It’s been over two years since I originally planned on writing this story and I’ve struggled with it for a very long time. The butchery of animals is a necessary component of our modern day food chain. But few ever get to experience the reality of seeing a walking, living animal going from breath to death in an instant. Witnessing a beef slaughter (or any other animal for that matter) is a visceral experience – and it’s not for everybody. Having the opportunity to see that very same animal be processed in under an hour takes it to another level. I’ve reflected on this event often and it still has a profound impact on me today.
I worked in fish markets for several years through college and I’ve seen my fair share of nasty bits. I have dealt with things like the great displeasure of gutting a shark only to find other, formerly living fish half-digested in its belly. Nothing will cure your hangover at 6 am quite like it! None of that prepared me for the journey I was about to take out to Chimacum on the Olympic Peninsula to visit with Phil, Doyle and the rest of the crew at Egg and I farm.
I took the ferry from Edmonds to Kingston in January and typically rainy and medium grey on the way over to the farm. The drive from the landing out to the farm was filled with creepy, almost medieval looking forests filled with emerald greens brightly contrasting colors of vibrant, dangling lichen hanging off the branches just over the road.
Looking out the car window at my surroundings I could grasp the reason grunge music came from Seattle. To me, it captures the sounds and general feeling of greyness, malaise, rain, solitude – it all comes through in the music. The voices of Kurt, Eddie and Chris accompanied me on this trip to see the slaughter of an angry cow named Artemis.
The phrase “know where your food comes from” has gotten a lot of play over the past several years and it’s only a matter of time before ‘Big Food’ begin to use it in a way that makes it become cliché if it hasn’t already. I’ve written and spoken these words many times and I have done my best to put my money where my mouth or pen is. I had been offered the opportunity to meet Phil Vogelzang after writing an article on Staging at the Fatted Calf in Napa Valley that he saw in Seattle Weekly. He’d reached out to the editor and she put us in touch which set the wheels in motion for the journey.
The Moonlighting Pig Farmer
Phil is a city-dwelling Radiologist by day and a part-time cattle and pig farmer on the side. He raises Scottish Highland cattle and Tamworth pigs with his business partner Doyle who runs the day-to-day operation. Phil told me that he raises the Highlands as they are about as close as you can get to a wild Scottish cow. They are a very old breed, are sturdy and they don’t need much care or meds. Bonus – they are very cool looking with their long hair and are known to be a little leaner on cover fat and they marble up nice. Tasty.
Phil’s ranch is in Chimacum, Washington and it was once owned by author Betty MacDonald of The Egg and I fame. On that same property he has a communal abattoir which can be used for free by the local community with only a promise to keep it clean. He’d offered to meet in early January for the planned slaughter of a cow and, of course, I jumped at the chance. This was an experience I wanted first-hand and I felt compelled to go.
I purposefully didn’t eat before arriving as I was unsure about how the event would affect me. I don’t know if it was nerves or excitement. The killing of an animal for food does not frighten me. Nor am I some Pollyanna thinking that my food comes from a factory or ‘some other place’ that I don’t have to think about. I know what happens to animals and I’ve worked on butchering them extensively. None of that experience prepared me for seeing an 800 pound animal being killed right before my eyes. It was essential for me to earn my badge of honor by watching the beef slaughter process to even begin to credibly say I knew anything about meat.
A Peaceful Prelude
When I arrived on the farm there were several stunningly beautiful shaggy brown cows in a paddock with a mother and daughter calf in a separate pen. Apparently, the cow was fittingly named Artemis though she had an issue with one eye which made her a bit ornery. She was also just over 5 years of age (ancient in cattle terms) – so it was agreed that she would be slaughtered for ground beef as she’d passed the point of being tender enough for steaks and other cuts.
Almost immediately, I was struck by the connection between the mother and her calf and it was clear that even though the younger one had been weaned – she was still dependent on her mother for companionship. They strode together, looking on as they knew something was up.
As the process got started, James, Matt and Phil worked to corral both mother and calf into a pen. I’d asked Phil if he thought it would be appropriate to move the calf away from the mother prior to slaughter to which he agreed noting that the added stress on the animal would be unnecessary. However, the mother was shot in front of the calf which was a bit disturbing to me – and likely the calf.
