Storey editor Carleen Madigan writes about the experience of working on Storey’s new butchering books, beginning with the author’s suggestion that she and art director Carolyn Eckert witness a humane slaughter.

Important note: For those who are sensitive to graphic images, this blog post contains photos that depict the dressing down of a cow carcass, and clearly show some blood and animal parts. 

One of the best parts of my job is working on photo shoots for the books I edit. I love being able to get out from behind the computer for a few days and collaborate with other people on what is often active, creative work. This summer, I was lucky enough to spend time at the photo shoots for Cooking with Fire. We worked long days and there was often physical labor involved, but we were also out in the sunshine and fresh air, and we were obliged to eat all the food we were photographing. I couldn’t complain.

The work that art director Carolyn Eckert and I did to organize the photo shoots for the two massive butchering books we worked on last year (Butchering Poultry, Rabbit, Lamb, Goat, and Pork and Butchering Beef) fell into a different category altogether. Retelling the experience of how we brought that shoot together could fill a book of its own. If nothing else, we both have dramatic anecdotes to share over the next hundred or so beers at the local roadhouse.

To prepare ourselves for the photo shoot, author Adam Danforth suggested we attend a slaughter beforehand. “You never know,” he said. “A lot of people either pass out or vomit when they see their first slaughter. You don’t want that to happen. Everyone present at the shoot should have seen an animal be killed before, so they know what to expect.”

Good point. I’d seen turkeys being killed in a slaughterhouse before, and even helped eviscerate them, but I’d never seen a large animal be slaughtered. I wasn’t sure how I would handle it.

Greg Stratton humane slaughter

Greg Stratton. Photo by Carolyn Eckert.

Neither Carolyn nor I passed out. We didn’t lose our breakfast, either, I’m happy to say. Carolyn brought her camera to get a few shots for her sample layouts, and to get a sense of the challenges our photographer, Joe Keller, would be up against. She says that being behind the camera actually helped her stay focused on simply observing the process, and not on absorbing how visceral it was. So, we called up Greg Stratton, who does in-field  slaughtering for farmers who are using the meat for personal consumption (an animal must be slaughtered in a USDA-certified slaughterhouse if it’s going to be sold to the public), and we arranged a time to come watch him slaughter a cow.

Greg Stratton humane slaughter

Greg goes to work, while Carleen looks on. Photo by Carolyn Eckert.

Greg and his team were calm, efficient, and organized in their work, performing what amounted to a well-rehearsed choreography. The scene was not nearly as traumatizing as I’d imagined. There was even another cow, some distance away, that seemed completely unperturbed by the process.

I realized, once I got over the shock of seeing such quantities of blood, that the slaughter was actually more fascinating than disturbing. Greg pointed out the loin, which, of course, looked exactly like steaks waiting to be cut. At some point, I looked at the hindquarter — which by then had been skinned and separated from the rest of the carcass — and realized that the flesh was twitching. I remember thinking momentarily, “It’s still alive!” until the reality of the situation registered. Greg explained that this was a normal part of the process — the muscles use up the last of their ATP (the energy that powers muscle contraction) before rigor mortis sets in.

humane slaughter

Photo by Carolyn Eckert

It might sound odd to say, but I wish everyone who eats meat could have the experience of witnessing an on-farm slaughter. Everyone reacts differently to seeing a living creature die, and I’m sure no one would ever say it’s a pleasant experience.

But seeing a slaughter carried out carefully, humanely, and respectfully, in a cow’s natural surroundings, is so very different from watching one be put down in the loud, malodorous, frenetic disassembly lines that are characteristic of industrial slaughterhouses.

On the farm, there is the sense that this is simply what’s meant to happen, that this animal was raised for a reason, and that its death is just the next step in fulfilling its purpose. I hope that our books help spread the knowledge and practice of on-farm slaughtering, so that more animals can die in the fields that helped them grow, their blood returning to the soil and nourishing the grass that will feed the next generation of livestock.

Carleen Madigan

Before becoming an editor at Storey Publishing, Carleen Madigan was managing editor of Horticulture magazine and lived on an organic farm outside Boston, Massachusetts, where… See Bio

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