I stepped out of my car on a cold February morning at Ninja Cow Farm in Raleigh, smelled wood burning and thought, “how nice of them to start a fire for us to stay warm.” Dan Moore of Ninja Cow Farm had invited me to his farm to document the traditional hog killing event that was about to take place. After I greeted Dan and met some of the other attendees, I walked up to the fire and noticed it was heating a scalding tub that we would eventually use to help take the hair off of a freshly killed pig.
To someone who has raised an animal, killed it and transformed it into food, the smell of smoke in the morning means heating a scalding tub. To me, a self proclaimed foodie and supporter of the sustainable agriculture movement, it meant that I still had no real idea of what it meant to transform a living animal into food. The fire was the first of many examples throughout the day that forced me to consider on a more intimate level what it meant to be an ethical meat eater.
Like most people, as a child I simply ate what my parents put in front of me, and I didn’t have much choice in the matter. I went to the grocery store with my mother and bought a bag of frozen chicken breasts or a couple of pork chops neatly packaged in saran wrap and styrofoam. The farm most familiar to me was Pepperidge Farm, and I thought their goldfish were delicious. Mom’s favorite farm was the one that sold the cheapest meat to our local grocery store, and while she made delicious food, her main considerations never strayed far from familiarity with the product and the obviously important factor of how to fit this into the family budget.
By the time I entered college my value system around food was the faster, cheaper and the more delicious the better. I had no idea how animals were raised and didn’t even know that I should care. Dinner often involved 10 tacos for $5 at Jack in the Box or booking it down to the commons on chicken fried steak night. Then, at the suggestion of my friend, Desmond, I registered for “Environmental Ethics” with professor Dr. Karann Durland (a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill). I remember her discussing the negative impacts of the industrial agriculture system, which dominates our landscape. Suddenly it became clear that our predominant system of agriculture was bad for the farmers, environment, animals and consumers, but at the time there was no alternative that I could find in North Texas to change my consumption habits. And to be completely honest, even if there was, those tacos at Jack in the Box had my taste buds on lock down.
Karann was keenly aware that most Americans are almost entirely disconnected from the food they eat. Much like my parents, questions like, “Where did that animal come from?” or “How was it raised, killed, processed and transported?” are not considered. Consumers generally aren’t thinking, “What did that animal contribute to or take away from the earth while it was living? How was the farmer compensated for the sale of the animal she or he raised?” And perhaps as importantly, “Would I still eat that animal if I had to witness it being killed, or kill it myself?” Instead, the inner dialogue is generally, “Is this going to taste good and how much does it cost” which are legitimate, if incomplete questions.
After college I made one small decision after another to improve my eating and buying habits, and over time I started to consider myself an educated and ethically conscious consumer. Which brings me back to the traditional hog killing event at Ninja Cow Farm, 10 years after my Environmental Ethics class.
Once everyone had arrived, Dan gave us a tour of his farm and laid out the plan for the day. He had been to many pig butchery classes that began with a chilled pig, cut in half and ready to be broken down into various cuts. The reason for this class was to give participants a more complete example of pig butchery, or as Dan called it, he wanted to take us “from bang to bacon.” I knew I liked bacon — but I was quite unsure about the “bang.”
After the tour, Dan grabbed his rifle and brought us over to the pen where the pig was held. At this point the reality of what was about to occur really sunk in. The feeling was like going to the principal’s office in elementary school and knowing that you were about to be in a lot of trouble. There isn’t anything you can do about it, and the anxious anticipation is generally the worst part. But why should I be anxious? After all, I think killing a pig in its home environment after living a good life is an extremely ethical way to eat meat. Whatever desensitization I had when it came to eating animals was suddenly gone.
As Dan prepared to shoot I was near the back of the group, pacing back and forth wondering if I should look. A moment later, Dan and the interns hooked the pig’s hind leg between the hoof and Achilles tendon and lifted it up with their tractor so they could make a slit in the pig’s jugular and bleed him out.
I took no pleasure in watching the pig die, but later realized that this was by far the most important part of the day, and one that most pig butchery classes don’t cover but probably should. The killing of the pig solidified in my mind what it means to be a meat eater. The rest of the day was defined by this moment, and I was able to frame everything we did with the knowledge that the animal we were processing had not long ago been a living creature. It brought a sense of soulfulness to the food and transformed the pork from some inanimate object wrapped in saran wrap and styrofoam to something we were able to celebrate throughout the day.
Once the pig was scalded and the hair had been scraped, we brought it to the barn (still attached to the tractor) where two eager undergrads from UNC-Chapel Hill took off the head and slowly opened the pig’s stomach to remove the offal. What an absolute treat it was to see the kidneys, liver, lungs, heart and caul fat come out of the animal and be put to good use. The kidneys and liver were reserved for kitchen demonstrations later in the day, whereas the heart and lungs were used by Dan’s children for a school project. We then cut the animal in half, took one side to the walk in cooler and used the other for the class to break down into various cuts.
The first thing we did was remove the shoulder and cut it into chunks for Dan’s intern, Miguel, to cook for lunch. This wasn’t just any old lunch, we were going to cook the shoulder in a huge copper pot filled with lard over a fire and use the meat for carnitas. Like a fly to light I followed the meat and watched it go into the bubbling fat and cook while Miguel added citrus, onion, and garlic and stirred with a wooden paddle. Over the next couple of hours I wandered back and forth between the meat demonstrations and Miguel’s carnitas, until the meat was so tender you could cut it with a business card. With all the fixings in place, we gathered to eat lunch and soak up the sun. Needless to say, lunch was a hit.
After lunch we all sat around and digested for a while before continuing to break down the last bit of the pig that had been moved to the cooler while we ate. As we went, Dan would offer up various cuts of the pig to class participants and everyone went home with a little bit of goodness.
Later in the day we moved inside to Dan’s kitchen where Brent Miller made pate from the liver, and Dan made sausage from one of the pork shoulders. Everything was delicious. It wasn’t hard to imagine farming communities in years’ past all coming together for the annual pig harvest where they would work all day to prepare the food in such a way that it could be preserved for future use or eaten immediately if necessary.
While industrial agriculture makes it easier than ever before to eat meat, it does not allow people to be connected to where their food comes from or encourage them to think about their decisions as consumers. Granted, not everyone can raise their own animals, but we can be more conscious of where our food comes from; support local, sustainable farmers who raise their animals the right way; and choose to honor the animals we eat instead of ignoring the ills of large-scale industrial agriculture for the sake of convenience.
“From Bang to Bacon” was an event that helped further my journey toward becoming an even more educated, ethically conscious consumer. If you have a chance to connect with your food in this intimate sort of way and subsequently consider your decisions as a consumer, I would highly recommend you jump at the chance. Thanks to Dan and his family at Ninja Cow Farm for being such great hosts and offering this unique experience.
Dan Moore has operated Ninja Cow Farm for the last couple of years and owned the land for much longer, having grown up on the farm since his family moved from Garner, NC, when he was 8. It is 80 acres of pasture, woods, a barn and the family home with cattle, pigs, laying hens, bees and a small vegetable garden. They previously raised animals solely for personal consumption, but these days Dan is selling his product to consumers at an ever-growing pace. Much of what he does is self-taught, which includes animal butchery and processing. And if you’re wondering about the name of the farm, it is well worth your time to read the story on the Ninja Cow website: www.ninjacowfarm.com