Food Writer Becomes A Butcher To Better Understand The Value Of Meat : The Salt Camas Davis wanted to learn about conscientious farming, slaughtering and eating, so she moved to France and became an apprentice at a small, family-run slaughterhouse. Her memoir is Killing it.
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Food Writer Becomes A Butcher To Better Understand The Value Of Meat

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Food Writer Becomes A Butcher To Better Understand The Value Of Meat

Food Writer Becomes A Butcher To Better Understand The Value Of Meat

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. A lot of people have become vegetarians or vegans for ethical reasons - to avoid having animals slaughtered for dinner. But my guest Camas Davis believes there are ethical ways of raising livestock, slaughtering the animals and eating their meat. Davis is a former restaurant reviewer and editor who, after losing her job, wanted to have a more hands-on relationship to food. She went to Gascony in southwest France to apprentice with a family that raised pigs, raised the grain that fed the pigs, slaughtered the pigs and used every part of the pig except the bones to sell at markets.

Davis learned how to butcher pigs. And when she returned home to Portland, she found like-minded people and formed the Portland Meat Collective, which brings ethical farmers, butchers and chefs to teach people who want to learn more about responsible ways of buying and eating meat. Some students are taught how to kill and butcher chickens and rabbits. You may be wincing at this, but Davis thinks that our food system is based on not telling, and that if we eat meat, we should understand the process and try to be as responsible as possible for decisions we make about the meat we buy and how much of it we consume. She's written a new memoir called "Killing It: An Education."

Camas Davis, welcome to FRESH AIR.

CAMAS DAVIS: Thanks so much for having me.

GROSS: So a lot of people, a lot of our listeners, including meat eaters, will be revolted by the idea that you wanted to study butchery and that you teach it to students as part of what you teach them. Explain why you want people to know more about not only the provenance of their meat but also how it's butchered.

DAVIS: I wrote the book to explore where that revulsion comes from and what purpose it serves. In the process of going to France and learning how to turn an animal into food, I had to really confront my own moments of cringing or turning away or not wanting to see or know. And I came to think over time about how that might support our current system of meat production and consumption, how being revolted is a way to make us feel we don't have responsibility or we're not a part of that system, and so, therefore, either there's nothing we can do, or we just allow that system to continue unchecked.

In my own education, I've found the more I went into those processes - be it slaughter or whole-animal butchery or turning a pig head into pate de tete - the more I thought - more deeply I thought about why I eat meat, how much of it I eat, where it comes from, and the more I was able to assess how comfortable I felt with certain parts of those production methods and which kinds of production methods felt right and which felt wrong - and so it's my theory - or it's a theory that I've developed over time through my own education - that the further in we go, the better choices we make and the more agency we have in changing that system that brings food to our table.

GROSS: So what do you define now as ethical meat-eating?

DAVIS: Well, it's a complicated picture, and I think it can be very personal for people. I don't think we all sit on the exact same part of what I think of as the spectrum of meat-eating, and so it really depends on where you come from. But, on a basic level, I'm interested in a couple of things - how land is used to raise the animals that we eat for meat. I'm interested in whether those animals are allowed to be the animals that they are, they're allowed to eat what they are meant to eat, they're allowed to move around the way their bodies were built to move around, that they're treated humanely. And that - in and of itself, that phrase, is debated quite a bit.

I'm interested in what happens - inputs go in - what happens to the inputs when they come out of those animals - so pollution practices. I'm interested in resource management. And, you know, is the food safe for us? Do the animals have a good life? Do they have a good death? And then, on our end, when we're eating that meat, is it safe? Is it nutritious? Is it delicious? So all of those things play into this complicated puzzle that is ethical meat.

GROSS: Were you ever a vegetarian or a vegan?

DAVIS: I was. Yeah, I turned vegetarian maybe right around the time I became a teenager. I grew up in what I'll call the country - although I question what that means in my book - hunting and fishing with my dad and my grandfather. And we did eat meat from the grocery store, as well. And then when we moved into Eugene, Ore., right around the time I became a teenager - and Eugene is at the time, and maybe still - is full of a lot of people wearing tie-dye and eating tofu and tempeh and saying righteous things about how it's wrong to kill animals. And I wouldn't say there was a very sophisticated discussion at that point about how animals were raised and why that might be of concern. It really - the discussion, if there was any, seemed to be about whether or not animals should be killed or not. It was a very basic conversation.

