Monday, January 10, 2011

The Butcher's Apprentice

From Harrisonburg, VA
Photo by Andrea Nissolino
With a tentative push my index finger dug into the flesh of the pig, searching for a bundle of tendons - the "leaders" - in one of its hind legs. Got it. Tugging them out a bit, I slipped in the S-hook but my first-timer anxiety amidst the surrounding men - only one of whom I actually knew - caused me to fumble the hook and it dropped to the ground. Frustrated, I let out a groan. Behind me, the butcher gently said, "Don't worry. We learn by doing."

His name is Ike and he's an 81 year-old retired Mennonite pastor. Fifty years ago he came to this little holler at the foot of the mountains lining the western edge of the Shenandoah Valley. Many of the people around us, the locals, have known Ike since they were old enough to remember. He displayed the qualities of a wise master and for a day I was his apprentice. In the course of a day's work butchering pigs, though, he gave me much more than a lesson on the work at hand. Ike's approach to ministering to the community has for years included being the local butcher.

"When you give a sermon, people might remember a phrase or two, maybe a story you told to illustrate the Scripture. But if you come out here," Ike said gesturing at our surroundings with his knife, "people remember you. They trust you."

In this post I'll do some narrative theologizing (more narrating than theologizing) on Ike's long career as pastor/butcher, plus butchering as an analogy to the Christian faith, and finally the experience in general as a somewhat graphic illustration of the gift that is life. So you've been warned: This is not a post for those with weak intestinal fortitude (or PETA people)...


The alarm went off at 5:40 a.m. and I hit the snooze until 6 when I sleepily started looking on my iPod for directions to Kevin's place over the first line of mountains to the west of Harrisonburg. Once dressed, I went upstairs and heated up blueberry pancakes and bacon from the night before. With my coffee ready and breakfast eaten, I jumped in the truck I borrowed from Brett and was on the road by 6:40, twisting and winding through the pre-dawn, meeting a string of cars on their way into town for the day. Brights on, brights off.

Once I got through Hopkin's Gap and into the holler, I wove my way to Kevin's driveway just before 7 a.m. His outside lights were on. Stepping onto his deck, a sound breaking the stillness caught my ear from behind Kevin's. Across the crick and up the hill a bit was the neighbor's house and I could hear people talking over there but couldn't make anything out. A thin orange glow sparkled - a fire? - barely giving light to dark shapes moving around it.

I turned around when Kevin appeared in the sliding glass door and invited me in while he finished getting ready. Sitting at the kitchen table, his old dog, Blue, laid her head on my leg and I scratched behind her ears and sipped coffee. When we came back outside it was finally starting to get light out and I followed him around while he fed his goats and ducks. I tossed the bone a few times for his two dogs - both labs, one black (Blue), one golden. Then we headed over to Frank's, the neighbor's place and where I'd heard and seen the indistinguishable activity. The real work for the day was about to begin.


Despite having grown up in a small farm town in Iowa and spending a good deal of my youth on the nearby farms of my grandparents and cousins, I can in no way claim to have ever done much farm work. As a kid I stood around and watched real farmers do real farm work before I would usually run off and do something else more fun, like chasing chickens with the dog or going to the crick to build dams with my brother.

At my cousin's farm one time I watched as my brother helped our cousin castrate piglets. They'd shoo one into the pen we were standing in and my brother would grab it, flip it over and hold it down while my cousin would come in quick with his knife and do the castration. The piglets would squeal like crazy and I didn't like that part, but it was funny when the guys would toss the testicles out the open top-half of the barn door. The dogs - Jake and Kona - were waiting outside and would catch them in the air and swallow them whole in one quick motion, sometimes fighting over them if they dropped. But I was the objective observer off to the side, trying not to get in the way.

Consequently, I've been profoundly shaped by rural Midwestern (agri)culture but never took part in its deepest ritual practices. I don't know the language. For instance, I know nothing about "the markets." I would be lost in farmers' coffee time conversations at the local co-op elevator. This has stuck with me as a sense of lacking something as a Midwesterner. After high school, it was off to college and then work in Corporate America before landing out here in Virginia, studying in seminary/grad school. There's a huge soft spot in my heart for the countryside, especially the low, rolling hills of Iowa, but I know this is mostly romanticism on my part. None of the farmers I know wax poetic about their vocation. It's dirty, hard work that will crush your body if you do it long enough. Sometimes it can kill you. It's decidedly unsexy.

