day I'll take the next step and sign up for a butchery class. But until then, I find myself avoiding the public butchery events. This isn't to say I'm for putting butchery back behind closed doors, or that we need to turn the event into some kind of hushed religious rite. There's a another choice, one in which we bring respect and yes even reverence into the room. And a certain matter of factness, too. This dance between eater and eaten is an ancient one, and sometimes the best response is a no-nonsense practicality. But never, never some kind of freak show art performance. That's just wrong.
A note on the photos above: Since I refuse to take pictures of people in the act of butchering, I don't have photos of my own to illustrate this post. So the shots above are from the Charcuterie Pavilion at Slow Food Nation last year and all the butchers I met or saw working there seemed very professional and respectful. The Lard sign is from a small women-owned butcher shop in SF called Avedano's.