So - and I think, in addition, you know, I was a teenager. I wanted to rebel and have something righteous to say to my parents, and that was sort of an easy way to make their lives difficult (laughter). And so that, you know, there were psychologies there that were - it wasn't just, you know, I read a book and discovered that the way meat is produced is bad, and, therefore, I stopped eating it. And I also was a lazy vegetarian. I ate chicken sometimes and fish sometimes. And I definitely ate eggs and milk and cheese. And a lot of the vegetarians that I was around were that way, too, and we didn't really talk about that much.

GROSS: So after you were laid off as a magazine editor, you decided you wanted a more hands-on relationship to food. You went to the southwest of France to study. You went to a family business that specialized in raising pigs, raising the grain to feed the pigs, butchering the pigs and then selling the meat at local markets. Was pigs your first choice, or did it just so happen that the family that you could apprentice with happened to raise and butcher pigs?

DAVIS: It did just so happen that the family was in the pig business. However, when I set out to find the people to study with, the woman, Kate Hill, who set me up with them, sort of asked me which species I was interested in. And at that time, there was sort of this bacon fetish, and a lot of the chefs I was writing about were posing with pig heads, and there was kind of a pig worship going on, at least in Portland, Ore. So I think pig was in my head as this - I don't know - sort of holy grail of the meat world, if you will.

GROSS: So you have a very vivid description of a pig being slaughtered and butchered in the opening of your book. And I want to talk about that a little bit. First of all, this pig was huge. And I want to say, like, before we get into this, that this will be a little bit graphic, and our listeners might think, this is going to be revolting; I don't want to listen. But remember; you know, my guest Camas Davis' point is, if you eat meat, you should know what it is you're eating. So bear that in mind as you make your choice about whether you want to keep listening or you think it's going to be too much for you.

So the pig that you - the first pig you describe in your book getting slaughtered - and I think it's the first pig you watched getting slaughtered - weighed about 700 pounds. I just want to start with that because it's huge.

DAVIS: I had no idea a pig could get that big. And it was a sow, so it was a pig that had - whose job it had been to make babies her whole life. And it showed for sure. And most pigs that are raised for meat specifically are slaughtered at a much lower weight. But when sows are done making babies, you know, farmers need to do something with the sow, and so they get turned into sausage, essentially.

GROSS: They're turned literally into sausage because the meat is too old to - not - like, not tender anymore?

DAVIS: Yeah. So one of the things I learned in France and have continued to learn about is that the older an animal is, the tougher it can be. And that doesn't mean it can't be cooked in such a way that it's not tough once you eat it, but it will take longer to cook at a lower temperature, typically, or it needs to be ground or pounded or marinated. Something needs to happen to those muscles to sort of break down the cellular structure.


DAVIS: And by that point, yeah, sausage is what you do with it.

GROSS: So with this pig that you were witnessing, headphones were put on the pig. Would you describe what the headphones are for?

DAVIS: The headphones are for electrocution. And I know that sounds terrible, but, essentially, the idea behind humanely slaughtering an animal is that you render them - quickly render them senseless to pain. And electrocution is one of the ways that they do that. And then once they are rendered unconscious or that that connection between the nervous system and the brain are somehow disconnected, then you would bleed them, and then they are dead.

GROSS: So the electrocution - electrocution really does sound terrible. We think of the electric chair. And things can go terribly wrong with that. And you know, bodies convulse. Like - so when a pig is given this electric shock or stunning or whatever it is, how long is the shock, and what happens to the pig's body?

DAVIS: There are actually guidelines for how long that shock needs to be. And I can't remember what they are, but it's quite short. In my own memory, it was very quick. It was immediate. The pig fell to the ground. There is a little bit of convulsing that happens, which is just the brain and the nervous system kind of wondering, how are we not communicating? Why are we not communicating? But it was all very quick and quiet and surprisingly not violent-looking, which was, I think, the most surprising part of it.

GROSS: And the pig isn't actually dead until the blood is drained. But the...

DAVIS: Exactly.

GROSS: But the pig doesn't feel anything when the blood is being drained?

DAVIS: That's the goal, and that's the belief. If it's done wrong - if the pig is not stunned correctly - and stunned is the term we usually use in the industry to describe that part of the process - then the animal will feel it. And you'll know pretty immediately. So the whole goal is to keep it, you know, pain-free. And I mean, it's - there's a lot of debate about what happens in that moment and whether or not it's - whether or not we can know or not. But based on what science exists, that's sort of the conclusion that the industry has come to.

