Warning: The tone of this article might put some off but I make no apologies for it. The fact that we try to sugar-coat how we talk about death to me is the biggest indicator that we have grown so detrimentally domesticated. Just the act of speaking about it can now cause us unhealthy levels of fear and anxiety. That is simply not natural. So if you can’t handle words about cutting up animals and such but eat plenty of (often still-living) plants, I only ask that you reexamine how you may view the world. Just because something appears slow and dumb to us (plants/fungi) does not mean they should necessarily be an exception to the none killing or hurting of any moving animal mentality. We all need to kill life to live, yes, even you too Vegans and Vegetarians. So read on at your discretion.
Also, I know many reading this will have much more connected lives to their food sources already than many of us so this article isn’t necessarily intended for you. More this is a message for those that feel disconnected and never had a chance to learn the skills that make us human.
Beware the common saying to, “heal thyself,” as it can take you down a rabbit hole to end up somewhere you never dreamed possible…
I started my health path in 2010.
Before that I worked out a lot but I did what our culture is accustomed to do and give scant notice to how diet affected my life.
So while on the outside I looked and even felt somewhat great (movement can cover up a LOT of imperfections, especially in youth), I was on a path that would only lead to chronic health problems in my future life.
After years of knowing that diet is probably one of the largest impactors to a persons health, where has that path taken me?
Currently: to learning how to butcher animal carcasses.
Ahhhh yes…exactly where I thought I would be at the beginning of all this. EXCEPT NOT!
Never did I ever figure that trying to be as healthy as I could be would lead me to the desire to learn how to kill my own food. This in turn had me reading books on cutting up animals and taking a Pork 101 butchering class just this last January. I followed that class just the other week with a Poultry class.
Seriously, why though? I do after all really love animals!
Now I just really love to eat them too…
Not to say I didn’t before, I was just more of a hamburger, sandwich cuts, sausage kind of guy. About as divorced from your meat as you can get. Always someone else was involved from living animal to end product. About as close as I would ever get to that animal would be cooking or preparing the final meal. Even then, much of the time I would have someone else do that part.
The meat also tended to be from intensively raised animals. Intensive means raised indoors, as fast and factory-like as possible. CAFOS is another appropriate word to use; Concentrated Animal Feeding OperationS. The opposite of intensive is of course, extensive, which means animals that are raised where they should be, OUTSIDE.
Those extensive systems allow the animals to do what they should be doing, that is, their natural instincts of foraging and playing and fighting and enjoying their lives (what a concept, huh? Farm animals enjoying their lives). Of course, no farm is equal but ANY extensively raised animal will be far better off then even the best intensively raised ones.
It is very disturbing and shameful to me that I participated in a system designed to make the cheapest, crappiest meat products so ignorantly for so long.
When you get your food handed to you (much like a animal in a zoo or a prisoner does…hint, hint) without thought of where it comes from, you probably won’t care about how the animal lived and died. When you care about your health, then quality matters. Appreciation of quality brings with it a certain respect for a thing.
I’ve know for awhile now, quality comes with a price. I will, therefore, always pay top dollar for meat, among many other things.
Why? Because how we influence the world to a large extent is by our dollars.
Don’t like child labor in China, stop buying clothing made in China for starters. Can’t stand that new oil pipeline being put in North Dakota? Stop driving a car to the protest like a hypocrite.
Consumers have a much bigger part to play in meat production then perhaps is realized. People want cheap meat so to compete, many farmers do things to their animals they know is deplorable but is the only way they can keep a living doing what they do. I won’t even mention what the big corporations do to control the farmers in this vile trade.
Of course, switching over doesn’t happen in one day. This is a very important point to make, especially to those starting out. It will take time and that is okay. It is even desirable as quality takes time, so too does becoming a quality human.
For me it’s been a slow but steady change for 7 years now. It can be very hard to go from McDonald’s (only used as a reference, blah!) to cooking the pork chops you personally sawed off of a pigs carcass…
…By the way, that was the most satisfying pork chop I’ve currently ever had.
Table of Contents
Steps to Learning how to Butcher your Own Meat
Since quality can get expensive, it’s logical that your next move eventually will be to reduce cost where possible. Making it yourself ALWAYS reduces cost, whatever the product or service. A whole book in itself could be written about this subject. Taking back sovereignty from the government, corporations, and organizations that you absolutely depend on to survive should be considered a priority by everyone for sound, long lasting health.
But how do you make meat yourself?
Pretty simple, you kill it yourself like all our ancestors did and very many people still do. But if you are too squeamish for killing at the moment you can instead develop deep relationships with ranchers and farmers so you at least can get the freshest meats around straight from the source.
Establishing a relationship with a well-informed butcher is also a great way to get your meats. They will often spend the time to educate their customers about how to prepare certain cuts and specialty items or how to make them yourself. The best ones will even encourage the learning of their craft.
Once you have your animal carcass (whole or piece), we enter the realm of meat butchery.
Butchery, the act of processing dead animals, can seem like a giant undertaking if you have never done it before. This is why doing it in stages can ease you into the process while still allowing you to reap some benefits from it.
Probably the easiest and cheapest method to get comfortable with butchering animals is to start with the common clucker, the chicken.
