Last weekend was an exhausting yet emotionally fulfilling one. I made the trek up to Schoharie to visit my beloved farm boys Thomas & Bailey by way of a short stay in Harlem with another dear friend while working a non taxidermy job in NYC. I arrived at the bus stop in Albany weary, bedraggled, and depressed and drained.
The reason for my visit was not only pleasure, but purpose: the boys had been raising some rabbits for food and the time had come to process a few of them. Thomas, who was taking on this project, immediately thought of me as a viable processing partner, given my philosophy on eating meat. I won’t call myself a vegetarian ( I still occasionally eat meat when someone offers me a free meal and I would otherwise go hungry due to lack of funds, so call me a hypocrite if you wish) or any other label because whenever I try to talk about it, I just sound pretentious. Unfortunately, it mostly comes up when I’m declining an offer at a gathering where everyone else is partaking in the meal. It’s not like I want to stand up in a room full of folks enjoying themsselves and say, “well its just that you’re all eating shit meat”.
But for the most part they are. And that isn’t the problem to me but more a symptom of something much, much more saddening.***
And maybe this doesn’t apply to everyone but this is my journey and perhaps someday I will articulate it (through words or taxidermy) more clearly but it’s no coincidence that the craft about which I am most passionate revolves around the manipulation of skin onto forms, or why I gravitate towards the rogue genre of taxidermy. In this realm, I can take a skin and put it on a form that has nothing to do with the original specimen. I can give it wings, diamonds for eyes, a stretched neck, anything my mind comes up with. As someone who has struggled (to an agonizing degree) my entire life to achieve a healthy amount of comfort in my own skin, manipulating fantasy creatures out of the dermis of others is a projection of my own wishes to occasionally escape this body I currently occupy.
It’s also no coincidence that underneath these hides are meat. Thick, bloody, nourishing meat. My journey as a budding taxidermist also led me down a path of exploring the source of my food, and the subsequent attempts to negotiate my ambivalent relationship with it. This has been a years long puzzle in which I occasionally fit in a flurry of pieces in one instant, or spend months trying to jam the same ill-fitting piece into a spot that won’t accept it. Sometimes I just have to walk away and come back when the time is right.
Last weekend in New York, my food puzzle was ripe for some work and ready to accept a flurry of new pieces to their rightful home.
Here is Thomas, watering their garden :
They’ve got corn, tomatoes, pepper, squash, a wide variety of herbs and edible flowers plus many others that I am forgetting. It’s basically 99% edible though, and they are incorporating it into their daily meals. For example, here are some treats we harvested with which to make a salad dish for our Elizabethan Rabbit dish that evening:
Even though my parents had a garden in our yard when I was a child, my knowledge of plants and how to grow food is so profoundly lacking. To actually see where the ingredients grow, how they are cared for, then pick them myself put some of those pieces back in the puzzle.
Meet Meat and Tilda. Meat is just that; he’s to be processed sometime next year I believe. Tilda will stick around for some breeding. The boys know so much about breeds, and all the animals that they raise- they are fully invested in this life and it shows. They admit it will be difficult to say goodbye to Meat when the time comes but I think Thomas put it best when he said “I’ve nourished you your entire life, now it’s time for you to nourish me”. And how much more rich an experience to have touched that thick muscular tank of a creature and to have heard its delightful snorts while it was alive!
It saddens me how much bacon is consumed every day, purchased thoughtlessly at some drive-thru window or convenience store and consumed in a car or subway en route to wherever the day is to be spent. I understand that most of us are in no position to raise our own food, and the majority of us need to rush somewhere to keep whatever shitty job is keeping our electric running, and this is the larger issue I was referring to earlier. We as a people appear to share this common need to multi-task and get everything done quickly and graduate from one spinning gerbil wheel (sorry for the cliché analogy but it fits!) to the next, never stopping to rest or be kind to ourselves because that type of behaviour simply is not encouraged. Working oneself to death is rewarded, taking a day to sleep and rest is frowned upon. Given this constant sense of urgency in everything all the time, it’s no surprise that food has become completely overprocessed and unrelateable to its origins. Eating. It’s just one more thing we have to do.***
I cannot stress enough how much of a difference it has made for me to see the full circle. I will never view dairy or meat products the same, especially after seeing the different ways in which farmers tend to their stock. If an animal is raised with love and respect, why shouldn’t it make sense that the meat it provides us will be better?
Which brings me to the rabbits. Below is the big mamma rabbit who birthed the ones which will serve as meals. She’s a really darling, and we thanked her for her hard work.
Now, the next few pictures after this are graphic, but no more so than any cooking website with a meat recipe. There is plenty of educational material out there on how to humanely kill and process a rabbit so I felt no need to further saturate the internet with my own images, but there are some meat and guts pictured so consider yourself warmed.
After plenty of thought, discussion, and watching videos on the subject, we decided that severing the spine at the cervical vertebrae would be the safest and best bet. I felt more comfortable using my bare hands than some external device like a broom stick of which I could possibly lose control. So we each picked a rabbit, went to our designated spot, said a prayer of thanks and counted to three. Mine didn’t go so smoothly but we remained calm and it was over in a matter of seconds. My heart was pounding, my knees and arms felt weak and I had to crouch down to collect myself.
