The men roll up their sleeves, so I do, too.
Beside the crowd of plaid work shirts and restless, worn-in boots kicking the dewy grass, the pigs, Monkey and Karen, wait in a horse trailer. Clouds grey-out the morning sun, hands inhale the last drag before the filter and twitch toward knives sheathed on belts, and I feel peripheral even though these are my pigs just as much as they are my then-boyfriend’s. The mothers and wives who came with their sons and husbands stand away from the group and talk about how cold the morning is and what dishes they’ll make later, and the all other women currently present—the one who owns the property, the friends saying with her, the 20-somethings trading their labor for room and board—will stay inside until this part is over.
There is some subtle jockeying for position among the men. They try to remain close to both the horse trailer and the makeshift table, which is plywood stacked on sawhorses, because these two locations symbolize the great masculine events of the morning: killing and butchering. One a place of death, the other a place where the chaos of a body will be organized into meat. Watching the men twitch as my boyfriend, Jonathan, readies his .22, I wonder if it’s actually the other way around: the harmony of a body descending into bisected anarchy.
I check and recheck the water that we’ll use to scald free the pigs’ bristles, then feed them apple slices through the trailer’s open windows. When it’s time, Jonathan moves to the front of the crowd to say a prayer in French, and the semi-circle of men tightens around him. I step forward with the swell, so I’m not lost within it, but I don’t go stand beside Jonathan and he doesn’t invite me to. This isn’t a language I understand.
A boucherie, which translates to slaughter in French, is a South Louisiana tradition born from a time before industrialized agriculture, back when there were no supermarkets or refrigerators and hardly any English speakers in this region. Communities would come together, slaughter a pig, and cook a series of dishes using the animal’s meat, organs, bones, skin, head, and blood. The practice ensured that the entire pig was used and that everyone had food to sustain themselves until the next week when someone else would host a boucherie: it was a winter tradition. Although a lack of refrigeration is commonly cited as a reason boucheries existed, people knew how to preserve meat by salting or smoking it.
Boucheries guaranteed community survival as much as they solidified community connection in a space unhinged from the systems of industrialized agriculture that were taking over large swatches of the nation. I’ve been told by locals and old-timers that when The Great Depression hit, most people in this area of South Louisiana, known as Acadiana, didn’t feel it because families raised animals, planted gardens, and hunted for sustenance. Economic collapse passed over entire communities because their lives were unhinged from mainstream American systems of financial commerce—their self-sufficiency was akin to lamb’s blood on their doors. By some accounts, boucheries took on a symbolic rather than necessary role as late as the 1950s and 1960s.
Jonathan and I bought three pigs for $100 from a woman and her husband in a Louisiana gulf town. They called themselves an animal rescue but weren’t. The property was saturated with infected animals crowded into insufficient homes. At one point, after finding a dead cat under a sago palm tree, I went to hyperventilate by Jonathan’s truck while the woman, unphased or unaware, showed him her collection of potted citrus.
After paying for the pigs, Jonathan and I vowed to try to spend nothing else. The land we took them to, where Jonathan lived in a 20-foot trailer and ran a productive market garden, was about ten minutes from my house and owned by a woman interested in community-building. She let us spearhead projects unchecked and asked only that, in exchange for permission to raise pigs, we hosted a party and gave her meat. We built their pen with wooden pallets salvaged from local businesses, wire dug out of the bayou clay, secondhand screws collected in a coffee tin, and old roofing tin from rusty piles in the woods.
Two or three nights a week, I drove my minivan to town (the gas being our only consistent expense) and filled it with organic produce from a health food store’s dumpster. We combined the scavenged food with spent grains from a brewery down the street. We named the pigs Karen, who had a habit of huffing at me and biting at my skirt and calves when dissatisfied, which was often; Monkey, who loved bananas so much the scent could send him screaming in anticipation; and The Fat One, who arrived so large the fat deposits above her eyebrows caused mechanical blindness, a phenomenon by which pigs are rendered blind as their eyes are squeezed closed. They were brushed, hand-fed grapes, and massaged with a designated section of 2×2. I spent hours rubbing The Fat One’s face and holding her eyes open so she could see the green canopy and woods around her, a process she seemed to enjoy. Monkey was the smallest and, lacking the undeniable heft of The Fat One or even Karen—both of whom weighted more than me and clearly knew it—he didn’t have a natural buffer against humans and was terrified of us. For the first week or so, he’d squeal and flee when we approached. Eventually, he learned to roll onto his side for belly rubs.