GROSS: And a kind of - a death that is sudden and not fear-inducing - so like, the pig doesn't know that the pig is going to be slaughtered - is important both in terms of a more humane approach to the slaughter, but it's also important in terms of the quality of the meat. Can you...

DAVIS: Exactly.

GROSS: Can you explain how it affects the quality of the meat?

DAVIS: So the more stressed we are, the more adrenaline we have running through our body, the more lactic acid builds up in our muscles. And all of these things can, if not relieved before or during the death, result in tough meat. It can result in dark meat. It can result in mushy meat. So there are a lot of chemical reactions that can occur based on how that stress happened and when it happened.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Camas Davis, and her new memoir about learning a more ethical approach to raising, butchering and selling meat is called "Killing It: An Education." And she's the founder of Portland Meat Collective, which participates in teaching these things. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Camas Davis, and she's part of the ethical meat movement. She is the author of a new memoir called "Killing It: An Education." And it's about how she left her work as a magazine writer and editor - she wrote a lot about food - and decided to take a more hands-on approach. She moved, for a while, to the south of France, where she apprenticed a family, the Chapolard family, who raised, slaughtered and then sold as meat, pigs. And then she founded the Portland Meat Collective, which teaches a more ethical approach to raising, slaughtering and eating animals.

So you know, as we've said, the pig isn't dead until the blood is drained. At the farm where you apprenticed, all the blood is collected. And that's used for blood sausage. Did you taste the blood sausage after it was made? And what was that experience like for you because - like, let's start with the experience of watching the blood being drained and then, like, jump ahead to what it was like to actually eat the blood sausage.

DAVIS: It was remarkably fast. I was surprised that it was being caught in a bucket. I hadn't ever thought about what happened to the blood. I just assumed it would fall to the ground. The woman who was catching the blood was stirring it. And I had never thought about - oh, what happens to blood when it comes out of a living creature? Well, it coagulates. So stirring it, if you're going to use it for food, is important. And it was really fast and not as much as I thought it would be. So - but at the same time, it's this incredible moment in which you watch the life of a living being coming out of them, so it had a lasting effect on me.

And then, I think it was either that day or the next day that Marc Chapolard, one of the brothers, told me it was time to make the blood sausage with him. And I had eaten blood sausage as a restaurant reviewer many times. I like blood sausage. But I'd never really thought about what was in it or how it was made, and it was remarkably simple. It was ground meat, ground fat, the blood, salt, pepper. I don't even think they put any spices in there - a little onion maybe, a potato.

So we ground all of that stuff together, and then he pointed to a bucket of blood on the floor. And it was time for me to pick it up and pour it into all of that meat and fat. And it was heavy. (Laughter) I remember that. I didn't - I had a moment in which I thought - OK, in my past life, I might have looked at this and performed a kind of revulsion or a cringe or disgust, but I was really determined not to do that. I really wanted to be there and see, for real, how this happened and what it all meant.

So in that moment, I really tried to pull back from that instinct. And then right afterwards, Marc Chapolard brought out a finished product - it was cooked; they had finished it earlier in the day - sliced off a 2-inch-thick chunk of it. And I felt like I couldn't eat it, which was shocking to me. I'm actually someone who will eat anything. And if someone offers me something they've made, I will always eat it out of respect for what, you know, processes that they used to make it. And so I had to really swallow that disgust and get it down. And I think I - in the book, I write about it just being too fast and too close to the process. It tasted delicious. It was a lovely blood sausage. But that proximity to the process and having to eat it so soon took some getting used to.

GROSS: But it didn't turn you off from continuing the process of learning butchery and eating meat.

DAVIS: No, it didn't. It really - it made me feel a part of an honest system of meat production and also a very respectful system of meat production in which they use every part. And they see every part of the animal as food. And I hadn't really grown up thinking that. Even though I'd hunted and fished and saw what we turned into food, I - over time - sort of grew to think that pigs were made of pork chops and bacon and that was about it. And I didn't really think about where the rest of that went.

GROSS: So, you know, you've used the expression humane slaughter. And I think to some of our listeners, that will sound like a contradiction in terms - that slaughter can't possibly be humane. I'm wondering if the Chapolard family got to feel empathy for the pigs that they raise? Because they raised the pigs. They bred the pigs. And then they slaughtered the pigs, cut the meat and sold the meat. So did they ever develop, like, a relationship with the pigs - a fondness for the individual personalities of each pig?