Wow. I had just taken a life. I had just looked this creature in the eye, held it, stroked it, comforted it and then snapped it neck. And I wasn’t sorry. I wasn’t even crying, like I thought I would. Instead I felt surprisingly in touch with my surroundings and how I related to them.
Look. I know that hunters dispatch animals all the time and every modern luxury I enjoy comes at the price of an animal’s life, one way or the other. I’m not trying to pile on any more significance to this event than my own personal amount, and certainly don’t want to be seen as the next hipster chick to fool herself into thinking she invented “farm to table”. So please don’t misinterpret my words for any more than what they are: a description of my experience, the very first time I embarked on paying the karmic price for my meal, as Georgia Pellegrini has said.
Without wasting any time we hung them up and started processing. Here’s Thomas peeling the skin off his rabbit:
Gutting: his went much more smoothly than mine, but I enjoyed the process regardless. There is an intense heat that comes off a creature once it has died; I noticed this the one time I purchased a freshly killed squab from the live poultry market and I could feel its heat burning through my bag and into my back as I rode home with it. This heat is even more concentrated inside the gut cavity and it was a bizarre and grotesque thrill to stick my hands in it and yanked out the heart.
Thomas successfully removed his bladder- which is just beautiful -while I cut right through mine and wound up with a pee covered pair of bloody hands.
The butchering, if you can call it that, (I feel like I’m insulting real butchers by calling the hack job we did by that name) took the better part of an hour. Clearly both Thomas and myself could benefit from some lessons. If only we each had our own reality shows where attempts at self betterment through education could be sponsored by some third-party….
The rabbit chunks were tossed in flour and then lightly fried, and ultimately went into this wine-based stew mixture and cooked for three hours in Thomas’ new Le Creuset. Please check The Farmer’s Husband for full recipe and details.
In honor of my visit, Bailey created an outstanding centerpiece for the dinner table. Mr. Pickles approves.
All the photos I took of our three course meal came out blurry and dark, so I’m going to leave that coverage to the pros at The Farmer’s Husband. What I will say is that it was by far one of the best meals of my life, and along with the dazzling sensory experience of taste, smell and sight, there was also the sense of having earned this meal by getting my hands dirty and truly engaging myself in it. I felt so full that I had to undo the top button of my jeans but for the first time in my life I felt no shame associated with this fullness. Nary a hint of the words calories, exericize, weight, needing to justify this food or guilt reared its ugly head. I just felt nourished and content.
And for me, that was the gap closing right where it needed to.
The next morning I “helped” the boys with their chores by hovering about taking pictures. Here they are treating the pigs to some goat’s milk. I think the Lass was tickled mid milking and stomped her hoof in the bowl, warranting it pretty much unfit for human consumption. But just right for hungry piggies! Nothing is ever wasted on this farm and everything has a purpose.
Even rumps double as pillows.
Story time with the Littles.
Life imitating art imitating life.
Chicken city, rush hour.
Sandals are a poor choice on a farm during chores but my feet survived. In other news, I would like for my hair to mimic the coloring/pattern of this chicken. Can anyone help me with this?
That afternoon I boarded a bus back to NYC which connected to another bus to Philly which connected to another bus home. All the while in tow I had a mini-coolor with rabbit heads, pelts and feet for me and organs for my cats. They LOVE raw rabbit. I also had a generous amount of treats from the boys, clear eyes and a full heart.
*** It occurred to me I posted this that my sadness over mindless consumption transcends food, and is directly connected to waste. How many times have your pantyhose ripped and you just shrugged and threw them out, knowing you could just as easily replace them?
I’ll just buy another.
I have come to loathe those words. I’ve always had a disdain for waste, but my financial status as of late has forced me to put a very fine point on this. Waste is unacceptable. I cannot afford to throw anything out or damage my nice things so I handle my precious goods with care and find ways to use everything to the last drop. I’m talking about slicing open the moisturizer tube and scraping the inside to get one more dollop. I remember as a kid I thought it was so funny that my depression-era grandmother (who I’ve come to realise was never actually poor, she was just resourceful) would re-use her hosiery in so many creative ways: the elastic waist bands served to secure boxes of brownies, the material made into really cute puppets or even soap savers. Now I totally get it. This mentality of “just throwing it away and buying a new one” is why we have an entire industry built around “Field Destroying” (it’s so difficult to find info about this online but basically it’s when folks are paid to destroy any merchandise that is flawed or just plain undesirable instead or donating, or selling at a discount. It isn’t even permissible to toss these items in the garbage for fear of some filthy dumpster diver getting their dirty poor person paws on it. If this isn’t a the canary in the coal mine showing us how fucked up the retail/consumer system is, than my head is exploding for no reason.)
There is no connection to where our goods come from. Even if it’s techno-wares, someone’s hands touched it. Someone made the packaging. Someone trucked it over to your corner store and stocked it on a shelf for you and I, the consumers. I really hope that when my clients take a piece of mine home, they treasure it and feel all the blood sweat and tears I poured into that item. Obviously, a custom taxidermy hat is much more involved and labor intensive than a bobby pin but please, next time you’re at the counter, handing over your paper or plastic to be swiped, run through your mind the series of events which brought this product to your possession, and acknowledge the extraordinary amount of coordination and teamwork that made it possible. Thanks for reading.