the vernal equinox—greenhorn style
For those of you concerned about carnage, know that no animals were shot or bled out in front of us. While most of the people and in attendance (including me) thought the event centered around the death and processing of one animal, that wasn't the case. The two lambs that were being butchered that day in front of a captivated, question-hungry, audience had been slaughtered Tuesday (the meat properly aged for butchering time). So no writhing death was witnessed and no one needed to bring a change of clothes.
There was no question though, this was the main event. The master of ceremonies was the young, Brooklyn-based, butcher Adam, who took our questions with eloquence and humor. For over an hour he explained each cut and what it takes to get a skinned animal to our civil plates. It was fascinating, educational, and even the kids seemed to want to ask questions as they ran behind him to get scones and jam off the workbench. I liked that children were here, unphased, seeing where the supermarket starts. I wanted to give their parents a high five.
The demonstration was two parts: on the table and on the rack. The first lamb was cut on a steel and the second was hund from a chain on a big green tractor. The butcher would be slicing through the hind leg flaps and say something like "See how easy it gets here, you can really just ride the membrane...." I turned to the designer from New York City next to me and asked, half jokingly "Does your usual Saturday morning have phrases like "ride the membrane" in it?" She smiled back at me and laughed. This was my scene. If there was ever any doubt before, it was shattered as I looked around the barn at my peers, the tables of fresh vegetables and herbs, and the giant map of the United States that stated SERVE YOUR COUNTRY FOOD. Yup, I was a Greenhorn.
As it should, the event completely centered around food. Everyone had a task to help prepare the meal. Some people held the rib cage while the butcher sawed it open and others started making sausage. A few ladies sat out on the sun and cut greens and herbs and others mashed potatoes or sliced bread. I stirred the localy-grown butternut squash soup for lunch, which we ate outside while listening to a lecture on local marketting of farm goods. People without tasks wandered around the wool or tanning demonstrations, giving hand carding or scraping a try. Some paged through farm books or merchandise on display. Others walked around the barns, coops, and stalls. It was a scene out of Currier and Ives if Currier and Ives condoned iPods.
It is not often I am surrounded by so many like-minded people my age. That was the real feast of the day. To be able to lean back against a fence and talk to my peers about compost, greenhouses, or the livestock they'd be raising this spring was a joy I didn't take for granted. Tee shirts with phrases like talk soil to me or illustrating butcher cuts on an old pig illustration were the scrappy/hip clothing. Others wore less snappy, but correct farm clothes (I was one of these cats). Lots of wool, denim, and rubber boots. Our similarities didn't stop at farming and attire either, and this is what made me swoon. There were banjos and guitars all over the place, musicians randomly jamming whenever a free moment struck them. There were dogs running around, smiling and barking. I was silently thrilled at all the young guys everywhere, happy and excited to be around women who share their love of the land. Farming, bluegrass, dogs, coffee, men in beards, chickens clucking in the background....dear lord in heaven what had I done to deserve such a day?
The new lambs of Kinderhook were just born that week, and so every once in a while one made an appearance in the arms of a Greenhorn. I got to hold one of these Dorper/Texel crosses in my arms and bury my nose in it's new wool. Every one of us holding the babe in our arms knew its fate, but were beyond okay with it. Animals at Kinderhook had nearly a year of lush pasture and fields ahead of them. This lamb would know what sunshine and rain felt like, would lay under elm trees and chase ladybugs with the other lambs. It would live as farm animals should and die as they should. The contrarian sequence of watching a lamb being butchered and then holding one in my arms was not at all disturbing. In fact, it was vindicating, and gave me hope for a better future for farm animals in general. This was how things should be done.
We planned to feast that night in a large pole barn. The same place the animal was butchered earlier that morning, but was now transforming from a work station into a dining hall. Long tables were set out with glowing votives as the main light, with centerpieces of eggs and expertly carved onions and turnips dividing the table. The place wafted of spit-grilled lamb, cooking herbs, and hard cider. Outside the barn the bonfire blazed and local beer was on tap at a keg. As the sun went down a game of capture the flag broke out and these twenty and thirty-somethings ran around like children, smiling in ways I'm not used to seeing parents and lawyers smile. All of us had chosen to take a day off from the city, or work, or our usual chores to come together to share the work of a big meal. There was no movies, computer, or video games—just new friends and lots of sunlight. No wonder a random childhood game broke out, we all felt amazing. We felt alive.