DAVIS: They didn't name their pigs. And when they took me through the farm to see the different sheds where the pigs were living at different stages in their lives, you know, they very much talked about it as a kind of contract that they had with the pigs - that, you know, they provide us sustenance. And in return, we'll give them a comfortable life. We'll make sure they're fed. We'll make sure they're able to move around. And then they'll have a day in which we kill them. And, you know, a lot of the butchers in my movements - in my movement say, you know, they have one bad day. Actually, the goal is to not make it a bad day. (Laughter) The goal is to make them not even know what's going on and have it happen very quickly and without pain. So, you know, they didn't - they were very unromantic about it.

At the same time, they always talked about a reverence and respect for the animals. There was not - they didn't treat them poorly. There were ways in which I felt they could have raised them in a more sustainable way probably. And, you know, there's the debate between pastor-raising and barn-raising. And they had made the decision to use their land to grow the feed to feed their pigs as opposed to use their land to let the pigs roam around. And so, you know, they talked about that very matter-of-factly. This is how we decided to do it. So I think they respected the animals, but they didn't name them Wilbur.

GROSS: My guest is Camas Davis, author of the new memoir "Killing It: An Education." We'll talk more after a break. Also, Maureen Corrigan will review Megan Abbott's new suspense novel, and Ken Tucker will review a new album by the first woman to win songwriter of the year at the Academy of Country Music Awards. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I am Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Camas Davis, a former food writer and magazine editor, who - after being laid off - decided to have a more hands-on relationship with food and explore responsible ways of eating meat. She went to France to apprentice on the Chapolard family farm where they raised pigs, raised the grain that fed the pigs, they slaughtered the pigs, butchered them and sold the meat at local markets. After returning home to Portland, Davis founded the Portland Meat Collective which brings together ethically-minded farmers, butchers and chefs to teach people how meat gets to our plates and to encourage a sense of responsibility for the decisions we make about the meat we buy and how much of it we consume. One of the things Davis studied in France was how to butcher.

What was it like the first time you held a butcher knife or a cleaver in your hands?

DAVIS: Well, I didn't do it until I watched the Chapolard brothers do it. And the first time that Dominique Chapolard, who was my main mentor, had me watch him break down a side of pork. He grabbed the knife in a way that immediately made, for a lack of a better phrase, psycho killer - the phrase psycho killer come to mind. He gripped it as Bates does in the movie "Psycho." And it seemed wrong and sort of - it was very disconcerting. I didn't understand. I thought it was a joke, actually. I just assumed he would hold it like a chef holds a knife while chopping carrots or onions. And I slowly learned that that is how butchers hold their knives because it keeps their wrists straight as they're cutting. It also allows them to more fluidly move their wrists between - or move their hand between muscle and the curve of the bone. And so over time, I learned how to do that. But doing it myself for the first time still elicited - it still made me think of the sort of horror movie images, which I struggled with - I was embarrassed by after a while, which came so naturally and instinctually to me.

GROSS: So what's the first animal that you slaughtered yourself?

DAVIS: It was a chicken.

GROSS: And what did you consider to be a humane approach to slaughtering a chicken?

DAVIS: With any - really with any slaughter of any species, it's always the same. It's always this process of, how can you stun painlessly, render them unconscious and then bleed them without pain or stress or suffering? And in the case of a chicken, hanging them upside down or setting them on their backs sort of turns their brains off. They kind of just stop moving. And they have sort of these reptilian brains that respond to that in a way that - they just sort of calm down and don't want to move anywhere. And so that's usually the first step in getting them comfortable. Yeah.

GROSS: And then do you, like, chop off the head or what?

DAVIS: No, that's a terrible way to do it (laughter).

GROSS: Why is that terrible, and what do you do instead?

DAVIS: Well, that would be - I mean, you're - they would feel pain that way. It would also send messages to all of the muscles and to the nervous system to tense up and run, essentially. And that's going to cause lactic acid to build up in those muscles and adrenalin to build up and, again, cause toughness in the meat but also cause stress for the - in the last moments of the chicken's life. So no. So I don't chop their heads off. And instead - and I know this will probably be hard for some listeners to hear - but instead you poke a knife up into the top pallet of their mouth into their brain. And you basically scramble the brain - scramble the brain nervous system communication. And then you - as with any animal - bleed them by sticking a knife into the carotid arteries.

GROSS: Did this change your relationship to eating chicken?

