Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Day 212 - Butchering an Animal

I have never butchered an animal. Quite frankly, I never had any desire to learn how to butcher an animal at any point in my previous 31 years. Although I was more than happy to enjoy meat as a part of my diet, I was OK having an indirection to the process that resulted in the meat ending up on my plate. I was aware of how it all worked, but I did my best to remain blissfully ignorant to the specifics and did my best to avoid direct contact with processing and butchering the animals that would eventually become a part of my meals. Of course, my recent hunting trip meant I had to come to terms with the idea that I may be directly involved in the process of taking an animal’s life and preparing it for human consumption, which got me thinking I would likely gain a lot from the experience of processing an animal harvested in a hunt. While my recent hunting experience wouldn’t provide that opportunity, a passing conversation with my Brother, Abe, would inevitably result in my first experience butchering an animal.

Step one in the ceremony
Following my recent trip to the Northwoods, my brother Abe contacted me to discuss the experience. Hopeful I had gained a full experience on my first trip hunting, he asked me about the activity we saw in the woods and if anyone had been successful taking a deer. After telling him that was not the case, Abe immediately made me aware he had a deer a family friend had shot recently that need to be butchered for processing, which spurred him to ask if I had any interest in learning the process for butchering a deer. Although the thought of cutting the muscle from a skinned and bloody animal caused me to feel uneasy, I realized the opportunity would provide insight unique to the experience that I likely couldn’t gain anywhere else. As a result, I eventually agreed to help my brother with the butchering process, which set up the 212th new experience in my ongoing “I have never...” journey.

After finishing my workday, I headed to my Brother’s house to get my first experience butchering an animal underway. When I arrived, Abe had already taken time to prepare his kitchen for the forthcoming process, with cutting boards, racks, and cutlery laid out across the countertops and sink basins around the room. Anticipating we would begin butchering almost immediately, I began taking off my gloves and my coat. As I pulled my zipper toward the floor, Abe put up his hand and shot me a quick remark. “Hold on, now. You might as well leave that on for the first part of the process.” A bit confused, I paused my action and looked at him with a furrowed brow. “I thought we were going to butcher the deer,” I said. “Oh, we are, but the first part of the process is running out and grabbing some beers for the event.” I chuckled at his prioritization, but I understood the connection without further questioning.

The butchering space
Minutes later, we were en route back to Abe’s house with a case of beer in tow. When we arrived back to his house, we promptly set the beer inside before heading back outside to retrieve the deer carcass we would be butchering as the night progressed. Intrigued by the placement of the deer outside, I asked Abe briefly about the location of the animal. “Oh, it’s in bags out in the garage. That’s permanent freezer space this time of year. It should be good and ready for us to cut up.” Without hesitation, Abe followed his remarks by heading out his front door and to the door of his garage. After opening the garage door, we promptly made our way to the back of the building where for white trash bags laid on the cold concrete floor. “This might be a little bloody,” Abe said as he lifted one of the bags in my direction. The remark caused me to feel a bit uneasy at the thought of a bloody bag of deer parts, but I knew I had to push through the feelings if I was to gain the experience I thought. In turn, I grabbed the bag and began walking back toward the house, making sure to hold the bag out in front of me to the furthest extent possible.

"Unlimited freezer space"

A hindquarter

After a few trips out the garage and back into the house, Abe and I stood before several tinged red with congealed blood. Inside, the quartered remains of a deer remained connected to bone and ready to be processed. Upon pulling the first quarter of the deer out of the bag, Abe began explaining the process of cleaning the meat in preparation for butchering. The sight of the massive slab of muscle and bone rising from a small pool of blood set me back a few steps as Abe continued in his explanation. My first direct exposure to a large piece of flesh removed from an animal’s body made me somewhat repulsed, but I pushed through my immediate reaction and listened on as Abe continued. At first moving the leg to the sink for cleaning, Abe explained the need to remove any dirt, hair, or skin that remained on the animal as to avoid getting any undesirable contents in the final product. Understanding, I looked on as he worked, slowly working over the leg and picking off any debris. After several minutes, he gave the leg one last look before turning to me. “Alright, that looks good. Are you ready to give it a try?”