But I still keep around it when I can, so when Kevin asked me if I wanted to come out to the holler and help slaughter some pigs I jumped at the chance at some honest to goodness farm work!


When we got to Frank's, people had already started to mill in: locals, former locals, and friends of locals - about 15 people in all. This was indeed a community event. After brief introductions to a few of the guys, the work began in earnest. At first, the uninitiated (thankfully I wasn't the only one) stood off to the side and watched while the seasoned vets started the process. Within 20 minutes, though, the acolytes were given jobs and within an hour everyone knew their role. After watching most of the whole process for the first pig, Kevin and I made our way over to Ike's two stations and we ended up helping him for the rest of the day.

The business of butchering pigs is not pretty. In fact it's downright gross. When I described it in detail to my wife after coming home, her stomach was turning. I don't want to make anyone here sick but here's the quick/as-sanitized-as-it-gets version: A pig gets killed with a rifle and dragged outside where it is bled out. It is then picked up by a tractor's forklift and dipped in scalding water (in a huge tub fed by the fire that I had seen before sunrise) until its hair easily comes out. The tractor then places the pig on a big table where a group of people with knives begin shaving the hair off the pig's body. Cuts are made in the shanks of the hind legs to create "leaders" out of the bundle of tendons, which allow the pig to be hung upside down for the butcher to begin his work. The tractor then carries the mostly-shaved pig to a tripod that is laying flat on the ground. Hooks are fastened from the leaders to the tripod and a group of four to five men hoist the tripod (ergo pig) up in the air. Enough tension is created by spreading out the legs of the tripod - hence the pig's back legs - to give the butcher an easier time cutting.

This is the point where Ike took over while one or two guys hung around to help him out - shaving off any remaining hair, hosing the pig down to clean it off, holding knives, fetching tools, etc. First, he'd take off the head, which one of us would carry over to a table to get cleaned and saved for later. (There's edible stuff in that thar head!) Then he'd carefully cut open the belly, remove the guts, and finally use an electric butcher's saw to cut through the ribs, leaving two halves of the former pig dangling.

This is where my workout came in. We had two butchers, four tripods, and eleven pigs to process, so the halves of pig had to be taken into the shed and either set on the butchering table or strung up by the leaders to the rafters. I likened this next step to tackling drills in football, with that line of padded tackling dummies. So you walk up to the pig half, get real low, put your shoulder into it, then stand up and step forward. Then a guy behind you removes the leaders from the hook and suddenly you have half of a pig -  somewhere between 150 to 175 lbs. - hanging on you, getting a little blood on you (although most of it is out by this point), and sometimes pig flesh is rubbing up against your cheek. Kind of gross. For some reason nobody seemed to want this job, so I relished being probably the smallest guy there, carrying a number of these into the shed to be hung up, while men much larger than I stood by and chuckled.

So this is the gritty process that I participated in, start to finish. Of course there is more processing that needed to be done to finally get the pig halves into the various cuts of meat for human consumption, but that came the next day which I wasn't able to come back out for. (Maybe next year.)


As I alluded to above, Ike's job as the local butcher followed from his commitment to serve the community in which he was ministering, including people who didn't belong to church he used to pastor, just down the road. Some of the locals I worked with went to or still go to that congregation, though not all do. But they all knew Ike and treated him with obvious respect. The locals in these little hollers in rural Virginia can be a rough crowd by city folk standards (problematic stereotypes but I'll leave them be for now), so it was no small thing for me to see such regard for a local minister/butcher.

Ike's manner was so...well, pastoral. What I opened this post with is but one of the many small ways in which Ike exuded a thankful, humble spirit. When I held his knives for him, he would say "thank you." When people were telling jokes, he'd stop cutting to laugh and say, "That's a good one!" When someone told a nice story, Ike would look up from the pig at them, smile, and say, "That's beautiful." When someone was cursing up a blue streak, Ike wouldn't flinch from his work. Throughout the day he encouraged me in my ministry, using the work at hand as an illustration but also relating his approach to Scripture. "Jesus wasn't holed up in some building..."

