If you asked me if I’d be in this space a little more than 10 years ago, I’d have laughed at you and told you you’re crazy.
If I couldn't prepare it from scratch myself, including looking my meat in the eye before I ate it, what right did I have to eat it?
It's a fascinating change, going from being a vegetarian to slaughtering and butchering your own meat. It fixes the ethical problem for me. There is also a certain satisfaction in the farm-to-table idea, especially when it includes your meat.
My Covid-19 skill was learning to butcher. I am lucky and have a cousin local to me with a farm. She raises cows, chickens, sheep, and pigs. All, except maybe the pigs, have two purposes. The cows provide dairy and meat, the chickens provide eggs and meat, the sheep provide fleece and meat, and the pigs.. well, they are the perfect garbage disposals... and meat. I really liked the idea of knowing my source and knowing how the animal was treated. Having fairly recently gone back to meat, I was excited when my cousin started selling meat, and offered to let me participate in the process.
Having the ethical dilemma, this provided a great opportunity to see if I COULD do the thing.
The first time I went out I help, but didn't do much. I held the lamb while my cousin dispatched, participated in the skinning and gutting, and watched the butchering a few days later. I had already arranged to split the lamb with a good friend (Maevwyn), and was eager to fill her tell her about the experience. Not only that, the lamb was delicious.
I try to get down to the farm as often as I can. I do not ever want my own, now that I know what farm life is, but I like to experience it for a few hours - plus help out. Often, as farms tend to go, there are critters to poke, especially young ones. This means I know my freezer tenants from birth. Sounds fairly morbid, but it is actually pretty amazing. I watch them grow, I see what they eat and how they are treated, and I know how they go. When the day comes that they go to their "forever home" (my cousin has a warped sense of humor) I know exactly how it happened.
The next time sheep became available, mutton this time, Maevwyn and I decided that not only did each of us want our own, we wanted to do the whole process. The WHOLE process - including dispatching. I honestly was not sure I would actually be able to do it, yet there I was, .22 in hand. I'm not a stranger to guns, even if I do not own any, but I have never used one on anything other than a target.
The sheep came peacefully, lured by a bucket of tasty grain. The gun was loaded. I thanked it for the life it was about to give. I stood behind the sheep, knowing the best shot was at the back of the head, somewhat higher up, aiming to go through the mouth. I took a breath, finger barely on the trigger. The perfect shot opened, I exhaled and gently squeezed.
We stood there a bit dumbfounded at first, not really having any idea what to expect. Then, it was all business (before either of us started getting emotional). Having done this a few times as of writing this, I think Maevwyn has the more difficult job. Yes, I take the initial life, but she bleeds them out. This is messy and includes a dealing with death throes, which are a bit unnerving.
It was unexpectedly not messy (other than the head) - and super fascinating!
You start by removing the back feet at the ankle joint and exposing the back tendons, which gives you the ideal place to hang the carcass from. Next, remove the head. This is a little tricky and very messy, as you need to get through a lot of tendons to find the right joint, but makes skinning much easier. Once hung, the skinning begins. They say the best way to skin is to "fist" it, but this can be tricky to find the correct layers to get between. When done right, however, it leaves a nearly flawless hide. If you are saving the hide, this is relevant. You start by slicing from back leg to back leg, across the area between below the anus. Next, cut straight down the front. My cousin recommends taking a 3-4 inch wide strip of skin off to make the rest of the process smoother. If you deal with a male, you remove the testicles and cut between the urethra and abdomen, cutting off the penis. If it's a female, you cut between the udders and the abdomen, then the rest of the way down. You still have to cut it off around the brisket, which is probably the toughest area to cleanly skin. From here it' relatively easy to stick your fist between the layers and start loosening the skin, though it does work better to start from the back. The years have demonstrated you can cut down and through the anus and tail, and just cut them off. They are not worth saving for anything. We used to be concerned with the contents spilling inside the abdomen, but gravity seems to work well keeping everything in.
Once the skin is off, the "hard part" is over. To clear the guts, cut down the abdomen, starting from the connection between the hind legs, and all the way down to the sternum. It's important to do this blade out, being careful to use your fingers to keep the space between the muscle and the actual offal so you do not puncture any vital organs. The gall bladder, in particular, can do bad things to your meat if punctured. I found pinching the blade between the first two fingers of your guiding hand works real well for getting an easy, clean cut all the way down. The guts pretty much spill out once this cut is made. You have to cut through connective tissue, again being careful not to puncture organs. Save whatever organs you want - I generally do not - except the kidney fat. Once rinsed out, the carcass is weighed, then hung in a cold place for 3-5 days.
Next is butchering. The first time we butchered we followed the book* very carefully. We learned it is mostly following muscle groups into reasonable sized chunks of meat - so we stopped being less picky. However, all butchering starts with cutting the carcass into primals. Start by cutting the neck off, then divide into the five primals: Shoulders, breast, rack, loin, and leg. This makes the breakdown into manageable sizes for further breakdown. After that, you can either get really picky about your cuts, or just follow the muscle groups. When not being particularly picky, we were able to break down the whole carcass in less than four hours. Any scrape meat goes into it's own bag for sausage meat - truthfully, probably my favorite thing to do with the meat. We vacuum pack everything so it freezes and keeps really well.
It has become tradition to make a weekend out of the whole affair, and celebrate the end with a tasty lamb dinner. It makes for an interesting way to spend time with a good friend. We do have a strange idea of fun...
*Butchering Poultry, Rabbit, Lamb, Goat, and Pork: The Comprehensive Photographic Guide to Humane Slaughtering and Butchering - by Adam Danforth