There are multiple reasons besides ease of getting started that this is a good choice. One of the worst forms of human cruelty truly lies in the intensive factory farming operations that creates our ‘cheap’ meats. Chicken is probably the worst of them all (worst of the worst isn’t saying much, they are all bad, especially in the U.S.)
So right there, disentangling yourself from those chicken rearing practices that accept large amounts of deaths (can be up to 30% of a harvest, numbering in the thousands*) you will be helping change the way the world feeds itself.
Most importantly though, this is the cheapest method to get cracking on your butchery skills. A pastured bird that weighs about 4 lbs at my butcher (Electric City Butchers in Santa Ana, CA) only costs about $20. Yes, this includes the head and feet.
That means if you want to create a decent family meal you could buy 3 birds, process them all at the same time and end up with 6 wings, 6 legs, 6 breast, etc. to throw in your freezer for later.
To put it another way, a family of three can get a bird each and have multiple healthy meals for the week for just $20 a piece. True this isn’t as cheap as the $1 menu but it will have far more of a lasting impact on your health in the long-run.
Remember, these are probably some of the best free-range chickens out there and that price point makes it extremely worthwhile in comparison to other animal products.
Another benefit to these chickens is that my butcher personally knows the people that have been raising them for over 30 years. They kill them in the field which cuts down on stress hormones in the final product. They have gone into the fields and harvested birds with the chicken-raisers. When is the last time the butcher at the store you might pick up meat from spent time with the sources they get their meat from?
Perhaps the best reason to start with chickens is that butchery is a skill and like any skill, takes practice to master. The nice thing about starting with chicken is they are more manageable and the price allows you to practice your craft often enough that you know what you are doing when you move on to much larger animals. This also gets you comfortable with handling dead animals, something that many of the city folk bulk at just thinking of. Birds are not mammals and some people seem to be kingdom-specific in their being okay with slaughtering.
In the end, you can easily then use this knowledge on any other fowl you want to eat like duck, quail, pheasant, or any game bird that comes your way.
Next on your list will probably be lamb. Hopefully this doesn’t upset your sensibilities. The only reason it generally does upset people is because as stated in the warning before this article, we are so divorced from our food sources.
Death is a natural process. To be upset at the point of raising animals that have formed a symbiotic relationship with us for THEIR own benefit (strange as that may seem) is counter intuitive to me.
Again though, factory-farmed lamb is disgusting and should be abolished at all costs. Just another instance of human cruelty where because we do not see it done, accept it as is. If knowledgeable about it many of us call it quits because we assume all animals raised for food are thus disrespected.
Rather then calling it quits though because of a terrible system, it’s far better (in my opinion) to support the system that cares very much about the animal. Not ONLY for the end product but because its the right thing to do.
The reason that many bulk at lamb is they think of some really small, really cute creature. Lamb is commonly killed at 6 months. Unfortunately, if you eat pork then you are more then likely eating a 6 month old pig. Even Veal is 6 months! So if you are going to be picky about your animal foods, at least realize you are doing it based on the cuteness of a creature and not out of some sense of fairness to the age of it.
Lamb just happens to be the next best thing for butchery practice because learning the cuts of lamb are in general easier to learn then larger farm animals. A lamb is also smaller in comparison to a pig or cow and thus manageable to do inside your own kitchen with some room to spare without having to set up a special workshop area.
You can start with a quarter of the animal, a whole hind leg for instance, practice all the individual cuts off it and freeze that which you don’t immediately use for later.
Eventually, it will probably be easiest to move to half a lamb. This allows practice of the whole animal but you will still use the animal faster then a whole animal which means more practice down the road. Also means more space in your ice box or freezer for other animal meats.
Of course, eventually you will be doing a whole carcass. By this point if you don’t have a ice box just for meat you will probably need to invest before attempting. A whole carcass is the holy grail in my eyes and besides having meat for many months, shows that you really care about your health, your families health, hard work, and above all, self-sufficiency.
This is Only the Beginning
After these two steps, you move onward from there. I myself have only started stage one with buying chickens to process myself. I am excited to move on to lamb but I really want to dial in fowl before that.
This whole process has been eye-opening. I feel more connected with life because I am learning about death. This in itself is a huge bonus for me. We cannot live without dying. Avoiding death in life I believe does not help your own death process. Acceptance is the best defense against fear.
My original goal for all this was in learning how to hunt my own food. It just turned out that wanting to have a deep understanding of being able to process a kill once it was hunted has lead me down a extremely pleasing side path.
If I am going to hunt my own food, I desire to be the best I can be at it to really enjoy the experience while paying homage for the life I take to feed me and my kin. This makes the whole hunting journey more honorable in my eyes.
In the end, we must do what pleases us. It pleases me to be assisting the preceding generations by being a part of the transition to a far more healthy, long-term solution to our current food crisis. At the very same time I am helping myself reach my own life potential.
Let the health path wander where it must, I will walk it no matter where it leads.
(*) The River Cottage Meat Book, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
Special thanks to Electric City Butchery for offering Butchering classes to the public. Check them out if you are in the Orange County, CA area, you won’t regret it!