One of the arguments for vegetarianism often comes in the form of a challenge. It goes something like, "If you are able to slaughter an animal yourself, you can feel justified being a meat eater." Little did vegetarians know that carnivores across America would take that challenge so seriously.
One of the newest and most shockingly real trends in the food world is live slaughter, an event where groups of meat-eating bipeds get together to witness the killing and subsequent butchering of an animal in real time. Hosted by trained butchers and cooking schools and held in fields or kitchens, these slaughters endeavor to bring meat eaters a bit closer to the process that puts food on their table.
A recent New York Times piece by Alex Williams follows the practice from the class of New York State butcher Bruce King to a hog-butchering program in San Francisco, where paying "students" don raincoats and rubber boots to avoid getting blood on their clothes. It also smartly deals with the moral ambiguity of the practice.
Some carnivores enroll in the experience as a way of vindicating their meat-eatery, as if to say, "I've taken part in the practice, so now it's OK for me to eat meat" -- a philosophy that seems dangerous at best. For others, live slaughter is about better connecting with their food. On first blush, that sounds like an awfully granola concept for a meat eater: In the end, it's still about moral justification, right?
For other meat eaters, meat becomes a grim reminder of the slaughter, as is the case with the article's Christian Rusby, who says the smell of the kill haunted his post-slaughter meal.
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In "The Beauty of the Beast," an article by the Stranger's Bethany Jean Clement that is set to appear in Da Capo's Best Food Writing 2009, the writer witnesses a group slaughter held by a Seattle-area cooking school. The class invokes ancient tradition and gives a name to the pig. They tout such oft-heard phrases as "snout to tail." They claim to be celebrating both the life and death of the pig.
Clement calls a little bullshit (a great line: "When we've arrived at slaughter-as-edutainment for the well-off, while the regular food supply is contaminated regularly and, still, all those people are starving, is the end of days far away?") but ultimately finds some virtue in the process. It's the yuppies who attend that she takes the most issue with.
Recently, I've become interested in hog hunting. The thought occurred to me for two reasons: First, because I've been target shooting with my fiancee's father a few times, and it turns out I'm a hell of a shot. Second, because I've always found the concept of living off the land romantic (I've foolishly fantasized over movies like Jeremiah Johnson and Into the Wild for too long). If by hunting a wild boar in a state that's overpopulated with the nuisance creature, I could come to better grasp what it would be like having to be solely responsible for my next meal, I think that would be a valuable thing. In all likelihood, if I did try to live off the land, I'd probably starve.
Is live slaughter group therapy for carnivores, or is it an insightful way to get closer to our food? I suspect the truth lies somewhere in between. Taken purely as education, it can't be a bad thing to better know how meat ends up on your table or how to butcher and prepare it. But as a way to morally justify eating meat, it's pretty feeble thinking.