By almost all quantifiable standards—intelligence, social abilities, cognitive capacities—pigs are more mentally advanced than dogs. Pigs, like chimpanzees, can figure out how to manipulate a joystick to move a cursor on screen, which isn’t surprising since, like primates and humans, they have an increased prefrontal cortex. Pigs can use mirrors to find food and are even capable of lying to each other. All this brings up an important point: how can we eat them?
According to Statista, our annual per-capita consumption of pork in the United States is currently hovering above 51 pounds, and the environmental damage of this project is staggering. Most pigs are raised in CAFOs, or concentrated animal feeding operations, that utilize manure “lagoons” for waste disposal, which is an oddly pastoral way of characterizing a man-made pool of pig shit. These scourges often leach into and then pollute nearby waterways. People who live near hog farms experience high rates of respiratory disease and cancer.
These consequences are not isolated to the United States: the destruction of commercial agricultural is transnational. In Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay the Amazon burns to make room for cattle and soy plantations, demands driven by companies that we would recognize locally—Cargill, Costco, McDonald’s, Walmart.
After Karen is shot, bled into a bowl, and heaved onto the table, we wrap her in burlap and pour scalding water over her to loosen her bristles. After she’s scraped cleaned, a man neither Jonathan nor I know begins showing off. He cuts her open quickly with the gut hook, pulls out and separates organs, and starts carving. These are jobs that Jonathan and I should be responsible for: she is our pig, this is our act of sharing, the men do not know her. When he slaps a severed section of her hindquarters approvingly, I want to slap him.
Other men swarm like flies, trying to get a cut in, wanting to be involved. A man I do not know takes my knife, seems shocked when I take it back, then doubly shocked when, in response to his warning that it’s sharp and I need to be careful with it, I tell him, “I know. I sharpened it.” The sense of calm intimacy that I wanted is perverted by too many hands. I make my body big and elbow men back. Although I feel right in this tradition and the way these pigs were raised—in conditions worlds away from CAFOs, converting otherwise unusable food to meat we’ll spend the next year consuming and sharing with others—this moment is abjectly repulsive.
The unfathomability of right action is difficult to content with. A few months after the boucherie, I teach a university class called Animal Agriculture in Literature. We read The Jungle and talk about how descriptions of cattle in slaughterhouses—tortured, exploited, rendered anonymous in the ever-moving, ever-demanding, ever-hungry assembly line—reveal the plight of workers in capitalism. I teach my students hedonistic calculus, a system developed by utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham to calculate the amount of pleasure from a potential action, thus clarifying its moral rightness, and we apply it to scenes and actions from The Odyssey and Moby Dick.
The class determines that it was morally right for Odysseus to kill the stag who appeared near Circe’s lair even though the animal is described in humanistic terms because it was god-granted, it saved his men from starvation, and the crew admired the body and washed their hands before cleaning the carcass, showing that a little civility goes a long way. We decide that whaling, from a crewman’s perspective, is probably pretty neutral since you might hit it rich or end up consuming the corpses of your shipmates. If you’re a lady of England accustomed to perfume made with ambergris from the bowels of a whale, however, the whole venture is reasonably positive.
A week or so before the boucherie, Jonathan and I slaughtered The Fat One. We opened the pen by bending back a length of tin, lured her into an open field behind Jonathan’s farm, and while she ate corn from a carved-out organic pumpkin, Jonathan shot her in the head. In an instant she stopped chewing, went motionless, and fell down. There didn’t seem to be any moral ambiguity in the act: her death was fast, and we saved every part of her we could. After her body was quartered and on ice, I laid her hide on the grass, crawled on top of it—grease on my elbows and knees—and scraped the fat free. There was something pastoral and bodily about the sun on my back and her tissue on my hands, the other pigs still within earshot munching happily on organic kale and brewery grains. Jonathan and I took our time and spent the afternoon carving The Fat One’s body into smaller, manageable cuts: wrapping them in freezer paper, tying the packages with twine, labeling each, and squirrelling them away in stacks. A few weeks later, we rendered gallons and gallons of lard. During the boucherie we save all of Karen, but the civility appears absent. When it’s time to slaughter Monkey, only a few of us—only men we know who have soft voices and hobbies like horticulture—are present. After he is shot, I bleed Monkey and use the gut hook. We keep the other men’s hands off his body.