A Shock to the System
After much cajoling and general chasing around the pen, the men finally coaxed Aretmis close enough to the edge of the pen so that she could be shot. While Doyle held a .22 caliber rifle behind the corner of a building, the others prompted her up to the rail. I positioned myself to take a photo and snapped the shutter just as the gunshot rang out. Even though I’d expected it, I still bit my tongue as the gun fired.
Artemis went right down and Phil went to work severing the jugular vein with a short knife. It was a struggle that was difficult to watch as I was unsure if the cow was brain-dead given all of its writhing movement. Phil and Doyle assured me it was though the cow seemed to still be breathing even as Phil severed the jugular on the other side of its neck. Bright, red blood flowed to the ground in spurts as the heart continued to beat until finally it seemed she was dead.
The rest of the men readied a pulley to hang the cow from as Phil went about the task of cutting a slit between its leg bone and Achilles’ tendon so that it could be hung. Artemis was still kicking and everyone now seemed unsure whether it was dead. Doyle put another shot in its head and I bit my tongue again at the sound of the shot and the smell of gunpowder. At that point, she seemed to finally stop kicking and Phil could make the necessary cuts to continue the slaughter.
The Beef Slaughter Process
The team went about hanging up the cow on the pulley so that it could be lowered and rested on a sawhorse-type of contraption for skinning.
The crew worked on making incisions to remove the hooves while Doyle cut off the animal’s head.
The cow was then skinned to a point where Phil would work on breaking open the chest cavity for removal of the organs.
Once the cow’s skin had been removed, Phil broke down the middle with a Sawzall and Matt positioned garbage can for the innards while the cow was hung from a lintel on the outside of the abattoir.
Doyle and Phil worked to tie the bung was tied to prevent leakage from the intestines as it was pulled through the body and out of the cow.
The liver and heart were put into bucket for me to take home (the latter of which I made into an awesome pastrami). The rest of the edible offal was given to woman named Jeane down the road who had some dogs. The non-edibles, including the head, were dumped into a nearby compost pit to decompose and use down the road to start the cycle of life all over again.
I was amazed to see that even after 45 minutes of the cow being taken down, small muscles were still twitching all over its body. It was surreal to watch this happen with miscellaneous electrical impulses firing out from the spine. I was waiting in anticipation for the cow to somehow become reanimated and to seek vengeance on us all.
At one point, someone accidentally punctured the stomach and the odor wafted out in waves of sour, fermented grass that took me to the brink of nausea. As the cow was quartered, Doyle split the stomach of the cow to show me the varied, rugged surface area inside. It was interesting to see the structure of the internal organs as well as the trachea and windpipe which reminded me of almost PVC-like plumbing. All this amidst the varying aromas emanating from the cow, blood being everywhere and several men working together rapidly in unison.
The men were using knives which seemed out-of-place and odd for the task. I know my knives and I have several suitable for such a task. I couldn’t figure out why these guys were using such dull, short knives for the job. There was also a camaraderie established between the group. They were working hard in dreary wet weather on what would be deemed by many as a very unpleasant task. When one of the guys got splashed with mud and guts everyone laughed – it was a weird sort of bonding experience.
All the while I observed, snapping photos and asking questions. There was a lingering metallic taste of iron and gunpowder in my mouth the entire time. It was incredible to think about this massive living being that was now dead and quartered in front of me not an hour later.
Now it was in a refrigerated walk-in at the on-site abattoir and would age 14 days before being ground. It would feed many mouths. At one point, Doyle commented that he wasn’t keen on the cow in the first place. He was happy to see it go. I silently wondered if he would enjoy eating it or if his opinion of the deceased would carry on in the afterlife.
Later, after the beef slaughter was finished, the young calf was herded into a mobile trailer.It took four people to get her up the ramp and into the trailer. She ran wildly into things and didn’t seem to want to go. Finally, exhausted, she gave up on the ramp where two men pushed and another pulled her into the trailer. She was headed off to another pasture at Matt’s house nearby.
I can’t imagine what had gone through the calf’s mind that day – if anything other than fear. The whole experience made me think of animals and what feelings they might have. While I came to experience a beef slaughter – I left feeling much different about the process. I was more affected by the emotion of the day that the simple butchery of an animal. Everything that calf had ever known no longer existed or mattered. And everything I thought I knew about the process of bringing meat to my table had changed.