The difficulty, beauty and artistry of MEAT.

Meat. For much of my life it was mostly an object, a thing.  Something that we picked up at the grocery store, and which created heavenly aromas from the stovetop, oven or barbeque.  There is no denying that we relished it's flavor.  But to say I felt the sacrifice of a living creature which died so that I could eat?  Not so much. It wasn't until these recent homesteading years that this has become very, VERY real. Butchering our first chickens as a family was a good first start. I'm very comfortable with a whole chicken.  I can piece it out into it's parts - legs, thighs, breasts, wings.  It's a wonderful simple skill to have.  So... the chicken butchering wasn't too traumatic - we learned that the most daunting part (plucking) wasn't actually too hard. The process that took it from being seen as an animal to being seen as food was interesting.

  1. It began with an animal we knew, had raised and fed with care.
  2. Then, it became a dead animal - bleeding and maimed... but soon,
  3. it seemed to magically transform into... well... food!

It was that satisfying moment when the last feather was plucked, the feet were clipped off and all of a sudden - voila! The recognizable naked, headless, footless chicken - looked.... edible.  And definitely not as intimidating. To my grocery-store trained eye - THAT was food. Raising rabbits has been another step deeper into this intimacy with meat. I have killed, dressed and cooked a chicken on my own.  Start to finish.  It was an emotional experience to take the life (even of that mean rooster) but I did it. The rabbits are a bit different.  I would have to be really hungry to do the killing myself.   Having raised them when he was young, my husband knows how to quickly and humanely kill the animal.  He removes the head and pelt, guts the rabbit, and places it to chill in cold water.   The girls and I work on fleshing and salting the pelts - then move the rabbit meat to the fridge to rest.   We are experimenting with tanning these gorgeous rabbit hides - hoping to end up with some fur-lined winter caps, ear muffs or fur-lined slippers for next year.


Knowing an animal throughout it's life - becoming somewhat attached to it's quirks, or even just the comfort of regularly seeing it on the homestead, makes eating it  - different.  Because this was the purpose of us breeding these animals - we know this from the start. Still - I must admit to realizing... it is a heavy thing to be a carnivore.

There's no denying the visceral experience of piecing out a rabbit, learning at what part of the backbone to cut through the vertebrae in order to divide the pieces evenly.  I have a backbone, too ... I ponder.  Or removing the legs and thinking of how I watched this baby rabbit bounce sideways with energy in the backyard just a few months before. Here's the difference between the grocery store meat and my own animal's meat:  There's a connection. It is no longer just an object. It's a beautiful creature that lived a healthy, happy life under my care. It's also delicious and very nourishing.  Because it died so that my family and I could enjoy it as food - it should be respected.  And used wisely. I am up past midnight writing this - feeling filled up with inspiration because of these videos from Farmstead Meatsmith.

My husband and I had a fabulous time watching them, we kept pausing to talk about what we were learning, how fascinating it was to see each step.  These videos are SO educational, artistically done, quirky and just... fantastic.  I am struck by the fact that butchery and charcuterie (fancy name for curing meat) have become lost arts in America.  I am inspired and look forward to the day when we gather several families together, work hard to slaughter an enire pig, give thanks for the bounty, take care to use every part, and revel in the delicious result. My love for history plays into this emotional evening as well.

This year I've been enjoying studying and digging deep into Italy - my relatives, the culture of food and traditions that feel so close to my heart.  I can't help but think of how lovely it is to be going back to the way that my grandparents lived.  For them, watching a pig killing would have been very normal. And it wasn't only my Italian family that lived this way - but my relatives from both sides of the family.  (Don't worry Dad - I haven't forgot your side!)  I enjoy reading the details of life on the homestead in Indiana where my father's grandfather lived before moving to California.    The fact is, 100 years ago - ALL families knew how to butcher an animal to provide for their needs. In my favorite series "Two Greedy Italians"  Gennaro Contaldo and Antonio Carluccio share what it was like for them to take part in a festa del maiale (pig killing).  " this is one of the most important scenes in any Italian village, they share. 

"In our day, everyone had a pig. The meat would feed a family for a whole year.  Pig produce is central to the Italian way of eating." Antonio goes on to say that the pig was the 'ultimate sacrifice of the pig for the good of the family'.

There's something to stop and ponder.

This pig is not simply 'some cuts of meat' - it's not just an object. I love this scene. These two grown men are standing, watching a pig about to be slaughtered.   They are being flooded with memories of taking part in this important, but difficult act as young boys. Gennaro winces as the pig is killed (it is not shown on film).  He rolls up his sleeves nervously, as if about to help.  He goes on to say how he would watch his mama - wondering why she didn't cry.   It is emotional.

It should be emotional.  

A beautiful animal just died... 'for the good of the family.' In our society, the artisan skills that once could be found in every village - have been taken over by large scale factories.  This 'ultimate sacrifice for the good of the family' is done in secret - behind large gates, (often under horrible conditions) and we are sheltered from this important but difficult aspect of our survival. Watching Gennaro make pig's blood chocolate pudding, watching children helping to stuff sausages.

These are experiences that I want to have!  I yearn for the intimate knowledge of the food that I eat.  There is satisfaction in getting your hands dirty, working hard along with family and friends - to put every part of the animal to use.    Knowing that your larder is full and you will eat well for the year.  Eating the delicious products from an animal that lived a happy life, was treated and fed well - and appreciating it's sacrifice. There is such beauty, enjoyment and richness in taking part of every step of producing food.   I hope that my daughters will recall these memories into their old age, and be able to pass them on to their children.

