I. Consciousness Per Pound
On June 17 and 18th, The Chefs Collaborative – Ohio River Valley, in collaboration with Turner Farm and the Midwest Culinary Institute; presented two workshops with Adam Danforth
, James Beard and IACP award-winning author of two books concerning slaughtering and butchering livestock.
Danforth, who is fiftyish and fit, a solid guy of medium height with short grey flecked hair and a three day stubble, teaches workshops and lectures nationwide for venues such as Stone Barns Center for Agriculture and the James Beard Foundation Chefs Boot Camp. He hails from Oregon and comes to humane butchering as a second career.
Danforth, who trained at the professional meat processing program at SUNY Cobleskill, one of the only such programs in the United States, before going to work at Marlow and Daughters in New York City, has also worked as a butcher at Blue Hill, and has taught butchering workshops at the aforementioned Stone Barns Center, in addition to demonstrating and lecturing about humane slaughter methods nationally. He also works directly with neophyte individuals and small farms just learning humane slaughter techniques.
Live kill seminar, Turner Farm, Indian Hill Ohio
This workshop, a two day affair held at Turner’s Farm (one of three working farms remaining within the village of Indian Hill and which has been in operation since the early 1800’s) featured, Saturday, the live butchering of a three and a half year old ewe and a half dozen chickens. The animals were killed, according to humane butchering techniques; skinned (feathered); eviscerated and cleaned.
The morning was beautiful. Deep blue skies punctuated by heavy white clouds. The trees and pastures were a deep green indicative of the past weeks of heavy rain. People came in late and milled about the large clean barn quietly, respectfully.
Danforth and his crew went about their work patiently. At nine, their was a brief roll call and everyone present was invited to state their interest in the event. Attending the workshop were approximately twenty people of various backgrounds and interests. There were tattooed restaurant owners, chefs and cooks (including 21C and Bouquet); professional butchers and more corporate looking, and self described, foodies who simply wanted to know more about humane meat production and slaughter.
There were several children present. None of the folks attending, including the children, seemed especially anxious.
After roll call, Danforth, explained the procedure. The ewe would be brought in first. The crowd, for the start of the event would be pushed back into the recesses of the barn so that the sheep was not aware of our presence. Once the slaughtered was initiated, then everyone could come forward and watch the process. Photographs were not allowed of the actual kill.
The rest of the morning would be spent butchering the ewe, in the barn, After that the chickens would be killed and dressed.
Without further delay, the ewe was brought from a trailer into the barn. Danforth dropped the animals front legs, turned it onto it’s side and drew the knife across it’s throat. Blood gushed from the cut as Danforth made other cuts and then knelled on the side of the sheep while he pumped is’s front legs forward and back with the obvious intent of bleed the animal as fast as possible. I heard, I thought, gasping sounds from the ewe’s sliced throat. It’s severed esophagus was plainly visible in the morning sun. The pool of blood beneath its neck grew larger and larger. Danforth’s assistant motioned to me that I could begin to shoot. I moved up to six meet away and began photographing. The remainder of the crowd came forward. No one spoke for several minutes.
Danforth then asked, I think, “Is everyone alright, are they any questions?” I don’t recall there were. I was engrossed. I took a personal inventory. How did I feel? Fine actually, no different than a moment ago. I recall only being surprised by the speed of the thing. From living sentient being to lifeless dead carcass in fifteen seconds.
The carcass was then hauled across the concrete floor and into the open barn doorway where a pulley and iron triangle had been hung. Danforth forth explained the process for going forward .
The rear legs were cut and the animal was attached, by the heavy tendons in its rear legs to the iron triangle. Danforth pulled the rope- which was looped over the pulley and was tied to the triangle. The ewe slowly rose off the floor. Danforth pulled until the carcass hung several feet, head down, above the floor. Someone hosed down the large pool of blood, as well as the long blood smear across the barn floor into the center drain.
A bottle lamb- who had been put in the trailer with the ewe in order to keep the ewe as calm as possible, for as long as possible, sat in the arms of a large bearded man. A young girl with long brown hair ran back and forth between petting and feeding the lamb and conversing with a large brown and white horse who was leaning out his stall door in the barn across the gravel drive.
It was an idyllic scene.
The remainder of the morning was neither traumatic or surprising. Danforth asked for and received volunteers and slowly broke down the sheep. Skinning the pelt from head to toe – took the better past of an hour and a half and the help of two volunteers. Early on, the chief take away from the workshop was that butchering is hard work.
The ewe was then eviscerated, again heavy work and then beheaded. Danforth showed how to cut the tongue and how to crack the skull of the animal to release its brains.
Throughout the morning people came and went. It was an intelligent and interesting crowd. The PR director for the farm was a former marine who had covered countless stories world wide. I spoke with a local butcher. She’s not entire comfortable with her current method of operations and wants to look at other more humane methods. I spoke with chefs and cooks. I spoke with the executive director of the farm. Most people said the killing was about what they expected. Some felt better for having watched the killing, a few not.
I stayed for the killing of three of the six chickens. There are, it turns out any number of ways to kill chickens and that the killing of chickens is often a noisier and, quite frankly less pleasant affair then killing a ewe. The animals did not die as quietly nor as quickly.
