to eat or be eaten

Friday, January 13:

Butchering is something we have been doing virtually all our lives; chickens and game, mostly, when we were children; goats too, in our first incarnation as a chevre dairy.  When the boys began to hunt, we ate a lot of venison, cut anyhow from the carcase, cubed and either ground and frozen, or simply canned for future use in stews and chili.  Maybe ten years ago our neighbors taught us to butcher pigs according to diagram, hams, sides, loins, chops and all; we scald and scrape and split them, draw them up with block and tackle, saw and chop and grind, brine and smoke, wrap and freeze them.  It’s quite an operation.  Nevertheless, when we first found ourselves confronted with a two-year-old steer which needed conversion into steaks and ground beef, we were intimidated.  Size may be illusion, but the illusion of size in a five hundred pound steer takes some accommodating.

S-1, who is twenty-five and married , shears sheep in Minnesota, and works once a week in a butcher shop, came home with his lovely bride one January a few years ago and we slaughtered our first beef under his tutelage.  The men drove the sacrificial victim up to the garage on a morning of thin snow, and by the time the young and the squeamish had finished the breakfast dishes it was hanging from a beam in the garage.  Primus’ visit being of short duration, the steer was allowed to hang only overnight, just long enough for the flesh, cooling, to firm up; the next day, with S-1 still there to oversee the process, we cut, ground, and wrapped what proved to be a tender, tasty beef.  It was not a professional job – the beef was not aged, the cuts not precise – but our diffidence about big carcasses was overcome, and we were, so to speak, blooded.

We don’t need beef at the moment — we have not made much of a dent in the steer we butchered in December — but it is poor management of hay, pasture, and animals to overwinter big steers you could instead keep in the freezer.  Twice a day when someone slogs down the hill through mud or snow to drop a couple of bales in the sliding manger or on some bare spot of hillside that seems to need organic matter, we think of the diminishing stacks of square bales in the barn loft, and the months of winter still before us, and we chafe to see the two-year-olds tucking in.  They are not fattening, not on a winter ration; they are just maintaining.  They will not grow larger or beefier between now and spring green-up; we will be lucky if the tendency is not retrograde.  And every wisp of hay they consume is one more bite not available to the milk cows, and in competition with the young steers the two-year-olds have all the advantage.  They eat faster and push harder, and the young stock, which we would like to coddle, are challenged.  The big steers should not be on the dole at all after forage grows scarce; in the best of all possible worlds they go to live in the freezer some time in the first half of November, just as soon as the cooling temperatures, day and nighttime, reach an average of forty degrees.

This winter the temperatures didn’t.  Since November our weather has been intermittently cool, occasionally even cold, but only for a day, perhaps two or three successively, never the two weeks we need for a good, long hang to tenderize and flavor the meat.  We put off butchering from week to week, for over a month.  In December we gambled on the weather, slaughtered one steer, and then watched while the weather hovered for days around fifty, and dipped only into the forties at night.  We stewed, wondering if our beef ever would.  We jabbed here and there in the fleshy parts with our digital thermometer, watching as it crept up over forty-five, even to fifty.  We dropped the sides into Barry’s pig-scalding tub and bedded them in ice.  We hoisted them out to dry – essential to the proper curing process – and jabbed them some more.

Teaching oneself farming offers many opportunities for the student to feel insecure; one of these is when he has three hundred-odd pounds of animal flesh hanging in the barn and isn’t sure where the line is between haute-cuisine aged beef, and carrion.  Not big risk-takers as a general thing, we were gambling, gambling in a game for which we had little prior experience, and one in which losing meant, not only that our vision of steak and hamburger dinners all winter long would vanish, but that we would have to figure out what to do with three hundred pounds of rotten flesh.  We held out for as long as we dared, but on day twelve the temperature, after a night of only moderate coolness, soared well above fifty.  At two o’clock we marshalled our forces and got the job done.  Result:  delicious.  But we felt that we had been lucky.  When the temperatures continued in the forties and fifties, we were unwilling to gamble again.

Now, in mid-January, winter seems finally to have made up its mind to keep its annual date with the Appalachians, and the last of the three two-year-old steers is hanging in Barry’s barn.  Other time constraints are encroaching, and we can give it only a week to cure.  The university which provides employment for one and education for two of us will open spring classes next week, and this steer needs to be in the freezer before then.  Tomorrow we will cut and wrap.  The labor required is not inconsiderable; six of us will stand in the cold barn for several hours tomorrow, sawing, slicing, grinding, weighing, and generally courting carpal tunnel syndrome.  The grinder will jam, as it always does.  There will be arguments about cuts and weights.  Someone will nick himself with a razor-sharpened butcher knife; everyone will be sickened at last by the smell of raw meat.  And yet it will be good labor with good fellowship, and we will be glad.  Glad of meat in the freezer, and glad especially to have the proper order restored to the farm schedule, that ebb and flow of growth and harvest, the balance of feed and appetite, fodder and livestock.

Glad to have the blooming steer off the gravy train.

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