Musings

How Our Notion of “Creepy” is All Screwed Up: Or, Why I Butcher and Cure and Cook Pig Heads and Feel Just Fine About It.

Recently, Chris Onstad, a lovely writer for the Portland Mercury, took my Pig Head Butchery & Charcuterie class and wrote a very good piece about it. I especially thought it interesting that Chris used the article to explore notions of decadence. And I found myself pondering why it is that a recipe like Porchetta di Testa that has undeniable peasant roots has come to be seen as something decadent. If the very definition of decadence is, as Chris says, something that makes your mouth water and your hair stand on end, I’m quite interested in the “hair standing on its end part” especially within the context of eating animals–or rather, every part of an animal. When did using parts of the animal like the head or the feet make our hair stand on end? This most certainly wasn’t always so.  What psychological shift occurred to make these parts of the animal creep us out?

I reached the end of the article, and then, there was this: a lone reader comment. I try to stay away from online comments sections because they get so mean and ridiculous sometimes, but I couldn’t help but read this one from Oregon Mamacita:

“Let me start off by saying that I eat meat. Let me add that I don’t think that working in the meat department at a grocery store makes you a bad person by any stretch of the imagination. If my neighbor prides himself on BBQ ribs- more power to him (and pass the cole slaw). I have known many fisherman, but none made a fetish of the entrails.

At the same time- making a fetish of stripping the meat from a pigs head as art, entertainment and as a public act is just plain creepy. Not dissimilar from her public butchering of animals widely considered as pets.

There is something a bit off about this story, perhaps a whiff of sadism. Good luck with that.
Are there any normal hunters or backyard chicken raisers reading this comment? Please chime in. There’s stuff you gotta do, that no normal person enjoys, like killing mice. Then there’s Ms. Camas getting into death for fun, and that is creepy… Let’s not normalize this stuff.”

I’ve grown used to being called a sick murderer, a sociopath, a soul-less Nazi, anti-feminist, and a creepy psychokiller who apparently just kills (nay, “tortures”) animals purely for money, fun and entertainment. But I was rather shocked by this line of thinking, especially from a meat eater. And so, try as I did to just let it go, I couldn’t help but respond this way:

 

Dear Oregon Mamacita, I’m not keen on getting into a food fight online, as I’ve personally experienced the ways in which these forums devolve into mean-spirited, largely unproductive fights. I am not here to start one of those. But I absolutely have to respond to this.

Your response to the notion of making food out of a pig head (let alone someone teaching others how to do this) is a common one. And I think that a lot of people would make the assumptions that you’ve made in your comment in response to this article (which, by the way, I think is very beautifully written–nice work Chris). Making food out of a pig head–something that used to be quite common and “normal” here and elsewhere, and which still is “normal” in many parts of Europe–most definitely turns a lot of stomachs of meat eaters and non-meat eaters. So I understand, at least partially, where you’re coming from. But I want to explain why it is I teach this class, and hopefully expand your understanding of what it is I do and the philosophy behind it.

The reason I teach people how to make porchetta di testa and headcheese and guanciale and pate and rillette out of a pig head is to teach people how to use the whole animal. As it so happens, there’s a lot of useable and edible meat and fat in the head of a pig. As it so happens there’s also a lot of useable meat and fat and organs in the entire pig. Which is why I, as well as my other instructors, also teach people how to utilize the feet, the hocks, the intestines, the belly, the blood, the heart, the liver, the spleen, the lungs, the ears, the bones, the skin, the fat, and yes, the pork chops and hams and shoulder roasts. I firmly believe that if I am going to eat meat, I need to be able to use every part of an animal. Absolutely everything. Nothing should go to waste and I shouldn’t value one part over the other. In other words, I’ve no interest in fetishizing any part of the animal. And I don’t find that the process of utilizing the whole animal has anything to do with the fetishization of meat or meat-eating. It’s interesting, however, that such utilization has become something so exotic, so abnormal, (read: creepy, sadistic, off) to so many people who eat meat or not.

In fact, what should be interpreted as exotic, and outrageous, and creepy, and sadistic and off is the way in which we’ve normalized the system of meat production and meat consumption in America.

