My grandmother raised Angus cattle east of the mountains, outside Sunnyside. We often went over on weekends. We mended fence, and we took the cattle from pretty pastures out to prettier sagebrush and back in the ancient International Harvester truck, which I learned how to drive at a very young age. When we branded—heating the branding iron to red-hot over a fire in the corral, guiding the cattle through a labyrinth of fences with more yells than whipping, squeezing them tight one at a time in the metal-barred chute—my job was to clip off the fur on their sides in a square so my dad or brother could apply the iron. It smelled pretty bad, and the cow would bellow mightily, its eyes rolling back in its head. Then, released, it would forget instantly, walking away calm and docile.
Aside from that, they only had one bad day, those cows. They'd go away—killed and butchered elsewhere, by those whose job that was—and come back in pieces, wrapped in white paper. We were not well-off when I was a child, but we always had a large quantity of beef in the freezer. After I left home, I hardly ate beef at all for several years. I was sick of it—even steak—and when I did have it elsewhere, it tasted terrible.
When she was mending fence or bucking hay or hauling cattle or branding, my grandma wore an old bandana on her head with a cowboy hat on top of that, rubber boots, utilitarian clothes. As she got old, when it was cold, she wrapped and pinned rags around her arthritic wrists. She raised cattle pretty much by herself into her late 70s (and lived alone on the ranch until she died at 96). The only cow that ever had a name was the last one, a blind steer that I took to calling Ray Charles. He stayed in the pasture by the house and liked to be near the fence; maybe he was bored or lonely. His eyes were like a cat's caught at night in bright light, discs of beautiful mirror. Eventually, we ate him. He was extra tasty, maybe because he didn't walk around a lot, maybe because he was the end of the line for family beef.
My grandmother had a very low tolerance for any kind of foolishness. I'm pretty sure if I could tell her about a bunch of city people paying $50 a head to stand around in the mud and watch a pig die, she'd say, "Oh, for god's sake." And the rhetoric that Culinary Communion—the Seattle cooking school that put together such an event at a farm in Port Orchard in January and is doing so again this Sunday—has bandied about gives me much the same reaction. They've called it a "sacrificio," invoked "ancient tradition," made much ado about community, named the pig (Hector the first time), given a subsequent dinner a title worthy of a grad-school thesis ("Snout to Tail/Celebrating the Demise of Hector; Long Live Hector"). It's profoundly indulgent, both over- and under-intellectualized, arguably voyeuristic, and plain old disturbing, and not in a knee-jerk PETA way: 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?
That said, Culinary Communion's pig kill in January was marvelous. The farm was antipicturesque, with piles of both figurative and literal crap everywhere, the mark (my grandmother would agree) of a real working farm of the you-never-know-when-you-might-need-it variety. People brought their children, who jumped up and down in mud puddles, which was picturesque. It was cold but sunny, and the mulled wine provided straightaway in the early morning was sour and bracing. The pig, meanwhile, had a last meal of fine slop: rice, old hamburger buns, and melting ice cream. The killing part of the gathering was solemn and respectful. Culinary Communion head chef/main man Gabriel Claycamp—not a regular gun-shooter, looking pale and grave—thanked everyone for coming "to celebrate the life and demise of Hector," crouched down to look the pig in the eye, and then got a very clean, close-range shot to the pig's head with a .22. No one cried but me, and I thought of my grandmother and quickly cut it out. Claycamp got kicked in the ear hard during the pig's (brief, silent) death throes. (Revenge!)
Then the pig was bled, the blood saved for blood sausage. The hair was singed off the carcass. Gutting and sawing ensued. The kids were front and center for all of this, completely captivated and not at all grossed out. At one point, the saw-wielding man—a professional who travels with a killing/butchering truck brought in to do the heavy lifting—asked Claycamp, "You want me to saw through the head?" Before Claycamp could answer, a kid yelled, "YEEEEAAAAH!"
Then Claycamp did the breakdown—dismantling the pig while explaining every piece, giving a whole new perspective on bacon, ham, guanciale, etc. Anyone who wanted to could help with the butchering and charcuterie, and many people joined in, with varying degrees of knife skills ("I mangled the ham!" said one man with furrowed brow). The kids loved this, too. Everyone kept saying that the texture of the meat was extraordinary, which it was: all jellylike, more akin to raw tuna than the rigor-mortis meat one usually handles. And it was still warm.
Annoying rhetoric it may be, but it's true: A temporary community was formed. Only the couple who arrived postslaughter never really joined it; they stood clinging to each other and drinking wine at a safe distance from the carcass. They were at my table at the dinner the next night, looking much more comfortable, talking about being lawyers, and using the name "Hector" a lot. Watching a pig die was vastly more interesting than dining with these people in Culinary Communion's lovely dining room.
This Sunday, as back in January, a band will play and lunch will be served, including some bits of the newly dead pig, which will be delicious. (The rest of it, whatever its name may be, will become prosciutto and other meat products, available for purchase by participants only.) If you get the chance—if you're not squeamish—you should go.