There is already blood on the ground when I arrive at Camas Davis' Southwest Portland backyard. It pools into the pores of a decorative rock and dribbles onto the soil. The blood is too bright and too red to seem real. It looks like pulped strawberry, or a painter's tantrum.
I am holding a rabbit in my hands, which I have just received out of a box labeled for leafy greens. I am trying not to bond with the animal or pet its fur, though its coat is soft as spring dandelions.
This is a survival mechanism of sorts. In about 10 minutes, I am going to break this rabbit's neck.
On this fine and sunny Saturday afternoon, Davis' Portland Meat Collective is hosting a class in rabbit slaughter and butchery. The blood on the rock is chickens' blood, let this morning. Ten of us are in line, ranging in personality from Estacada cowboy to prim food obsessive, all cradling our rabbits with what probably looks like tenderness. But closer inspection would reveal that each of us is tightly gripping our rabbit's paws together with our fists, so it can't scratch us or jerk away.
The class is taught by an intensive-care nurse, Levi, who trained with the late chef Robert Reynolds in France. "I don't love rabbits," he says at the beginning of the class. âI donât think of them as cuddly.â He thinks of them as food. He says that food rabbits, like farm turkeys, are remarkably stupid animals, doomed to death within hours in the wild. But he doesn't want to cause them any suffering, and so he teaches us how to kill them as humanely as possible.
This turns out to involve a broomstick, which goes over the back of the rabbit's head for leverage. A simple tug to the back feet, and the rabbit's spine is neatly severed, too fast for the brain even to register the shock. It is a variation on a classic Navy SEAL technique.
Here is the thing, though: I don't even kill spiders. I scoot them out the door between a cup and a newspaper. Though I come from Anglo-Germanic hunting and farming stock—my grandfather used to trap squirrels for stew until my grandmother made him stop—I never went on the family trips in search of elk and deer.
Still, like every eater of meat, I have left behind me a massacre as surely as if I had slaughtered the animals myself. I have eaten elk tongue and deer heart and bull penis, the livers of ducks and geese, the feet of chickens and pigs. I have boiled stomach in soup and fried skin into cracklings. I have eaten tartare and called the watery myoglobin that leaks onto the plate âblood.â
There's no inherent hypocrisy in this. Whatever Ted Nugent's faux-spiritual hunter's malarkey, I don't think you should have to kill your own meat, any more than people who drive cars need to drill their own oil. Specialization of labor has been a remarkable success, all things considered. Most of my classmates intend to farm domestically or cook seriously, and though we're served wine the course has the feeling of a trade school. People take notes. For my own part, I'm here because I feel I should understand what it means, at the most visceral level, to eat an animal.
But of course no epiphanies are forthcoming. It's not as if I suddenly understand the nature of the exchange between life and life. When it comes to performing the act itself, I mostly just worry about screwing up—that I will apply pressure too soon or not tug hard enough and the rabbit will be left living and in pain. Its little bones, however, are as fragile as a bird's, and after a tiny pop softer than the crack of an old man's knee when he stands, the rabbit's eyes are open and unseeing.
Then we are to string the rabbit upside down, bleed it into a bucket and "pants" it —this is the term of art—by pulling the legs' skin away from the muscle, repeating a similar process for the entirety of the body until the carcass stands naked save a patch of fur between the legs. The physiognomy is similar enough to a human's that the effect is unsettling: It looks like a deeply ill-favored person with unshorn 1970s crotch, its arms in position of prayer.
The process of butchery from there is remarkably gentle. One must be attentive to the animal's form, and trim precisely with a sharp knife. Plato's phrase suddenly makes sense: the carving of nature at its joints. It is an act of startling intimacy.
I roasted the rabbit the next day with my family—my parents and sisters and nieces and nephews. The notion that any part of that rabbit would go to waste was frankly offensive; I winced when my 7-year-old niece left a few bites of foreleg on her plate. What was being shared was much more than meat, its price not something you could find on a tag.
But still: It wasn't something I knew how to explain.
Circus U-Pick Berries
Sauvie Island Farms, 19818 NW Sauvie Island Road, 621-3988, sauvieislandfarms.com.
U-pick berries aren't always cheaper, but are literally the freshest you can find, because they're still growing until you end their little vegetal lives. Check the calendar on Sauvie's site for crop times, but it goes in this order: strawberry, raspberry, blueberry, cherry, marionberry, blackberry. This is weirdly similar to the color-ordering of the rainbow, for reasons we don't really know.
Urban Edibles, urbanedibles.org.
Fruit ain't just on the farms. Be smart, however: Sidewalk overhangs are fair game, but if you reach over a fence, you're trespassing. Ask permission if you're unsure, and stay the hell out of community gardens—somebody's 5-year-old daughter probably grew that carrot, and you just made her cry. But beyond that, the Urban Edibles website has city crops mapped out from Asian pears to thimbleberries. Sure beats gleaning from the box by the trash bins behind New Seasons.
Rewild Portland, 863-8462, rewildportland.com.
Oh, and there's also fruit in the forest. Rewild Portland offers trips into the puckerbrush to teach you how to find food in the woods. Sign up for Rewild's mailing list to get a heads-up on class dates (and also be informed about truffle-tracking expeditions, squirrel-hunting and fire-making lessons, and the like.)
Share a Cow
Windy Acres Dairy Farm, 3320 NW Stahancyk Lane, Prineville, 541-447-5389, windyacresdairy.com.
You can buy a share in a cow for a $50 one-time fee, then $53 a month for upkeep and boarding and such. Why would you do this? Because you get otherwise contraband unpasteurized milk, at a rate of one gallon a week, delivered to a drop site in Portland, unfettered by the FDA's grubby little food manacles. What are they gonna say about it? It's milk from your cow.
Adopt a Kid
K2 Farm, Ridgefield, Wash., 360-909-6377, k2farm.com.
Chickens are passé. But never fear, there's always next-wave home agriculture. You can get a pet or dairy goat, and as long as it's a pygmy, the city of Portland will let you do it. But one thing: If you don't get two so they can keep each other company, there's no telling what it'll do to your yard. $50 to reserve a kid at K2 farm.