Once you learn to prepare and eat every part of the animal, your relationship to eating meat changes drastically. In fact you begin to eat a lot less of it. And you begin to realize how long a whole animal can be made to last. You also see that we are a society that would rather not be reminded that meat comes from an animal—funny how that face, those legs, that heart, those feet creep so many people out….and yet they still eat meat!

What’s the consequence of that attitude in which we deem only the un-animal-like parts of the animal edible and the rest creepy? The consequence is that we have a whole lot of people only wanting to eat pork chops and bacon and ground shoulder. And if we have a whole lot of people only wanting to eat pork chops and bacon but no other part of the animal, then we need to produce a lot more pigs to satisfy all those people. And since farmers can’t make money on any other parts, they have to sell more pigs to make enough money on the parts they can sell. And the best way to efficiently produce a lot more pigs just for pork chops and bacon? Factory farms, CAFOS, and other horribly inhumane, industrialized, and scary methods of meat production.

What’s sad, and wrong, and creepy is a society that believes its normal to only use certain parts of the animal and throw the rest to the dogs (literally). A society that raises a pig only for lean porkchops. That raises a chicken only for the white, tasteless breast meat. A society who deems someone who decides to transform a pig head into an edible meal sadistic and creepy. A society so unwilling to SEE and THINK (REALLY think) about what it is they are eating, where it came from, that we feel more comfortable just looking the other wayfrom a system of meat production that’s WAY MORE DISTURBING than a porchetta di testa could ever be.

So, again, this is not fun and games. This is not butchery as entertainment or art. And this is not the fetishization of a pig head or entrails or intestines (which by the way are what all sausages are encased in). I do what I do in the name of change, and in the hope that we can start to create a more sustainable, less destructive approach to meat production and consumption in this country.

It’s one thing if you want to argue that we shouldn’t eat meat at all. But among meat eaters, when did using the entire animal for food turn into a fetish, into something mean and sadistic and creepy? How is it that just buying porkchops and roasts from the local meat counter is somehow interpreted as the better thing to do, the moral thing to do? How is it that a “normal” hunter and fisher is supposed to not utilize all parts of the animal? But a weirdo, creepy hunter or fisher or meat eater for that matter does? These are questions that I think are worth exploring if we choose to eat meat. And I encourage you, Oregon Mamacita, to come watch a class and get a better sense for what it is we are doing and why we do what we do. There’s a much bigger picture here than you’ve imagined.

Yours,

Camas Davis
Owner, Portland Meat Collective
www.pdxmeat.com
info@pdxmeat.com

 

This entry was posted in Musings. Permalink

9 Responses to How Our Notion of “Creepy” is All Screwed Up: Or, Why I Butcher and Cure and Cook Pig Heads and Feel Just Fine About It.

  1. Robert says:

    I too discovered the collective by listening to this American life, and wonder if there is anything similar here in New Zealand. I have been having discussions, debates and arguments with people for years since I decided to reduce my meat consumption for my health and the health of the planet by mainly eating only meat that I kill and when I do buy farmed meat never to buy chicken or pig. The cows and sheep have a reasonably good life on New Zealand if a bad death, hence my choice to eat them two or three times a year.

    When I kill an animal, I feel duty bound to eat as much of it as possible, and find it all delicious.

    Good working on bringing a rational and reasonable point of view to others in a rational and reasonable way.

  2. Pingback: Head Cheese Revisited « beastinthekitchen

  3. Justin R. says:

    I am a vegetarian for around 15 years.

    I heard Camas on the episode “Animal Sacrifice” on the thisamericanlife.org radio show. Then I looked for the Portland Meat Collective website and read this post.

    If Camas statements are true about typical changes in behavior of her students, that they eat less meat afterwards and less store bought meat, then if you look purely at outcomes Camas is in fact helping the the “meat is murder” cause by reducing meat consumption. Instead of vilifying Camas, perhaps they should be encouraging people to go to classes like these.

    Camas is a much easier target than a teenager picking up a big mac at the local MacDonalds. Some people think that by publicly condemning classes like these they will win more people over to their side because it is easy to show the (“cute”) animal alive one moment and dead the next. Perhaps for the opponents it seems counter-intuitive, but encouraging people to go to these classes would probably better further their cause if we pay attention to net outcomes: most students will eat less meat and some will stop eating it altogether. The remaining students that will still eat a lot of meat were probably eating a lot before.