The eminent Stanley Hauerwas has often told the story of his upbringing in Texas as the son of a bricklayer, raised to himself become a bricklayer before the Church got a hold of him. He uses the vocation of bricklaying as a rough analogy to the Christian faith. In bricklaying there is insider language and arcane tools and practices. Outsiders are sometimes welcomed in by way of a long initiation process of an apprentice to a master. After all, one does not become a master bricklayer overnight. Likewise, as Ike was working throughout the day, he would deliberately explain to one of the regulars what he was doing, how he was doing it, and why. "I'm not going to be doing this forever," he said a few times. The master passing on the craft, the same way he learned it fifty years ago. "We learn by doing."

As goes bricklaying, Hauerwas reasons, (or butchering pigs, as I reason) so should Christianity go. Bricklayers, butchers, and farmers don't pretend like anyone outside their guild will understand a thing they're saying or doing, and neither should Christians. There is absolutely, though, a sense in which what they do is public. Bricklayers produce fine works of construction as butchers produce fine cuts of tasty meat.

Similarly, Christians produce the fruits of the Spirit in concrete and public ways: joy, peace, faith, patience, to name a few. It's a peculiar faith we Christians claim and practice, what with our talk of a God who is above and beyond all and a son of this particular God - Jesus - becoming human, dying, and being raised back to life, and a group of his disciples - his ongoing body, his bride - carrying on the work to which he commanded them, and worshiping that God whose granted Spirit binds and animates it all, makes it all possible and coherent. Public witness only makes sense coming out of the weird, insider stuff. Of course outsiders are welcomed in by the rites of corporate worship - breaking open the Word, baptism, Lord's Supper, singing, serving/ministering, and more.


Another thing this experience illuminated for me, somewhat morbidly, was being aware of and thankful for the gift of life in the created order. We took the lives of eleven creatures in order to feed the families who were gathered at Frank's place for this grisly work. Life sacrificed, life sustained. Kevin's family can make good use of the meat from one single pig for an entire year, and he was just about to run out.

Kevin had to leave early to go into town, and as he was leaving he went over to Frank and said, "When you're getting ready for my pig, let that guy shoot it," pointing over to me. So Kevin's pig was the last to be processed, and it was getting close to the time I had to leave. While talking to Ike, one of the regulars hollered over to me to follow him into the shed. Walking inside, he showed me over to a four-wheeler that had two .22 cal. rifles sitting on the seat. I pointed at one and he picked it up, loaded it, and handed it to me.

Stepping into the pen, I spotted the last pig over by the wall, standing perfectly still. Throughout the day I had heard the shots, squealing, and struggle that was going on inside the pens. Some of the pigs did not go down without a fight, but this one seemed to have resigned itself to what was coming. Pigs are not dumb animals and their eyes reflect that; they contain a wiliness that, say, a cow's do not. So this pig stood there perfectly still, looking at me knowingly as I walked up to it with rifle in hand. I brought the stock up to my shoulder, placed my cheek upon it and aimed, staring down the barrel pointed just above the creature's penetrating eyes which seemed right then to be staring through and past me. It remained still until the end.

I tell this part of the story not because I enjoyed the experience of shooting the pig. I didn't and I certainly don't take pleasure recounting it here. I grew up around hunters and have hunted a few times myself, and I feel the same way in that situation: It's a terrible responsibility being a human that close to the food chain, something that many Americans simply don't understand anymore, much less experience. Not everyone needs to be a hunter or butcher animals before they can eat meat, but people should have an awareness and respect for the cycle that sustains corporeal existence. This experience certainly inscribed that in me.

As I stepped out of the pen, I noticed a few cases of beer had been brought out at lunchtime. (Hey, this is the country, y'all, and it's thirsty work.) So I grabbed a Busch and propped myself up in the doorway to the shed while the last of the pig's life drained out behind me. Looking across the narrow holler and up into the mountains hemming it in, periodically glancing behind me to see if the pig's now-on-autopilot muscles had stopped, I uttered a few prayers of thanks: for the day, for the people, for Ike, for the pigs, for hard work, and for this life as gift.

Getting ready to leave, I walked back over to Ike's station to say goodbye and to thank him for being such a good teacher. While cleaning up his tools, he wished me well and said, "I don't know if we'll meet again on this side. But someday there'll be plenty of time to catch up again..."

[Update, 3:30 p.m.: Just picked up some finished product from Kevin: sausage and scrapple. Had a slice of the latter and mmm-mmm, it's good!]

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