On a recent sunny September morning, a crowd of Chicago foodies pulled up to Faith’s Farm in Kankakee County to learn about where their meat comes from.
Four black hogs romped around a straw-filled trailer in the front yard snuggling, squealing and sniffing at all the newcomers to their home.
One of them wouldn’t make it through the day, but she didn’t know it. Unlike the majority of hog farms in this country, Faith's Farm smells sweet and features herds of jolly looking black hogs roaming its 30-plus acres. Although these pigs weren’t used to hanging out in a trailer, they looked pretty relaxed, surrounded by relatives and pals from their herd. Farmer Kim Snyder said she was trying to keep their surroundings as normal as possible.
“If I left her sitting on a trailer by herself, she would become stressed,” Snyder explained.
This was the fifth year Snyder brought together Chicago area chefs, craft brewers, wine makers, and farmers for a day of learning, cooking, breaking bread— and slaughtering animals.
It was 2008 when Snyder launched the event with farmer Harry Carr and chefs Bernie Laskowski of the Park Grill and Cleetus Friedman of the Fountainhead as co-sponsors.
“I think it was six or seven years ago that I first did a farm dinner here on Faith's Farm,” Friedman said. “And after I saw the impact of how it affected people, I said we should really bring chefs down here and connect them to their food...So they could see the process and literally touch it and be a part of it.”
For me and a lot of chefs, the trip to Faith's Farm each year serves as an important reminder of what must be sacrificed for us to produce and eat the meat we love so much.
As the slaughter draws near a nervous pall falls over the group. Snyder prepares the visitors for what they are about to see. She explains that Sam, the butcher, will shoot a 22 caliber bullet into to the hog’s brain. But it doesn’t end there.
“It’s not going to drop and not move,” she warned. “It’s going to move. We will confirm brain death by eye dilation and once Sam has confirmed brain death he will continue the process, you can ask questions and he will will show you how to skin and properly eviscerate the animal.”
As if that wasn’t scary enough, the butcher issues yet another warning, saying “Before we get started, if anyone is squeamish, you can’t stand blood or the cracking of bones or if you can’t handle guts, you might want to step away.”
A nervous silence falls over the group as Sam sharpens his knives then picks up his rifle and approaches the trailer.
Within moments the rifle goes off and the hog is kicking wildly on the ground. Sam grabs her leg and holds on tight to prevent injury to him and the animal, herself.
“Hogs kick harder than any other animal when they die,” he says. “I’ve seen hogs shatter their femur going down.”
Once she stops kicking subsides the pigs legs are tied with chains and she’s hoisted in the air. In one swift motion, Sam cuts the jugular and carotid arteries around her neck.
The gathered group swallows hard as they watch the scarlet blood stream into a bucket.
Snyder breaks the silence by saying that she wishes all of her hogs could be processed right on her farm like this so that they could live and romp with their herd until the very last minute.
“This animal was born here and lived her life free,” she said. “And so she felt no stress.”
The same can’t be said for all of the visitors in attendance. Fountainhead cook Andy Spetz, stood a few feet from the action, visibly moved by the process.
“I’ve seen butchery from dead animals but this is the first time I’ve actually seen it from the point of the killing and it’s going to make me go back to my kitchen and really think twice about everything I’ve been doing,” he said.
“One of the biggest things is just thinking about where your food is coming from that that understanding that these were a live animal that somebody cared for and loved and is now sacrificing for everyone here to enjoy it. It’s a very powerful thing.”
Mark Sabbe is a sous chef at Merxat a la Plancha. This is his second year.
“I think it’s really important for anyone who works in food to understand where it comes from,” he says. “As a chef I want to understand how the animals are raised and how they are killed and what goes into breaking it down….Once you’ve met Kim and you’ve been to her farm and you see the way she takes care of her animals it’s really difficult to buy commercial [pork] again.”
Edward Kim is the executive chef at Ruxbin and Mott Street. He brought members of both his kitchen and his dining room staff.
“The average person when they go the grocery store, their meat comes in a cellophane package and doesn’t even seem like an animal,” he said. “One of the greatest lessons I can teach my staff and cooks is to respect the food and remember that protein was a living animal. It’s not fun to watch the harvesting of animal but it really brings it home that this was a living being and you are going to make sure that pork and chicken and try your best and make it taste as good as you can.”
Over the years, I’ve interviewed a lot of chefs at this event who felt transformed by the experience. But I’ve also interviewed the kids—mostly city kids whose allowed them to witness the slaughter.
“It made me feel sad and kind of grossed out because I don’t like seeing dead stuff,” she said. “But after it, I thought a lot more about what I’m eating.
WBEZ digital editor Tim Akimoff brought his 12-year-old son Carson this year, too. Some of the aspects of the slaughter took him by surprise.
“I didn’t think there would be as much blood as that,” the 12-year-old said. “I used to think the meat we eat came from more around the stomach, but I learned it comes from around the thighs.”
But do they think it’s OK for parents to let their kids see it?
“If they know their kid well and they think that they are too sensitive to see it...then they shouldn’t,” Miranda said. “But if they are just being overprotective...then they should let them go.”
“I think it’s good to see where your meat comes from because it’s how we get our food,” he says.
After the animals are quartered and moved to the freezer to chill, Snyder takes first timers on a tour of the farm where cows, chickens and hogs largely roam free.
Others cool off in the shade while listening to the tunes of cowboy singer Kent Rose.
After the tour, the chefs descend on Snyder’s large kitchen to prep their potluck dishes, while others work to break down the carcasses. Right before sun down they load long outdoor tables with platters of grilled vegetables, rosemary rolls, farro salad with roasted squash, beet and goat cheese salads, braised goat and vanilla cake and deeply chocolately brownies.
By night’s end, each will go home with a souvenir ceramic cup, several pounds of fresh pork and a some new insights on the meat they serve in their kitchens and restaurants.
Monica Eng is a WBEZ web producer. Follow her @monicaeng.