Monday, December 5, 2011

Cow to Beef

It wasn't the best weekend to leave town. I worked all day Friday so I was leaving Seattle late. I turned down an event I really wanted to volunteer with, a fundraising dinner for Just Garden. There was not one, but two different friends' birthdays on Saturday. But it's rare to get a chance to go out to our family's property in the San Juan islands in December. In fact, in my almost 3 decades of life, I don't think I ever have. And I have definitely never been a part of slaughtering any cows that the family raised.

Yes, that's why I went out for the weekend. Vegetarian friends, you may not wish to read on. My family has raised organic, pastured, grass-fed cows on this land since I can remember. Usually they are sold live at a cattle auction, but for a variety of reasons including lack of profit margin and lack of full-time residents on the property to care for the animals, we are starting to phase out raising cows at all. So we are slaughtering the ones we have and keeping the meat in the family in our last years of beef production.

It may seem strange, even inhumane, for me to set aside a weekend to kill a huge animal. Anyone who knows me knows I'm the kind of person who won't kill a spider- even at a friend's house I will offer to take the spider outside for them, trapped between a piece of paper and a cup while in transit. But I eat meat, and prefer to eat animals that lived happy, healthy lives and died quickly with as little suffering as possible. The best way to ensure this is to eat animals that I've had a part in that process.

I got out to the island early Saturday morning, thanks to my step-dad picking me up on Orcas. He had french-pressed coffee ready for me in the thermos, and we enjoyed a calm, bright grey boat ride with seal heads poking out of the water and buffleheads swooping by.

There were 8 adults that convened for the Cow to Beef project. The bull stayed in the pasture and a younger cousin shot it from the other side of the fence.
Another cousin slit the throat to drain the blood, and then we skinned the hind legs to expose the rear tendons. There is place between the tendon and bone where large animals can be hung up and it will support the weight. We put a crow bar through and then raised up the whole animal on a rope with a Caterpillar tractor. It was quite a surreal sight because the bull was massive, probably around a thousand pounds. Then my cousin drove the animal a quarter mile where we would do the gutting and skinning near the barn.I have experience skinning deer, so I had no trouble jumping in and helping skin while others worked on field dressing in front. However, the skin was much thicker, and the domestic animal much fattier, than the wild deer that I'm used to.
Field dressing is more technical because you don't want to puncture any of the organs, especially, obviously, anything containing urine or feces. This is the most time-consuming part as it needs to be done carefully, or you risk ruining the meat. But it needs to be done relatively quickly so that the body can cool and the meat exposed to air to start curing. They finally got all the guts out, and it was quite a large pile. Just the heart alone was enormous.
Once the guts were all out, we finished skinning, and then took off the head. At this point it was starting to look more like meat in a butcher shop. From there we cut it in half with a sawzall, then into quarters.
Even in quarters, the meat was extremely heavy. It took four adults to carry each quarter 30 feet into the barn where it could hang overnight. We estimated that the quarters weighed 200-250 pounds each. Finally, after hours of standing and working in the cold December air, we were finished with the cow project for the day.

But there was still more meat-related foraging to do. Larry and I went to pull up the crab pots in the bay, since winter crabbing is currently open. As I pulled up the pots, I was shocked at how full they were.
I've done a lot of crabbing in my day, and never seen a catch like this. Only about one per pot was female, and a couple were undersized, but for the most part they were all regulation-sized males.
That night, we had a feast of fresh crab and wild king salmon straight from Alaska. My cousin and I also taught every one the drinking game King's Cup, which turns out is pretty fun even with non-alcoholic beverages.

On Sunday, we had to cook all the crab that had been kept in the live well. It was quite a process cleaning, cooking, cooling, and packing them all up. Here is our two-burner set-up.
As soon as that was finished, we moved the beef quarters from the barn down to the boat. We loaded up the back of the truck, also a totally surreal image.
Once we got the truck to the dock, we used the crane and winch to lower the quarters onto the boat. It worked really well, but took quite a few people.
With that, the weekend's work was done. We headed back to Anacortes in a very heavy boat in the afternoon light with a great view of Mount Baker. Since it's a lot of meat and no one in the family is a butcher, the plan is to just take it to a local butcher who can do up the cuts we want. I'm looking forward to trying the meat that was raised from start to finish within the family. Sorry for the graphic, slaughter-centric post, but it was such an interesting experience I couldn't help but share.

1 comment:

ElizaBeth said...

Amber, thank you for sharing! Those of us who eat meat should not be queasy at the thought of an animal being killed for meat, and if we are, well... maybe we should rethink our diet. Good for you and your family fr doing it the best way possible, locally and humanely.