    Just like many in the staunchly vegetarian camp, Camas and her compatriots strike me as having an honest relationship with the food on their plates. Our society’s connection with food is drifting further and further away from where it is grown and/or raised. Camas and the vegetarian/animal rights people have more in common than the average American because they actually think about how most of our food is produced.

    I think it these two groups should agree to disagree on the consumption of meat and work together to educate people where not only the meat on their plate comes from but also the fruits and vegetables etc which can also be mass produced on large farms. A lot of people only really care that the food on their plate is cheap and available.

    Humans may not be obligate carnivores, but if someone takes responsibility for killing the meat they eat, I will respect their choice. My “beef” is not with Camas, but rather I object to all the people that choose what is on their plate, but can’t stomach the notion of slaughtering the animal that is feeding them.

    Those who insult Camas are truly misguided. She does not seem to a monster taking pleasure in killing, just an truly honest person that has decided to eat meat.

    Whatever our personal choices are, we should try to be honest.

    • Portland Meat Collective says:

      Thanks a lot for your response, Justin. It’s been my experience that most meat eaters who take my classes don’t really respond well to being vilified by vegetarians and vegans. But they do respond well to being given the opportunity to honestly talk about and confront the system by which meat gets to our tables. And that when they are given the opportunity to confront all of that, they start to shift their thinking, rather drastically actually. I’m of the opinion that we eat way too much meat. And that we eat way too much meat that’s raised by terrible systems of production. And that because the terrible systems of production happen behind closed doors, we allow our brains to stop thinking and working and we just buy all that meat raised by terrible systems of production and we buy a lot of it because it’s easy protein to swallow. If all those doors to the terrible system of production were opened up, and if we gave people the opportunity to try and come up with an alternative system of meat production one whose goal isn’t to provide a population of people who wants pork chops for every meal, we’d a) eat a lot less meat and b) really dedicate ourselves to thinking about what it means to kill an animal for food, thereby c) causing us to recalibrate our respect for the animal world, whether or not we still choose to eat meat, and d) rethink the role of meat in our diet.

      I don’t know if the world will ever stop eating meat altogether, but I’m all for trying to create a world in which we severely curb our habits, and severely change our brains such that we HAVE TO think about what it is that is on our plate, and in which we truly dedicate ourselves to rethinking the way in which food gets to our tables, such that we come to truly understand what worship and sacrifice mean in the context of eating animals and then go from there. It might seem like a slow evolution, but I can guarantee you people are going to change their eating philosophies and behaviors based on that kind of positive creation and rethinking of the world than they are going to based on being called murderers and nazis by angry vegans.

  4. Jessica says:

    As a Wisconsinite who raises and butchers my own hogs…Here Here! Thank goodness someone is not only seeing the big picture, but articulating the wrongs of our food system and our American eater’s disjointed logic excellently. Maybe Oregon Mamacita hasn’t had the pleasure of tasting scrapple? It won me over.

  5. Athena P. says:

    Beautifully written.
    Eating livers & lights & heads & feet is the proper way to approach eating animals with respect for the animal. As for fishing, and ‘fetishizing the entrails’, I use all the parts of the fish that humans can eat: fish heads (cheeks) are lovely, and boiling fins with scaled skin & bones & fleshy bits is the ‘magic’ recipe for fish broth. Waste not, want not.

  6. Vincer says:

    Nuff said! I am forwarding this to all of my friends.

  7. Julie Webster says:

    Excellent reply!
    I eat whole hog here, and have dined on many a pigs head, back bone with tail and trotters. All of it. I don’t waste a bite.
    I wonder why folks who are inexperienced in this, want to find it creepy or bad? Holey heck, it’s the best way to eat an animal, I think. Nothing wasted, every bit used and appreciated.
    On my place, the animal is loved and cherished and played with up until that last day. A happy pig (turkey, duck, chicken) makes a tasty one!
    I will ALWAYS eat meat. I LOVE eating meat. I will also raise my own meat animals, and KNOW that they have the best treatment out in the sun and on the pasture they could have.
    I surely appreciate your classes, Camas. You teach valuable skills that were once commonplace, and need to be commonplace again. We’ve moved so far away from where our food comes from, it’s scary. Folks just don’t connect the pig or cow in the field, to the hunk of meat on the styrofoam tray. They see them as totally different.
    Keep up the educating and great classes!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>