There aren’t many occasions in life today when the veil is lifted, when everything that is raw and real is on the forefront. It’s the reason we love weddings and sporting events, because they are often the best/only opportunity to witness human emotion laid bare. I had an opportunity to witness deep human emotion last week when I took the animal processing class hosted by the Laughing Coyote Project in Boulder, Colo. I signed up for the class hoping to improve my butchering skills. I walked away deeply moved at having watched a group of people do something brave and real.
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Nervous tension hung in the air as we gathered on that early summer morning, a mixed group of men and women, a handful of teenagers, and two young boys around 10 years old. As we chatted, two 6-month-old lambs, the ones we were to kill and process that weekend, quietly munched grass under the shade of a cottonwood.
As class began, we sat in a circle in the pen with the sheep. Our instructor, Myron Cretney, clad in buckskin shorts and shirt, led the discussion as to how the day would proceed. Barefooted and with his knife around his neck, Cretney explained that he wasn’t a butcher. Rather he’s a person with years of experience processing his own meat, particularly roadkill. Like most who signed up for the class, Cretney said he harvested his own meat out of desire to take full responsibility for his food.
With kind eyes shining out from above his long white beard, Cretney spent nearly two hours explaining how the class would capture, hold down and cut the throats of each of the sheep. He emphasized how to make the creatures feel most comfortable, saying that their greatest stress seemed to be in separation from the herd. To balance out the fear and sadness that was thick in the air, he instructed us to focus on appreciation and intent. We looked at the lambs, and thought about how thankful we’d be, not only for the meat they’d provide, but also the hides, bones and sinews, all of which would be used by members of the class. He told us that our actions during the slaughter must be deliberate and loving, like the firm hug you’d give a child during an inconsolable fit.
Animal processing with gratitude and respect
The moment finally arrived, and the two people who were to perform the knife plunge were self-selected. One was the mother to the youngest boy in attendance; the other, a 15-year-old. Each student knew his/her role so that the moment of the kill would proceed speedily and calmly. Some would capture the animals, others would hold down the flanks, another would hold down the head and place an ear across the animal’s eye to minimize its fear, one would cut through the jugulars and windpipe, and another would whisk the blood as it drained to prevent clotting.
Each of the people designated to cut the throats had trouble passing through the windpipe. However, no panic seeped into the situation. Cretney swiftly stepped in and helped finalize the cuts. It took several minutes for the blood to drain from the lambs, and their muscles occasionally twitched throughout that time. The students continued to hold them down firmly and with great love. A heavy silence reigned, and fat tears rolled down our cheeks.
Of the whole workshop, the single moment that stood out most in my mind was watching Alexis Neely hold down the shoulder of one of the lambs, quietly crying, but also watching her 11-year-old son, Noah, to make certain he was OK. Afterward, I asked Neely why she felt it was important to bring her young son to the class.
“Noah was born with a love of hunting, fishing and all sorts of primitive skills,” she said. “So while I was a Jewish American Princess from Miami with almost no connection to the outdoors and a deep desire not to harm any living thing, I found my inner nature goddess to support my son. And it turned out that I love it as well. So I look for any and all experiences I can share with Noah that get us in close communion with all aspects of natural living and find as I do that a ‘remembering’ happens for both of us. I experienced the animal processing weekend to support a great respect and appreciation for all life.”
Making use of every part of the animal
The class spent the remainder of the weekend learning to use every part of the animals. Cretney demonstrated techniques — whether stripping the hide from the flesh, or threading a wooden “needle” through the intestines to help turn them inside out for cleaning — on one animal, and let the students complete every part of the work with our own hands.
Despite the lighter mood, Cretney still emphasized respect. At one point, one of the young children threw mock punches at one of the hung animals. Our instructor reminded us that throughout the whole process, we were to recall the same thoughts of gratitude summoned just before slaughter.
(Editor’s note: Some of the photos in the gallery below are a stark depiction of the process.)
At the end of the class, all of the animals’ gifts were laid out on a table, and students took turns choosing which they desired to take home. I went home with some meat, a piece of hide to try my hand at leather tanning, and a lung and blood to make blood pudding.
The skills I learned at the animal processing class will serve me well when handling meat in the future. Ultimately, though, I will remember watching people at their best and the sense of community that the experience created. It usually takes me several meetings to connect names and faces. After the weekend-long animal processing class, I was able to bid farewell to each of my classmates by name.
Blood Pudding in a Lung
1 quart fresh sheep blood, run through a sieve to remove clots
1 teaspoon powdered garlic
1 teaspoon powdered onion
1 teaspoon ground wild oregano
1 sheep lung
cracker crumbs for breading (optional)
sage butter for frying (optional)
1. Whisk the garlic, onion and wild oregano into the blood.
2. Getting the blood into the lung is a two-person job. Have the first person hold the lung steady with a funnel inserted into the trachea. The second person pours the blood into the lung very slowly, until it seems to have reached capacity.
3. Tie off the trachea tightly using twine or a strong rubber band.
4. Using string, tie the blood-filled lung to the center of a stick or long-handled spoon, so that it will be secure when placed into the pot to boil.
5. Fill a pot large enough to contain the lung with water and bring it to a boil. When the water has reached a boil, reduce the heat so that the water is only simmering.
6. Carefully lower the blood-filled lung into the pot of water, allowing the stick to rest on the edges of the pot.
7. Allow the blood pudding to boil gently for 2 hours, turning occasionally.
8. Once it has been cooked and cooled completely, the blood pudding (as instructed by Cretney) can be sliced like bread. I went a step further and breaded my slices with cracker crumbs and quickly fried them in sage butter.
Top photo: A lamb stands nearby, before it is slaughtered as part of an animal processing class at Laughing Coyote Project in Boulder, Colo. Credit: Wendy Petty