I won't be going into great detail about how it was done, but I do consider it an important part in my culinary journey.
Like many of my peers, I never had much experience with a farm. There were farmers in my family, with my grandparents and great-grandparents, but by the time I came along the family farms were no more.
Logically I knew where meat came from. I can't pin down when I learned it, but I don't think it ever bothered me to know the cows in the fields eventually became the hamburgers on my plate. The in between though was something I had never really considered before.
I wasn't on a farm for a tour, or even there to find out how to butcher a cow when I finally saw a cow butchered. I was basically hanging out with some friends, and one of them needed to see his father about something. His father owned a farm, and one of the cows had just been killed. I didn't see that part, though I did here the shot. I remember my friend in a very blasé voice say his dad must be butchering a cow.
In a cold, concrete room, was the dead cow on the floor and his father with another person getting ready to butcher the animal. In a small room behind them were whole sides of other cows that had already been done. I was a little shocked when I finally processed what I was seeing.
You have to understand that anything I've been presented with about a farm is either the very bad, like factory farms and abuse, or the very sanitized and romanticized version. Think Old MacDonald.
What struck me most was how it was just a job. I don't mean that in a bad way. I just mean he was doing it the same as I would to prepare vegetables. It was methodical, precise, but not anything special or unique. A means to the end.
I don't remember the conversation going on, but I do remember being very quiet and watching his father go to work with the knife. I thought I would find it disgusting (I don't usually handle seeing blood well), but honestly I didn't.
I've heard some people swear off meat when they finally saw how animals are slaughtered. That never entered my mind though. I didn't feel as though the animal was suffering, nor do I think it was an injustice. It is just part of how we get our food.
We didn't stay for the whole process, and afterwards my friend apologized for taking me in there. He was used to seeing these sorts of things, but didn't think to ask if I would be OK with it. I'm glad he didn't though, since I'm not sure I would have said yes.
The memory has stuck with all these years. I think it was because of how different it was from my day-to-day norms. More than that though, I had finally filled in the gap between the pasture and my plate.
I should note I do realize factory farms are very different from what I saw. They can be brutal places and very distressing to see. I think the disconnect we have with our food is how they get away with those practices.
However the method I saw gave me a better appreciation overall of where my food comes from. Sub-consciously I think we have this notion that farm work is menial labour, and something to escape from. We are all supposed to make a better life, get an education and work our way up to higher paying desk jobs.
I'm not going to advocate that everybody should move to a farm and live off the land. It's not something I would do either. Nor do I think everybody should see an animal being slaughtered and butchered, though I would recommend if they think they can handle it.
What I do think we need to do is get a better understanding of where our food comes from. So much of our food is process beyond anything resembling its original state, and because of how easy it is to get we tend to trivialize the work that goes into it.
For me, having that picture in my mind of what goes into butchering a cow makes a difference. The meat isn't just some plastic wrapped tray in the grocery stores. I can see roughly how it was done, and know there was work that went into creating the cut of meat.
Seeing the cow butchered made me respect what the farmers do, be it with plants or animals. And I think having that respect makes me a better cook.