Eating Local: The sacrifice made for our sustenance
Dan looked the part of the rugged frontiersman. Bearded, with long silky hair under a weird leather hat sewn with sheepskin, he arrived in a van with the butcher from Eagle Springs Meats. He wore tall boots, jeans and a leather vest, and a big knife swung from his belt in its sheath. His open manner and natural swagger was all mountain man. Jeremiah Johnson had come to Colby Farm to help send my lambs to a better place after their one endless summer.
Last time it didn’t go so well. Mark Montgomery, the butcher, agreed to come to my place to do in the not-so-little-anymore darlings, since we had no way to transport them anywhere, and I thought it would be less stressful for the lambs. He didn’t know what greenhorns we were. Ed was home that day; I had gone off to Denver on some pretext.
Afterward, everyone was traumatized. The sheep had been loose, so when the shooting started, the flock could see and hear what was happening, and smell the blood. As Mark pointed out, they’re animals, but they’re not dumb.
I expected Ed, a manly ski patroller who’s seen his share of busted limbs and worse on the mountain, to be stoic. But there was something faraway in his manner when I returned from the city. Even Mark was shaken by the experience, and his son informed him he’d never help out again.
This year when I called, Mark sounded reluctant to star in the sequel. Maybe he’d sworn there would be no more house calls.
I was determined that the grim business run more smoothly this time. After consulting with Mark, I set up a little chute to a dead end that the lambs would move quite naturally into from their barn door. I covered the wire fence with a tarp so they wouldn’t see their flock-mates that had gone before them. The only tricky part would be getting them to leave the barn one at a time, against all instinct and better judgment. Pepper the heeler could help with that. We practiced a little the day before.
When the team from Eagle Springs Meats in Rifle was assembled, there were half a dozen of them. Mark must have wanted plenty of support, and my lambs would provide an opportunity for specialized training in the field.
I once tuned into a radio talk show that featured a couple who raised a pig much like a pet, then had it slaughtered and wrote a book about the experience, including recipes. Listeners called in not asking for cooking tips, but to vilify the authors, who had seen the fear in their porcine friend’s eye as he glanced back at them before he trotted down the chute.
Friends have similarly told me they could never eat an animal they had personally known. They prefer the odorless anonymity of the supermarket meat case, even though millions of animals we use for meat, from chickens on up, suffer hellish lives.
This is the kinder, gentler way. Our lambs romped freely among the apple trees, grazed on sweet grass and alfalfa, faced off with Pepper. They had a great life and one bad day, and this was it.
I was going to face it straight on. I had steeled myself for this day.
It all happens quickly. First there’s a gun to the back of the head, then a knife to the throat after she drops. It isn’t pretty. There’s plenty of blood and reflexive kicking. Mark assured everyone the lamb feels nothing at this point; it’s just spinal nerves firing.
Pepper performed his part just fine for the first lamb or two, letting one slip through and holding the rest back, then pushing the lone lamb toward the chute around the side of the barn. I moved down to watch the kill, and my blue heeler, who tormented but loved those lambs, followed me.
Suddenly he wanted no part of it. I gave the command, “Walk up,” but instead he backed away. Later a friend said, “That proves your dog has a conscience.”
The team hoisted the lambs to hang from a bar Ed fastened in an apple tree, and Mark coached them through drawing and skinning them while Ed looked on.
I noticed Pepper was nowhere to be seen, and walked up to the lambs’ stall where his lead still lay on the ground. As I picked it up, he peered from behind a junked car, and I realized he’d been hiding in the far corner of the property where the fence hemmed him in. I coaxed him back down to the house.
Mark showed me how to rinse and salt the hides for tanning. Last time we threw those sheepskins away, which seemed like a waste. The work kept me busy, until I noticed Ed was missing. I found him stretched out on our bed. “Are you all right?” I asked.
“I’m OK,” he said. “I’m just done with this.”
He’d made friends with the biggest of the lambs. She nuzzled him and liked him to scratch her ears.
Soon we’ll pick up the succulent cuts of tender, fatty, organic meat, expertly portioned, vacuum sealed and frozen by Eagle Springs Meats. I’ll call the friends who have reserved their half a lamb. And when I serve an elegant rack of lamb at home, it will truly be a thanksgiving meal, since we will know the sacrifice that was made for our sustenance.
Marilyn Gleason works at eating locally on her Peach Valley farm. She welcomes your comments and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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