I held her legs. My brother held the knife. Our friends held their breaths. And the 9-month-old lamb, lying on her side beneath us, held nothing except, perhaps, a foreboding instinct that things were not going her way.
She was right. It was slaughter day at Fat Duck Farms, my brother’s seven-acre experiment in 21st century food self-sufficiency. My friends and I woke up early that October morning and drove the 45 minutes from Santa Fe in guarded silence. Only one of us had ever participated in a slaughter before, and that had been years earlier. My brother himself was no expert—this would only be his second time—and when we arrived, he seemed ready to get it over with.
The five oatmeal-colored sheep huddled as we approached, casting us their nervous, one-eyed stares. When my brother stepped into the pen, they broke for the far corner. He followed them slowly, a Carhartt-clad Jack Nicholson-come-farmer. He was aiming for one of the young ’uns, and he wanted a male (like those San Angelo zealots, forward-thinking farmers keep their flocks female-heavy), but the first one he grabbed turned out to be female. He let her go, cornered the group again, and wrestled down one of her siblings as it tried to break past. “Goddamn,” he said. “She’s female, too.”
He paused, the hapless animal squirming beneath his knee. My friends and I waited outside the pen. Would this be the one? How would he decide which life to take?
Did I really want to participate in this?
The largest animal I’d killed ’til then was the 8-inch brown trout I snagged out of the Tesuque creek when I was 13. Coached by my more experienced angler friend, I’d grasped the squirmy creature and whacked its head against a rock. It shivered uncontrollably. I panicked, and whacked it again and again, until my buddy stayed my arm, pried from my grip the mangled fish—now a 6-incher at best—and tossed it on the shore.
“I think that’s done it,” he said, and never invited me fishing again.
Some years later, in college, I flirted with vegetarianism, attracted by noble arguments that eating the flesh of our fellow animals was immoral, ecologically disastrous or just plain gross. In the end, though I still couldn’t bite into a burger without wondering how the animal was raised, I never found an argument to outweigh the common sense theories that we Homo sapiens are biologically built to ingest meat now and again; or that land, when properly managed, does well to have a few hooves pounding over it. (And there was the problem of my late-night addiction to carne adovada burritos from the Frontier; better an honest carnivore than a hypocritical vegetarian, I figured.) “Fine,” my vegetarian friends said, “if you’re so set on eating meat, would you kill the animal yourself?”
“Sure,” I said. “If I ever got the chance.”
And here my chance had arrived, but as I watched my brother kneel on the sheep’s shoulder, part of me hoped he’d give it up. Maybe the animal would be saved by her sex. Maybe we could call it a day, head over to La Risa Cafe for some carne adovada burritos and try again next year.
No such luck. “She’ll do,” he said at last. “Come in here and give me a hand.”
I stepped into the pen. He grabbed the front hooves; I took the back, and with the animal slung like a futon between us, we lugged her toward the shed. (Mental soundtrack: Tom Waits’ “Murder in the Red Barn.”) The sheep was heavy and occasionally tried to kick, but it had little recourse against our opposable thumbs and scheming minds. Evolution, in this case, was on our side.
We pinned her on her left side on the concrete floor. My brother took up the knife, kissed her forehead, and then, looking into her eye—a ritual from biblical times—drove the tip of the blade through the tough hide of her throat, and found the jugular.
Tarantino would’ve been unimpressed: bright red blood gurgled undramatically from the gash. A few gasps escaped her snout. Her eyeball stilled. Her legs kicked a little—“a reaction of the nerves,” someone offered drily—and then she was still: the transformation from living creature to, well, meat, had begun.
The tension of the kill dissipated almost immediately as we were soon occupied by an array of unfamiliar and—from a city-slicking human perspective—gruesome tasks. We were joined by a Navajo friend who’d grown up slaughtering sheep with her grandma (my own grandparents, alas, had always been more interested in playing gin rummy). She guided us as we cut off the head, hung the body upside down from a rafter hook, and pulled the hide from the still-warm carcass by lodging our fists in between skin and muscle (it’s called “fisting”). We turned one of the “stomachs” inside out, scrubbed the honeycomb surface clean, and filled it with blood, cornmeal and potatoes to make sausage. We roasted the head, fished the liver out of a tray of entrails, and wound tubular sections of rinsed intestines around white chunks of fat to create ach'íí', a grilled Navajo delicacy. And we played butcher, cutting off chunks of shoulder and leg and back, wrapping them in white paper, weighing them and labeling them with a marker.
Most of the meat—around 40 pounds, all told—was packed into the freezer for my brother and his family, but we did get to nibble some grilled liver, blood sausage, ach'íí' (which tasted like grilled intestines wrapped around fat) and a hearty lamb stew. And though I’ve never much liked the taste of lamb, the meat went down surprisingly easy. For the first time since college, I could swallow with certainty, 100 percent confident that the animal I was eating had been raised in an ecologically friendly way and—with the exception, perhaps, of being carried like a futon—treated with dignity and respect, right up to the very end.