When Roger Rabbit was bunnynapped, Camas Davis was blogging. The response to her daily updates on the Portland Meat Collective website wasn't pretty.
"I was deeply saddened by your recent loss of 18 rabbits intended for slaughter for your rabbit butchery class," snarks a commenter on the website the 2-year-old organization that teaches hands-on meat skills—butchery, sausage-making, curing and, yes, slaughter—to non-professional cooks. "The idea that a room full of smug, pugnacious, privileged, bourgeois would-be urban homesteaders might have been given another opportunity to jeer at some petty inconvenience really burns me."
Such comments flooded the site—and every news site in Portland—last month when news broke that 18 rabbits, including a breeder buck named Roger, were stolen from the yard of a PMC instructor ahead of a slaughter class the next day.
Who are these Portlanders learning to raise and slaughter their own animals: Urban hipsters looking for foodie street cred or devoted locavores who want to take DIY agriculture to its extremes? Davis, a former Portland Monthly food writer, told WW who really wields the cleavers in her classes.
WW: What do you think is the attraction of getting hands-on with your own meat?
Camas Davis: On purely a tactile level, I think it's important with anything we eat to have the experience of producing it or harvesting it or curing it. I just think food tastes better if you have an involvement with how it got to you. I also think there's a lot of political reasons. One being that I think the entire way that we get meat to our tables in America is pretty horrific…. I do think we would make very different choices about how we eat it if we were actually involved in that process. And, ultimately, I think we eat too much meat in America, and part of that is we don't have to engage with all of the terrible parts of getting meat to our tables. And when you do slaughter and you do realize how much work it is to break down a side of pig, you do eat less pig.
But is it practical for people to do that? Can't you just buy from an ethical farmer?
I don't believe that everyone should be raising their own pigs and butchering them themselves.... My problem is that each part of the process is so specialized. So you have just the slaughterhouse and just the farmers. The farmers don't know how to slaughter the meat, the slaughterhouse doesn't know how the meat was raised. You have consumers who don't have any idea about any of those processes.
What kind of people take your slaughter class?
Most of the people who take my classes are taking it for education—I would say maybe 40 percent of the students are actually hoping to, over time, learn how to kill one pig a year, one cow a year, do everything themselves, and that's all they're going to eat, if that, and that's their goal. There have been a lot of people over the age of 50 who grew up on farms, and they've gotten away from that and now want to go back in terms of how they source their food…. We have a significant number of people who are vegans and vegetarians who come to the class to discover if they kill something, if they're OK with it again…. It seems like most people come to see if they can do it. It's like a personal test they go through to see if they can justify eating meat.
How do they typically react?
Surprisingly, a lot calmer than I thought. It may be the way we teach our classes is like: Look, this is a really hard thing to do, and you either have to commit or not; you can't waver in this because the animal will suffer…. And people typically commit. And some people cry and some people hesitate and some people don't do it right, and that's really hard to watch. So there's all kinds of reactions. What's interesting to me is after everyone's done their slaughter is the discussion that occurs. It's pretty much everyone working through out loud if that felt good or not. A lot of times it doesn't.
What was your first time slaughtering an animal like?
It's hard, it's a complicated moment…. It's a moment where you both distance yourself from the animal and you become very close to it in the exact same moment. And that is a complicated moment for anyone. Physically, it's hard to hold a live thing in your hands and have it not be alive all of a sudden. It's a moment I have trouble writing about and a moment I have trouble talking about, and it's different for everyone. The thing I always say is if it ever becomes easy, then you probably shouldn't do it. Because it is hard. And if it becomes easy, then you might have something wrong with you.
Although there is a strong movement toward local, sustainable food at the moment, there is a concurrent movement toward an almost sexualization or fetishization of food, and especially of meat. Do you worry about what you're doing getting swept up in that?
I remember when I was in France, The New York Times came out with an article that declared butchers the "new rock stars." And they had all these guys who started butchering in bars and people would drink cocktails and watch the pig on the bars. And I'm not into that. I don't like any of the fetishization of bacon, or meat or whatever. The bacon thing for me is like: I love bacon, it's great, but it's just fucking bacon. Get the fuck over it. It's part of a pig, and when you butcher a whole pig, you realize that every part of the pig can be cooked or cured in an amazing way. But Americans don't know that. For me, the bacon thing is just another way to distance us from the meat itself. So I'm very wary of that, and I'm wary of being put into that category, and I try very hard to not come across as someone who fetishizes it or gets off on it or thinks they're a rock star because of it.
Do you feel like the PMC was fairly portrayed in the whole rabbit story?
It's not so much how it was portrayed as it is how few interesting discussions came out of it. People reported on what did happen and didn't happen, and then the comments were insane. I do think that the whole rabbit thing was, and still is to some extent, really engaging in an important discussion about what this means. And what it means for an organization who is like, "Yup, we're going to be totally open about everything we do, and you can either choose to see it or not"—why that kind of organization gets attacked versus all these other places who are like, "No, we're not going to talk about this, just look the other way." It's interesting on so many levels, and yet I have no idea how to create an open dialogue, because it's so polarizing.