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Butchering Betty

Butchering Betty
Photo by Alex Block / Unsplash
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How can you eat a pig you knew? Lucy Ridge answers the question after a year raising a runt piglet.

Tammi walked into the living room holding a piglet, and I felt so relieved. “Usually we can’t save runts,” she had told me earlier that day. “Even if we want to, without their mother’s colostrum they develop terrible arthritis and most of the time they die anyway.”

We’d already lost a few from that litter. During her farrowing, a sow named Missy had backed herself up against the mound of straw inside her shelter and crushed three of her piglets. Older sows can occasionally lose a few piglets this way. 

Tammi Jonas, her husband Stuart and the live-in farmhands were disappointed but pragmatic about the loss. As a new intern, I just felt terribly sad. Those small, limp bodies went to the compost to further enrich the soil. Nothing is wasted at Jonai Farms.

I’d spotted one of Missy’s piglets – now four weeks old – shivering in the paddock when we did the daily feeding round. It was smaller than its siblings, and it wasn’t keeping up as they ran across the paddock to investigate breakfast: a meal of spent brewers’ grain and whey with the occasional wheel of cheese that didn’t make the cut, or bag of flour past its use-by date. 

The pastured pigs at Jonai Farms live on grass their whole lives, sleeping in A-frame shelters made of recycled corrugated tin and timber. They’re strategically located to protect against the fierce winds that blow around the ancient volcano that dominates the landscape on this stretch of Dja Dja Wurrung country, not far from Daylesford in Victoria.

Walking through the paddock with friends after lunch, Tammi spotted that same piglet and, with a practised eye, figured it wouldn’t last the freezing June night without intervention. She headed into the paddock and scooped it up. If the piglet survived the night, Tammi said, we would give her a name. We made her a nest in a cardboard box with fresh straw and a hot-water bottle, and fed her bowls of warm milky porridge and mashed banana. 

I volunteered for the night shift and set about building a fire in the slow combustion stove to warm the converted shipping container I was calling home for a couple of months. Sometime after midnight I woke from a heat-induced nightmare, sweating and panicking that I’d roasted her alive. When I went to check the box, the piglet was sleeping soundly, and she grunted awake to see if I had any food for her.

It was clear that this little pig intended to live, so we named her. Most pigs at Jonai are the heritage breed named simply Large Black, with the occasional tiger-striped Duroc added for genetic diversity. Missy was a Berkshire, with a distinctive white saddle running across her shoulders and down her forelegs, like a jaunty, diagonal sash. It reminded Tammi of a beauty queen’s ribbon so we gave her a name suitable for a pageant belle: Betty.

Pigs are social creatures that live in groups, so Betty was more than happy to have human interaction. As she slowly gained strength we would wrap her in towels and hold her while she slept. A piglet in one arm, a book about butchery and sausage-making in the other. Without a mother figure, she would follow close at our heels when we walked her around the home paddock, giving her the chance to root around at the grass for bugs and grubs and express her natural piggy instincts. 

Betty was living in the house during my first experience of La Matanza, the Slaughter. This is a multi-day festival, of sorts, held annually at Jonai for family, friends and members of their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) subscription. In this scheme customers sign up to a year-long relationship with the farm, accepting a monthly parcel containing mixed cuts of pork, and commit to sharing the risks and rewards of farming. After years of close relationship with the farm, many customers are also considered family and friends.

We gathered on a cold, foggy winter’s day in the paddock for a home kill. During the weekend the community would share in the labour of preparing a whole animal for consumption. This meat is not sold for profit – it’s not a ticketed event – and the weekend is not about money. It’s an invitation for members of the broader Jonai community to engage with the life and death of the meat they eat, and a way for the farm to be “radically transparent” – a core tenet of the CSA relationship. 

As we walked to the paddocks, Tammi explained the process. A pig had been chosen for slaughter; we would put out some food to keep it still and distracted while Stuart would aim his gun carefully and kill accurately with a single shot to the head. 

The pig was eating breakfast, and then it wasn’t.

We moved quickly to our assigned tasks. Some distracted the other pigs nearby with food; rather than being afraid or distressed by the death, there’s a very real risk that the omnivorous pigs would try to eat the body. The carcass was moved into a slightly elevated position and held down while the brain synapses fired out a final post-mortem command. This is called paddling, where the leg muscles twitch violently despite the brain being totally dead. The legs were held in place so that the arteries in the neck could be severed with a precise cut. The last echoes of a heartbeat pumped out the blood while gravity did the rest. 

Tammi’s role in these proceedings, always, was to catch the bright red blood in a stainless-steel bowl, whisking constantly until the blood cooled to break up the protein strands and prevent clotting. This blood would be used later to make morcilla, Spanish blood pudding. 

La Matanza was a weekend of hard, messy work: stripping the hair, removing and cleaning the organs, butchering the meat with wickedly sharp knives and making salami. We found the best uses for the unloved cuts that we rarely have access to. When pigs are killed in an abattoir, the offal is usually sent off to make pet food and not returned to the farm. But here we had the chance to fully appreciate the life we’d taken. We made a Polish recipe for braised lung with cream and an ingenious paté that mixed meat and liver to temper the strong taste. My favourite dish was fricandeaux: French baked meatballs made with offal and offcuts and wrapped in mesenteric fat, also known as caul fat. This membrane covers the animal’s internal organs, and when held up to the light it looks like lace, or the veins on a leaf.

And in between the work we played with Betty, returning frequently to the house to ensure the fire was keeping her warm, that she was well fed and not lonely. The visitors couldn’t believe we could entertain the notion of, one day, sending Betty off to the abattoir like any other pig. 

“How can you eat a pig you knew?” 

Tammi replied, as she always does: “How can you eat one you didn’t?” 

Despite the pragmatism of farm life we are sentimental about baby Betty. Long after she had outgrown the box by the fire and was living on grass in the paddock, she would still come to us for belly rubs, always hoping for an extra treat. When it was time for her sibling group to go to the abattoir, Betty stayed behind. For one thing, she was still smaller than the others. Despite being coddled with bananas and cake,  she had never quite caught up that lost period of growth. So she moved in with another herd until she was a year old, and another winter weekend rolled around: cold and foggy, with snow settling on the top of the volcano. 

Instead of sending her to a concrete death, she became the pig chosen for La Matanza.

She was eating breakfast, and then she wasn’t. 

An hour or two later, with salt, pepper and garlic grown just outside the kitchen window, we barbecued Betty’s heart.

Looking at the words written starkly on the page, it seems a bit macabre. But at the time it felt just right.

I paused to take stock of my feelings as I ate and thought back to the day Betty was born. When I sat with the loss of those three stillborn piglets I knew I was confronting, for the first time, the often harsh reality of life on a farm. And despite wishing for stoicism, I had felt sad that day.

But today, eating a piece of the heart of this pig who had lived a good life and died a good death with trotters in the dirt and snout in the trough, I was not sad. I felt profoundly grateful, and I felt nourished. Not only by the food in my belly but also by the community around me. 

And so, energised by the delicious snack of barbecued heart, I looked around. There were knives to be sharpened and there was work to be done.