As the sun hid I found myself near the bonfire and the band. Red Rooster was there, a folk fusion band from the city. The banjo player saw my fiddle case and asked if I wanted to play a few tunes? Did I!? We played Cripple Creek and State of Arkansas, and other old time songs. I loved that he knew them. I loved even more that the guy stoking the bonfire who owned an orchard close by and the dude from Brooklyn tuning his guitar knew them too, and we all hummed along as the spit turned. The band broke out into songs and played everything from Sitting on top of the World to their originals. I was a pig in shit.
Then someone came down from the farmhouse kitchen with appetizers, small reddish brown balls of lambburger seasoned with herbs and spring veggies. Without hesitation I popped one in my mouth and sweet jeeesus nearly fainted at the taste. It was remarkable how good it was. I had never eaten meat so succulent. It literally dissolved in my mouth, a dance of herbs and juices and pure energy. No part of me felt weird, or bad, or nauseated like I worried I might. It was the first taste of meat in nearly nine years and it was lamb I helped prepare myself at the farm it was born on. I loved it. I was in love with the whole damn day. The food tasted like I felt and I was glad.
Dinner was amazing. You just can't know.
We all stood and joined hands (probably 60 people) and started with a grace thanking (insert your god here) for the lambs, vegetables, weather and community. We were proud to be celebrating such an important agragrian event in such a traditional way. Before us lay the most beautiful spread, all food from local farms inseason here in the Northeast. We ate lamb, of course (crowned and French-boned), mashed potatoes, spring salad greens, and freshly baked bread with homemade butter. Focaicca, scones, jams and apples lined the end tables. As I stood in the banquet line to fill my plate, I noticed it was our hero, Adam the butcher in front of me, now dressed in normal clothes and looking totally different. I told him his lamb was my first non-vegetarian meal in almost a decade. He set down his plate and hugged me like an old college friend.
We sat near each other at the table and I learned we shared similar backgrounds. Adam used to run a successful advertising agency in New York, but found it emotionally draining and pointless. So he gave up that life and went to butchering school at SUNY where he learned humane slaughter, anatomy, and chef-level cuts. Now he works at Marlow and Daughters in Williamsburg, hoping that by choosing to learn the trade he can now help local farmers process their animals outside of CAFOs and in their community instead. He explained he became involved in meat production to improve America's food culture and to help animals live better lives, sharing how the real bottleneck in healthy local meat is there aren't enough people trained in humane slaughter and processing reaching out to small farms, helping them do it right. He wanted to avail himself to those farms and fix what he saw as a dangerous problem. We were two ends of the meal's spectrum, a farmer and a butcher, yet had the same goal in our hearts and minds. I was floored. If he didn't have a wedding ring on his finger I would've stuck around that bonfire a lot longer, let me tell you...
It was the perfect Vernal Equinox. I spent the day with people who share my passion and appreciated their dinner in a whole new way. It was also the end of my life as a vegetarian, brought back into carnivory by the very animal I'm dedicating my life to. And don't worry, you won't see me running to any drive-thrus anytime soon. I vow to only eat meat I raised myself, or was raised the same way I would in my own community. So what does that make me? A Mortgagetarian? A nextdooravore? Anyway, this food choice may make dinners like Saturday's few and far between, but perfect and soooo appreciated when they do. Which is how people probably ate meat in the first place, before the assembly line was accepted as a way to end a life. I refuse to be a part of that. I also refuse to not be a part of what I think is the solution. I ate my lamb dinner happily. It felt right. It felt earned. I felt at home with my table.
Before I headed out the door, I stopped at Severine's table (Director of the Greenhorn movement) and said thanks. She thanked me for coming and waved goodbye. I then grabbed an apple from the bowl next to her for dessert on the drive home. She stopped her conversation with her neighbor, grabbed my hand, and serious as a heart attack said "Wash that. It's Conventional." I nearly teared up leaving the loud, happy, candlelit room as I walked out to the truck. Her words perfectly summarizing the entire day, our entire lives.
I found my tribe.