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.
Owner, Portland Meat Collective