Knowing your pig (roast) is an intimate eating experience
From Piglet to Pig Roast
by Samantha Barrow
I was a vegetarian for more than a decade. For a couple of years I even lived in a vegan anarchist collective outside Worcester, Massachusetts, called the “Collective-A-Go-Go.” I wasn’t strict—I always ate the bluefish my dad caught or the mussels my mom brought home from Menemsha—because my problem was never with the food chain. My problem was with factory farms. I couldn’t bear to consume the kind of unnecessary suffering endured by animals under those putrid conditions as nourishment to my body and spirit. Since I lacked access to raised meat most of the time, I just didn’t touch it.
My life got meatier when I met Daniele Dominick while visiting family and friends on the Island in 2007. As I hung around the back door of her Scottish Bakehouse in Vineyard Haven, trying to convince her to go out with me, one scent captured my nose and wouldn’t let go. On the flat top griddle sizzled a lamb burger from Mermaid Farm that she served up with kidney bean salad, grilled onion, and a tzatzikistyle yogurt sauce. For the remainder of my visit, two thoughts invaded my mind. Daniele. Lamb burger. I was in love.
A year later, she agreed to marry me, and we started planning the big party. But what to serve? Local meat is expensive by the pound—rightfully so—difficult to afford when we were planning on inviting 120 guests. A pig roast, as Lord of the Flies as it sounded at first to my animal-flesh-wary ears, appealed to our unruly side, our food ethics, our taste buds, and our budget. Along the way we discovered how much rich tradition is associated with pigs as well as pig-roasting, and how lucky we are on the Vineyard to have farmers and eaters carrying on these traditions.
Our “Official Entanglement Pig Roast & Beach Party” was planned for the summer solstice, which we came to discover is a bit out of sync with the natural cycle of piggy things. Most piglets are birthed in the spring, to be fattened all summer and slaughtered in the fall as the summer bounty wanes. But through a series of phone calls and “hey—you know anybody that’s got grown pigs now?” to every commercial and backyard farmer that pulled through the Bakehouse parking lot, we were steered toward Northern Pines Farm. There lived four pigs that had been spared through the winter months because they were too runty for slaughter the previous fall. We met our swine (whom we decided in advance would remain nameless to us) in April, when she was still a little on the skinny side. Immediately we began porking her up with Bakehouse slop, rich with everything from bread stubs and tomato hearts to chicken fat and rice.
Janet Packer, who owns Northern Pines Farm with her husband, John, has raised children alongside pigs, cows, geese, and chickens for more than a decade. Watching her three young children grow up around the humane slaughtering of animals has made her particularly conscious of its psychological and spiritual effects. As parents, she and John are clear about the distinction between pets and livestock, and don’t hide the fate of their furry farm friends. They handle these subjects with honesty and attention. “We don’t go to church, but we think there’s something bigger than us. We try to teach gratitude,” says Janet. The homemade prayers that the Packer family share at the time of slaughter, and again at the dinner table, acknowledge that the animal came to them with a spirit. They thank him or her for helping them keep the land they live on and providing them scrumptious food as nourishment. Each of the kids has an individual kind of evolving relationships to the animals and their fate, but as Janet says, “My kids know pigs don’t come from plastic,” and they have a heightened sense of connection to spirit and people.
Janet spoke with such reverence for the lives of animals that are now a part of her own life cycle, strengthened my courage to be open to my own complex and often conflicting reactions whenever I saw a cute little piglet I wanted to cuddle and protect from imminent slaughter.
My growing interest in all aspects of pig farming, particularly the emotional and spiritual side, led me to Rebecca Gilbert, owner of Native Earth Teaching Farm on North Road in Chilmark. The farm was passed down from her grandparents, Jim and Cecil Gilbert, who bought it in the 1920s. Swine appeared on the farm along with a husband-to-be 20 years ago, when Randy Ben David was looking for a place to raise his pigs. This partnership led to romance, followed by a marital pig roast feast, and now she happily considers herself his “agricultural scrub nurse” at slaughter time.
Rebecca, a fellow lapsed vegetarian, is wholly considerate of the different levels of personal involvement in raising animals for human consumption. “I totally respect vegetarians, but for myself, the involvement in the life and death cycles of my food animals (breeding, feeding, caring, slaughter, feasting, and back to breeding again) has been the most relevant for my understanding of my own mortality and what the Buddhists call ‘the impermanence of all existence.’ now I’m in the hurly burly of the cycle with everything else.” And Rebecca doesn’t believe it’s a coincidence that the hurly burly is a tasty place to be.
As we strolled the farm one afternoon this spring, Rebecca explained the many steps from piglet to feast, stopping to admire the fire pit that will be blessed with its 21st annual roast this fall. She emphasized how labor-intensive the slaughter is and insists that people should not be forced to be a part of the process if they’re not prepared for it. When newcomers come to help Randy and her, she encourages them to have a rest and some tea during the several days’ toil; to be gentle with themselves as intimacy with the death of an animal so like humans slowly settles in. The beauty of all that labor and inner attentiveness—pork belly and abounding deliciousness aside—is the comfort and charge of keeping a circle of tradition unbroken. In the glow of a roast’s fire, it’s easy to feel the sturdiness of the years that have brought you here, and the heartiness to continue in community. As Rebecca says, “you can’t have a pig roast all alone.”
The fabric of agricultural traditions has been stretched a little thin here on the island as it has been everywhere, but we are lucky that it is far from broken. With a nod to her own family’s history, Rebecca notes, “My Welsh ancestors considered the pig to be sacred, as an agent of the deities that recycle life into death and back into life again. The old folks in Randy’s fifth-generation Portuguese family appreciate a younger person carrying on the old ways ‘like we used to do.’ Our spiritually and ethically attentive Vineyard farms like native earth and northern Pines reinforce these traditions every day, allowing us, vegetarians and omnivores alike, to reinvent ourselves along with them.”