Cucina Povera - 'the food of the poor'

The girls and I have been studying Italy lately.  We enjoy camping out on a subject and digging in deep.  It's not hard (obviously) for me to dig deep into Italy.  We started with studying where our Italian relatives came from - learned about Ellis Island, then turned our attention to working on learning Italy's 20 regions - and what makes them distinct.

While searching for information about the Campania region - we stumbled upon this BBC series that has captured us, called 'Two Greedy Italians'.  I was jumping up and down in my kitchen, actually - when I realized this show includes my favorite Italian chef - Gennaro Contaldo.  Remember him? I've posted a LINK to his video on how to make home made pasta.  I feel like he is family to me, somehow.   I just LOVE watching him cook, hearing him passionately talk about food.

In this episode, these two crazy, hungry Italians share about how 'poor man's food' - or 'Cucina Povera' came out of very difficult economic times in Southern Italy.  It led to food like pasta & pizza - when the more expensive food items were out of reach for most families.

We talked about Cucina Povera in the kitchen as we tried rolling out our own 'fusilli' like the 89 year old lady on the documentary had done.  (Wow, what a skill!  Ours took 4 hours, and didn't look half as pretty as hers).  

The next day, we talked about it some more.  I didn't have 'anything' for lunch... but I DID have that dried pasta, and onion and garlic.  We picked some collards from the garden, sauteed them with onion, garlic and a tiny bit of anchovy for flavor.  I dumped in some cooked garbanzo beans and even threw in a leftover cooked sweet potato.  After the pasta was done, we tossed it with our sauteed mixture.  Longing for some Parmesan which I didn't have... I remembered that Italian families who couldn't afford cheese on their pasta would toast some stale bread crumbs to sprinkle on top, instead.


We basked in the glory of that simple lunch.  All of our bellies were full - even though our meager pile of home made dried pasta had looked so small to begin with.

We can relate to Cucina Povera.  We live on a small business income - my hard working husband supporting the six of us.  Although we are so grateful that his work has stayed steady - there still can be gaps of several weeks when we have to make things stretch.  This week was one of them.  As I looked over the cabinets and fridge - I had to prioritize the bills that are due this week - and make some smart decisions about how to make what we have on hand  last until that next check comes.  I usually take lots of deep breaths and quietly pray for creativity.  This time, the lesson fit too well into our studies not to discuss it with the girls.

I order bulk items from a co-op (which allows me to get them at near wholesale price) so I usually have a good stash of wheat/kamut (for grinding into flour), a good selection of beans, dried corn and rice.   Then we have our large garden, which is nearly done at this time in November.  But we still are harvesting some items.  

It was fun to talk openly with the girls about it.  'OK ladies.  Let's get creative.  We get to use 'Cucina Povera' this week and figure out how to make some great meals with what we have.  Want to help me think? What do we still have in the garden to pick?  "Swiss chard!"  "Beets & carrots!" "Radishes, kale, collards".  These cuties lit up as they helped me decide if we should do cooked beets, or slice them raw for a salad.  We talked about the fact that although we don't have any meat on hand, we DO have a lovely full bag of bones and scraps for making soup stock.  We put those in a pot to simmer, and enjoyed the wonderful smell that it brought to the house.  

We did purchase a bag of potatoes, simmered onion and garlic and picked herbs from the garden to sautee in some fresh bacon grease we'd saved.  Nothing 'povera' about those aromas.  A lovely potato & carrot soup emerged from our home that night.  Some of the beet tops were chopped and added at the end.  We smeared toasted bread (baked the day before) with a home made fennel pesto (from the recent trimmings of our fennel bush that would soon freeze) - put the crusty bread in the bottom of each bowl -and ladled the warm goodness on top (an idea that Gennaro & Antonio had inspired). We had a raw beet, radish, carrot & kale salad that had marinated in some vinegar while the soup cooked.  Of course, I thought about how good that soup would have been with some lovely sausage floating in between the potatoes, or how nice some Parmigiano Reggiano would be melting on top....

But that meal was delicious.

 The girls slurped down every bite and went back for more, and husband said it was his favorite meal in weeks.  It sure DID get me in touch with the exact things that my Italian ancestors must have done.  Saving scraps, bits of fat, meat and things can stretch and give incredible flavor to humble food like potatoes and stale bread.  

It was interesting to hear some questions that the girls asked that day - "Mom, are we poor?"  They ask these kind of questions at different times.  Sometimes it's "Are we rich?"  My answer is usually the same.  

"We are both.  And we are neither.  We can feel either way, depending on who we compare ourselves to."  This is where our discussion floats to Haiti, The Philippines, Mexico or other places I've visited - and feeds my longing to take them to these places.  My favorite way to look at it is that "we have exactly what we need."  

Although I'm just learning the word for it, Cucina Povera to me, is a good friend.  It has been with me for years.  It challenges me to think above my struggle and dig deep with creativity.  To stop comparing my life to the friend who never sweats when she has to buy groceries, but instead, remember my great-grandparents who were rewarded (as I am) with the deep satisfaction of making something really, really good out of 'nothing'.