Sunday, September 12, 2021

Harvest Season

When the pandemic first hit, our local grocery and big box stores ran low on meat. Interestingly, the local butchers’ shops did not. It got us thinking again of the fragility of our food chain, and the ridiculousness of our dependence on stores for our meat-even as our underutilized fields went to burdock and other overgrown weeds. While folks were stocking up on flour and toilet paper, we headed out to the local dairy farm to buy a couple of steer calves to fatten.

At last harvest day arrived, and with it we received a primer on rural life partnerships. Watching the custom slaughter team at work, I had the impression that if companies, law-makers, and heads of state attended such slaughter appointments (as seminars) like the one that transpired on our farm last week, they’d find themselves better equipped at their jobs after witnessing such ha master class in cooperation and team work.

Gerald arrived with a posse. He’s 63 and has been doing this since he was 10 years old on his parents’ farm, when his dad called to him and said: “Grab Grandpa’s gun. You’re doing your first steer today.” Back then they processed 350 hogs each year, stem to stern. Now he does the same number of hogs per year, and 7,000-9,000 steers when he’s not busy manufacturing the machines that make the 1090 masks for 3M.

He never misses. Takes careful aim with a .22 to stun them, and then quickly he and his assistant Jeremiah, a taxidermist by trade, quickly move in to slit their throats and bleed them out, massaging the blood out a they move aside for Vang and Vaduun. Vang and Vaduun are a quick moving mother and son team of gleaners. They follow Gerald in their pick-up. In back are buckets and pots and pans of all shapes and sizes. They grab a saucepan and catch the steer’s blood before much of it has had time to bless the earth. Shuttling pots full back and forth to a bucket, they amass 5-10 gallons of blood to take home for sausage making. I am glad to see nothing wasted, and am impressed with Vang’s treasure trove of traditional knowledge. My ignorance is expensive, as I am parting with many organs for free- a de facto tithe to this Hmong family. “How do you know how to cook all this?” I ask her, as she sits on an overturned bucket and deftly removes the tongue. “I have always known how. My mother taught me long time ago.” She and Vaduun help skin the steers, they remove the spleen, heart, liver, intestinal lining…all of it goes into a bucket. Vaduun readies Gerald’s tripod. He and his mother seem to magically make the whole process quicker, smoother. It is no wonder Gerald invited them along. His fee is the same to us whether it takes 30 min. or 3 hrs. Each steer takes about 20 minutes.

Just as the 1st is hooked between the tendons at the hock, and ratcheted up in the air using the tripod, a 3rd truck rolls up with a plastic sheet in the back. This fellow will load the steers and take them to the butchers immediately to hang in a cool room for 1-2 weeks. Gerald pauses to share his recipe for Ox-Tail stew. He presses the tail meat upon us insisting it is the best part of the animal. Also, the heart, cut pup, pan-fried and combined in a casserole w/ potatoes and cream of mushroom soup. “Bake it in the oven until it’s tender.” He groans with gastronomical delight. “We grew up on that stuff. Nothing better.”

Vaduun holds various organs out to me for photographing, tickled by my enthusiasm and promise to make him famous in a magazine article. Rosie (age 2) had been watching since the skinning commenced. She is quiet and sober, but not disturbed. I tell her they are becoming meat. Loss is the sewn-on shadow of living. We won’t just go forward with the anticipation of hamburgers or the happy memories of seeing them graze the 2021 summer’s grass. We’ll go forward with the loss of their good company too. You can’t shirk pain.

“Yeah, we get tailed by PETA people sometimes,” Gerald says to me as I watch Vang skillfully trim the gall bladder she will be using. “They say they’d like to see me out of business.” He shakes his head. My shampoo bottle has a PETA approved label on it. I wonder how we’re helping animals with all our plastic bottles of shampoo, our carefully packaged artfully designed vegan products which continue to perpetuate our distance from our food’s origins. Watching this very skilled Hmong woman I am painfully aware of how wasteful our habits of consumerism are. It is on display before my very eyes. It seems obvious that folks raising their own backyard meat, or guys like Gerald doing home slaughter, which reduces the stress of transport and delays and co-confinement for the animals, these are not the problem. Pushing food production out of sight and out of mind for reasons of profit and ease, that’s the problem. The scene before me is raw, but I find myself eager to participate more in it, indeed it begins to feel strange that I’ve hired someone else to do this for me. I think that’s a step towards normal. As the harvest continues our gratitude and appreciation for these animals grow. I find myself wondering what the PETA people would say about the Native peoples’ hunting and gathering. It seems to me suddenly obvious that the poverty our modern world suffers with fractured families and weak community ties has pushed us away from the traditions that still live on in communities like Vann and Vaduun’s. The day is a reminder of the wealth rural living brings.

How is it that something as gritty and utilitarian as the steer’s slaughter day has my heart singing with hope? Gerald got $85.00, Jeremiah got the hides, Vang got the organ meat, Vaduun got famous, and we got a chest freezer filled to the brim with beef…and this story.


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