DAVIS: My relationship to eating chicken had changed well before that. I - and partially because when I finally learned how most chicken is raised, I suddenly felt great regret that as a vegetarian, I had made exceptions for chicken. I think it's one of the worst species to eat if you're going to choose to eat meat from the factory farm system. But...

GROSS: Worst because of its treatment of the animal or worst because of the...

DAVIS: Yeah, because of its treatment.

GROSS: ...Quality of the product?

DAVIS: I don't - and also the quality of the product.

GROSS: Are you eating less meat than you used to?

DAVIS: Absolutely, yeah. I don't buy it from the grocery store any more. I fill a freezer that I have in my basement with a side of pig for my family and friends, too, and maybe a quarter of beef, if that, and a few chickens. And that's mostly it. Sometimes we do supplement with a visit to the farmer's market, or sometimes my husband sneaks in some grocery store meat. And we have a little interaction (laughter) about that. But, yeah, I just - I eat less of it. It's also more of an accent to my meal. It's not a main course. I - because I now am involved in the processes that get that meat to my table, I just understand the value of it. I pay a lot more money for it, and therefore can't afford to eat as much as I used to. It's just really a special occasion for me and an accent more than anything else now.

GROSS: You've gotten a lot of negative reactions from animal rights activists. When you were starting out doing this work and you gave a presentation about, you know, humane butchery, people in the audience protested. Somebody stood up and said, as a lesbian and a vegan, your speech actions violate me. Somebody else stood up and said, because you believe in imprisoning animals, you're a Nazi to me. And then someone else shouted out, and a slave owner. Can you talk a little bit about the protests that you've gotten from animal rights activists and what those protests mean to you?

DAVIS: I mean, they haven't been protests in the formal sense of the word more than people in audiences raising their concerns and their...

GROSS: Objections - we'll use the word objections.

DAVIS: Objections. Yeah, which I always welcome. I think it's - I'm happy that they feel they can do that in a setting where I'm speaking. I'm really - I've become really interested - in the past 10 years of this crazy adventure that I've been in - in the narratives that we tell ourselves about the food that we eat. And I have one narrative that doesn't match up with a lot of the people in the audience who are objecting. It doesn't match up with their narrative. I think what gets lost in the debate are two things I guess. One is that not all meat is created equal. And subsequently, not all animal farming is created equal. And that not eating meat - choosing not to eat meat is probably a good start for mitigating damage. But it's not actually a very creative restorative solution, in my mind, to the entire food production conundrum.

GROSS: Let's talk about ethical meat shopping. Say you're buying meat in a supermarket, whether it's a supermarket that is, like, an old-school supermarket or one that has a lot of organic food in it.

DAVIS: Well, it's a tricky landscape. And unfortunately, most of the labels that exist are very vague, vaguely regulated - if regulated at all - and can sometimes mean very little. And even in sort of mainstream grocery chains that I go to now, I see signs that say, you know, farm-to-table or family farms or natural meat. And, in fact, the way the regulations are worded - that doesn't have to mean anything whatsoever. So it's hard. It's very difficult to navigate that landscape. And, you know, the only thing I say is you have to ask questions.

GROSS: Are you ever just too busy to eat ethically?

DAVIS: Yeah, that's a great question. I just had a daughter a year ago, the same year I turned my book in, so it was a really busy year, and I did see myself slipping. You know, my freezer got empty, and I didn't have time to butcher a pig on my counter or even, like, call a butcher up and say - or a farmer up and say, hey, can you, you know, find a butcher for me to process a side of pig? So yeah, I think that it's very easy to slip back into that. And I think, you know, given how expensive it is to buy truly ethically raised meat, given how much time it takes to make real food, to take a - I don't know - a hawk that you've - you know, that needs to be smoked and then cooked for seven hours in order to be rendered edible. I mean, that's time. And time is money. And we live in a culture where we don't have that. So it's really - you really have to create the priorities for yourself that are important to you. And I try to do the best I can. But, you know, sometimes we order out. And I struggle with that - whether that feels good to me or not. I think, in the end, it's a deeply personal thing. I always say this. And you have to decide where you draw the line.

GROSS: Well, Camas Davis, thank you so much for talking with us.

DAVIS: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure to talk with you.

GROSS: Camas Davis is the author of the new memoir "Killing It: An Education." After a break, Maureen Corrigan will review Megan Abbott's new suspense novel. This is FRESH AIR.


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