Death of a Pig | A Pig in Three Parts

The first time I met Doug Havel, he was standing in a pool of blood. Lying on its right side on the floor next to him was a pig. Despite the .22-caliber bullet lodged in the pig’s cranium and its severed, still-gushing jugular, its hind legs twitched.

I was here as a meat eater. A meat eater who knew little more about the meat I ate than its price per pound and the color of its Styrofoam tray. A meat eater who needed to slaughter a pig to appreciate where my bacon had come from and what the animal had suffered for me to enjoy it.

My odyssey backward from pork to pig had started with a plan to make sausage and a subsequent trip to my supermarket’s meat counter. There I had asked the department’s night manager for a five-pound hunk of pork shoulder butt. The request received a blank stare. He wasn’t sure what I was talking about. He called his boss, who wasn’t any more helpful.

With nearly 18 million pigs in Iowa, producer of about 30 percent of the nation’s pork supply and twice that of the second-ranked state, I was surprised that neither man knew much about the animals whose flesh he was selling. Meat arrives at most stores in boxes, broken at least into primals, the next smallest cuts after entire sides, and shrink-wrapped.

Years ago, it took a deft hand to kill a pig and carve it into useful parts. Guided by a butcher who knew by the subtle differences in the light pink flesh where the loin ended and the ham began, a knife would find its way between bone and muscle.

What wasn’t eaten soon after slaughter would be preserved by smoke or salt. Maybe the butcher, maybe a home cook, would set to work, turning the carcass into bacon, sausage, scrapple, ham and confit.

But pigs now come from the hoglot, pork from the disassembly line and bacon from the factory. The skills once necessary to feed people are no longer indispensable and so are disappearing.

Automated feedlots dedicated to a single species have replaced the diverse farms that once fed communities. Big meat processors have turned the craft of butchery into simple, repetitive tasks so they can hire cheap, unskilled labor. Huge factories produce identical tons of bacon, sausage and ham using chemical solutions so that few need to understand the art of curing or smoking for preservation.

These are the stories of people — a farmer, a butcher and a meat curer — who still know where their food comes from.