The first cut
In response to his question I took a deep breath and gave a short answer, “Yeah, I guess.” The hesitance in my voice was obvious as I spoke. Undeterred by my uncertainty, Abe quickly grabbed a second quarter of the animal and dropped in the sink before me. “Run some water over it and clean it up,” he said frankly. Still struggling to come to terms with the sight before me, I nodded my head in understanding and grabbed the leg from Abe’s hand. I carefully began to look over the deep red surface of the muscle for any blemishes, doing my best to let the water remove the bulk of the debris. With Abe guiding me, I cautiously began pecking at the meat with my fingers as I encountered grass, hair, and other particulate matter. It wasn’t necessarily the most comfortable introduction to butchering, but I knew there was no other way to start the experience.

Getting more comfortable
Over time, our efforts resulted in clean pieces of animal ready to be butchered. By the time we began cutting the meat from the bone, my comfort with the idea of handling and preparing the meat had grown somewhat, but Abe’s first cut through the meat along the length of the leg bone renewed my sense of uneasiness. Left questioning whether I would be able to work through the process, I watched on as Abe walked me through the finer points of butchering the meat for preservation of roasts, grind meat, and tenderloins. I was following everything Abe was doing, and I understood the process; however, I was putting up blockades for retaining and applying the information I was learning as a result of my distaste and unfamiliarity of the sight before me. After nearly 20 minutes of observation, I finally convinced myself there was no other way to overcome my discomfort than to get my hands on the process.

With Abe continuing his explanation of the process as he worked, I abruptly broke my silence. “Ok, I want to do it. I’m ready to try.” Abe stopped suddenly at my remark. “Alright, you think you’re ready? I mean, don’t feel like you have to get into it right away,” he said still holding his knife in his hand stained pink from his work. “No, I have to do this. I need to get in and do it.” Excited by my resolve, Abe promptly turned his knife over to me and stepped aside. “Alright, let’s do it!” he said as he leaned back toward the meat and prepared to watch me take over where he had left off. In his effort to remove the leg bone from the hindquarter of the animal, Abe began to guide me through the process of cutting the sides and bottom of the bone before taking a step back and looking at me. Realizing that was my cue, I plunged the tip of the knife into the meat running along the bone and made a long straight cut along the hard white surface. With that, I was butchering an animal and, to my surprise, I wasn’t disgusted by the process.

I'm butchering!

Removing the bone

I cut a roast!

In a sudden flash of realization, I connected all of the things I had known previously and came to terms with the process before me. Although the tacky, raw feeling of the meat running along my hands and forearm left plenty to be desired, focusing in on the task before me helped me see the potential outcome of my effort. I knew that by doing everything in my power to remove as much meat from the bone as possible I was ensuring the life taken wouldn’t be left disrespected and ultimately I knew my effort would help feed those people closest to me. With each passing minute my understanding and acceptance of the process grew until my discomfort and uneasiness had all but disappeared.

Making progress

Before I knew it, hours had passed and Abe and I were left with trimmings and pieces of meat that would serve an important purpose in feeding our family. Sure, it wasn’t the way I would choose to spend an evening, but in butchering an animal I blew through my blissful ignorance about the sources of my food, I learned some important skills, and for the first time in my life I gained perspective on the true reason so many members of my family accept the idea of taking an animal’s life. To say that was a shift would be a massive understatement. The hours spent laboring over that deer tonight were downright enlightening, which was more than I ever anticipated taking away from the experience.

Wrapping things up (pun intended)

A little fun with labeling

As the clock rolled toward 10:00 pm, Abe and I closed in on the final portions of our task. As we cut and wrapped the final pieces of tenderloin and back strap, Abe and I shared a few laughs and rehashed parts of our evening. As I worked, I took notice of the fact that I had all but forgotten about the mess covering my hands and the empty, bloody bags behind me. In what I would have defined as a scene out of a horror movie a few hours earlier, I was instead taking note of the products resulting from our efforts and thinking about all of the ways they would be put to use in future meals.

Some of our choice cuts

In the final moments of my butchering experience, I recognized the fact that I would happily take part in the experience again, which is a thought I never would have anticipated before I began tonight’s “I have never...” experience. While I can’t say the task is something I will actively seek out in the future, I would offer my assistance if asked, and that’s a significant achievement considering where I was at the beginning of the night. I connected some important dots tonight, and I had an opportunity to spend some time with my Brother. Considering those outcomes, it is undeniable my first experience butchering an animal was a great success. The only thing left to do is taste the meats of our labors, which I can only hope happens sooner than later.

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