At the end of last year in the Philippines, we were treated to lechon.
The pigs, two of them, were brought to the house the night prior to roasting. They were killed before dawn thirty feet from our bedroom window, behind an old granary on a concrete slab overlooking a field. Laying in bed, Dave heard frantic squeals right before the pigs met their end. It was quick, he said, just a burst of noise and then nothing. I'm glad I slept through it.
I'd planned to wake in time to see them prepared for the roasting pit. The food journalist in me was determined to watch the whole process - the killing, the bleeding, the removal of hair, the gutting, the anus-to-mouth skewering.
In fact, I missed most of it. I forgot to set my alarm. Or did I? By the time I got there the lechonero and his assistant were stitching up bellies, rinsing big floppy livers and coils of intestine and stomach, slitting bladders and emptying bile onto the grass. The pigs' faces wore sweet, peaceful smiles. Their hairless skins glowed pale pink, like babies fresh from a hot bath.
Four hours later I lay a piece of that skin on my tongue and savored its salty fattiness before shattering it with my teeth.
I've always eaten meat, but since moving to Malaysia my consumption has increased. Ironically, it's during this same period that I've also been closer than ever to my meat before it is meat. This is no alien concept to those of you who grew up with wet markets, with live chickens killed to order, whole pig halves hung on hooks, ox tails intact and sprouting hair, and whole skinned sheep heads displayed on tables, lifeless eyes bulging.
But where I grew up, in 1970s midwestern United States, meat was meat and animals were animals. The former, trimmed or chopped and wrapped in plastic or displayed in a sterile, refrigerated butcher case, had no connection with the latter, which one might see on TV or caress in a petting zoo. Meat was something you ate. An animal was something you might raise as a pet.
Pigs are intelligent animals, I know, at least as intelligent as dogs. I befriended one decades ago, when I worked at my agricultural university's large-animal veterinary facility. He recognized me after only two days - trotted right to the edge of his pen every morning when I entered the barn, pointed his snout up at me, and grunted until I scratched his bristled head. He had a name and came when called, turned around on command. Back then, I never gave him a second thought when, at home on the weekends, I tucked into my mother's pork chops. Lately I've thought of him every time I'm face-to-face with a lechon.
I love animals. I mourn for the frogs and lizards squished flat on the road in front of our house. I'll go out of my way to move a snail from a well-trod piece of concrete to a safe patch of wet dirt. I ache for homeless dogs and cats and over the years I've adopted many, not one of them a planned acquisition.
So how can I do it? How do I watch a vendor grab a chicken by its feet, suspend it over a barrel, and slit its throat? How do I watch its body jerk as it bleeds to death, and then turn around and carry its head-on, feet-on carcass home to the soup pot? How can I rub a cow's head and look into its limpid eyes, as I used to do when we hiked in northern California's parks, and then salivate over the thought of a grilled steak? How do I witness the indignity to which a pig is subjected when it's killed (or, if not witness it, read about it in gruesome detail) and still rub my hands with glee at the thought of lechon?
Lately, chefs and writers and farmers and food bloggers have been arguing for the importance of getting up close and personal with what's on our plates, formerly living protein included. In a piece about staying on a working farm in Tuscany in the February issue of Bon Appetit, Ann Hood writes about the satisfaction of witnessing the cycle that brings pig to the plate in the form of prosciutto (well, not all of the cycle - she wasn't there for the slaughter), noting that it's given her a 'new respect' for the meat she eats. She writes:
There is something about knowing the pig whose head you are eating that makes it more palatable.
Really? I have my doubts. If I knew an animal well enough to actually respect it, could I end its life (or have someone else do it in my place) just to fill my belly and satisfy my palate? Honestly, if I knew the pig whose head was on my plate I'd never put it in my mouth in the first place. I don't, and won't ever, eat dog or cat - or raise a pig as a pet, for that matter - for that very reason.
It's a very good thing, I think, that more and more carnivores are truly aware that pork and beef and lamb used to be pigs and cows and baby sheep. And it's a good thing that we know more about how they got from the one state to the other, if only because shedding light on the process might attract support for more humane living (and killing) conditions for the animals that we consume. But some arguments for looking one's dinner square in the eye border on the extreme, intimating that those of us who can't - or wouldn't even if we could - go the distance to know our meat aren't quite morally qualified to eat it.
Two weeks ago we visited a lechon shop in Mindanao, and watched the preparation of lechon post-slaughter to post-spit. At one point I wandered over to the pen in the corner of the shop where a few cute suckling pigs awaited their fate. I looked down at them, out the door at the spot where they'd soon be killed, and over at their brethren browning on the spits. And turned my head and walked away, quickly. And then ate lechon for lunch later that week.
I know that the seared-on-the-outside, pink-within slab on my plate used to be part of a living, breathing being. And that's as much as I want to know. When it comes to 'knowing' my meat, I'm going to buck the trend and admit that I have my limits.