Soon after I introduce hedonistic calculus, my class begins asking hard questions. They balk, rightly, about perspective. How do we determine right action when we don’t know whose side to take? For some, the Amazon burning or CAFOs contaminating groundwater appear a boon: they forecast money. For most, they forecast a particular kind of annihilation where common needs, like clean air and unpolluted water, are sacrificed to systems that disregard the future.
I tell them that Bentham didn’t really think hedonistic calculus could be used like a mathematical algorithm to calculate which actions to commit to or avoid. There aren’t “yes” or “no” answers, no absolute and finite right or wrong. They do not like this, so I tell them, “Think of this as a lens,” and suggest that who is not considered in the triangulation of moral rightness is perhaps more essential than who is included.
It seems strange that the only way we can narrow the scope of actions enough to gauge them—especially when they involve animals—is to defy one of Bentham’s cornerstones of utilitarianism: that everyone matters equally. Of animals Bentham famously stated that, “It is not whether they can talk, or whether they can reason, but can they suffer?”
The rainforests just want to be uncut and corporations just want to make money and the men just want to be important and the pigs just want to live and I just want to be autonomous. Whose side do we take? It is impossible to negotiate incompatible desires, and my students understand this implicitly. How do we establish a wholistic perspective that is more than the sum of its parts? How do we avoid behaviors that are just exercises in ignoring suffering?
Eventually, the greyed-out morning clears. Karen’s body is divided and becomes hog head cheese, backbone stew, gumbo, jambalaya, barbequed ribs, cracklins, and boudin noir—blood sausage. Monkey goes whole into a smoker. A group of musicians congregates with accordions, fiddles, and guitars while someone begins singing in French; the afternoon sky becomes bright and blue; and people two-step in the grass. A family arrives in a horse-drawn carriage, a caravan of bicyclists materializes, and someone with a mind for chaos hands a large bag of small plastic water pistols to a group of fifteen children. I did not know it then, but it would be one of the last parties that I would attend in over a year and a half.
During what I did not know would be my final in-person class, I could tell from across the room that one group of students wasn’t analyzing the reading. Instead, they were bent over a computer. When I approached, instead of trying to hide whatever they were doing or scrambling to grab their books, one immediately flipped his laptop to show me the screen and asked, “Do you think this Covid thing is serious?” There was a map of the United States turning from black to red, blighted with an unintelligible number of dots. I’m not sure now what I said then: something about animal agriculture and antibiotic overuse, spillover from manure lagoons, diseases that jump from animals and people.
Since then, I’ve thought a lot about that map of the United States and how those dots came to represent real sickness, real lives lost. I thought about it while comforting students, overwhelmed by virtual work or battling drawn-out illness, through Zoom. I thought about the way the stakes for morality and right action were rewritten, reified, and made visible in places we weren’t taught to look. I’ve thought about food and paranoia and sharing. For a long time, Jonathan and I avoided grocery stores out of a combination of fear and privilege: we ate pig meat from the freezer, traded bacon for wood chips and grew food on borrowed land, picked fruit from local trees, and ordered flour by the twenty-five pound sack only because I talked Jonathan out of the fifty. I taught online and asked my students what do you need? and how can I do better? Often, there were no good answers. In so many ways beyond teaching, there were no good answers.
The moment with the map has become more poignant now that I’m physically back in the classroom. We wear masks and I remind students to cover their noses and we reminisce about the good old days when we could drink water during class. While I find the entire pandemic slippery—my sense of time somehow unmoored throughout it—that one moment with the map in class marks, retroactively, my personal start of it.
The unfathomability of right action is difficult to contend with. Sometimes we will not know what to do. It becomes impossible to satisfy conflicting needs.
I wish I could go back to both the boucherie and the last day of class and talk to everyone about the promise and failure of hedonistic calculus, about navigating moral ambiguity, and about avoiding behaviors that are exercises in ignoring suffering. This is the thing I want to remember.
About the Author
Gina Warren writes about animals, the natural world, and human relationships, and her work has been featured in publications such as Creative Nonfiction, Orion, and Terrain.org. Her book, Hatched: Dispatches from the Backyard Chicken Movement, was awarded a gold medal in the Animal/Pets Category of the Independent Publisher Book Awards. She teaches English and creative writing at Texas Wesleyan University.