Danforth would explain the next day, that rabbits and chicken are often more animated and suffer more spasms making their death appear more violent.
The procedure for the chickens was, if violent, fairly straight forward. Once the chickens are killed they are placed into a scalding bath to as to melt the collagen holding the feathers in place. The chickens are then either plucked by hand- a process Danforth neatly and expertly demonstrated; or placed into a plastic drum which resembles the drum of a washer or dryer, save that the inside of the drum is lined with stiff rubbery thumbs which serve to remove the feathers. Once inside the tumbler it takes only 45 seconds to de-feather the chicken.
Once the chicken is feathered, it’s then transferred to an aluminium table where it is then eviscerated and butchered.
Overall, I found the morning to be interesting and honest in a way that America rarely ever is.
II. The Consciousness of Brussels Sprouts and Sheep
The second day’s workshop , which was held at the Midwest Culinary Institute at Cincinnati State- as hosted by Danny Bungenstock, Instructor at MCI; involved the complete butchering of a second lamb (rules regarding the post-mortum butchery of newly slaughtered animals prohibited the butchering of the ewe slaughtered on the prior day).
Danforth’s demonstration on Sunday, in addition to covering how to completely butcher an entire animal, also included the preparation and cooking of the butchered lamb, thus literally leading attendees through the entire farm to plate process over the course of the single weekend.
The second day’s demonstration, carried out in a large kitchen amphitheater, was well practiced and literally textbook. Mr Danforth’s work, as well as his texts, are popular throughout the country are a mix of the compassionate and the practical.
His works have drawn praise from the likes of both animal welfare activists (Temple Grandin: “Butchering Beef by Adam Danforth provides easy-to-follow step-by-step instructions for people raising their own livestock to humanely slaughter a beef animal and butcher it with good food safety practices.”); ranchers ( Paul Willis Farmer & Founder of Niman Ranch:, “Danforth’s books on butchery are required reading for anyone who has eaten meat,”); and the professional kitchen community ( Chef and Co-Owner of Ava Gene’s. Joshua McFadden writes, “Danforth’s books are the best I’ve ever seen on butchery and meat, and have allowed me to better understand how to take advantage of individual muscles while focusing on smaller portions.”).
During the workshop, it was clear that Danforth does his best to minimize the trauma of the process, for the animals being slaughtered, while also working to obtain the best possible butchering results. His workshops are also highly informative; as he has an anatomy professor’s knowledge of animal physiology; combined with an artists eye, which is turned to producing the most aesthetically pleasing product possible. Danforth also spends considerable time explaining general rules of the kitchen while dispensing with common myths concerning the preparation of the animals he prepares.
For instance he repeated the point, more than several times, that tenderness- which is considered by most in our culture to be the hallmark trait of fine meat- is not the apex of flavor.
“Flavor comes from muscles that are most worked,” Danforth lectured repeatedly throughput the weekend, “and those muscles which are most used, are most flavorful, and are not, by their very nature tender.” For this reason, Danforth said he, and many others liked to work with less popular cuts of meat, or to obtain meat from an older animal. Such instruction, therefore, provided not only the opportunity for those present to re-evaluate their ethics, but also the means to improve their own personal culinary arts.
I ultimately felt that all of the kill was interesting, and even important. I was glad for every minute I spent there, but I had also come with questions outside the pale, outside of the questions and interests expressed by others thus far. Thus I was glad to discuss some of the less obvious aspects of Danforth’s work and experiences after the session.
Like some of the others present, I too had my own unique reasons for attending the kill, some conscious to me, and some not. Among my conscious reasons for attending was that I simply wanted a challenge.
Given the nature of the event and the emotions which were bound to play out, I wondered if I could view the event while still maintaining suffcient objectivity to craft an interesting essay from the workshop.
Also, I wondered, could I shoot this event well? That is, how does one make death look, if not beautiful then at least compelling, and yet, respectful?
On a more mundane level, I love to cook, and eat, and experience has taught me that most chefs are passionate about their work; and that it’s nearly impossible to spend a day with a group of chefs and not learn something interesting- if not ribald. Admittedly, this excuse of self exploration, reeks of voyeurism and is a standard excuse I always have ready to justify any lark; yet, there’s almost always a fair degree of truth to this reasoning.
On a more personal and obtuse level, I wanted to attend as part of a personal moral gut check. I think that we all, from time to time, should take our morals out for a test drive and determine whether they require a tune up.
From a culinary point of view, I have, for long periods of time lived as a vegetarian and pescetarian. My reasons for doing so were mostly aligned with the normal valid reasons given by most sane vegetarians. To whit: it’s too ecologically intensive a process to create meat; animals have feelings and should be respected as sentient beings; and that man, being capable of a higher level of thought, on the food chain, should eat in a more enlightened and sustainable manner.
And yet, I have, invariably found these reasons to be insufficient over time and have always returned to eating meat. I am, I have always concluded, a meat eater by design.
As Christof Koch in his wonderful book, Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist (MIT Press) has written, “[h]omo sapiens is part of an evolutionary continuum, not a unique organism that dropped, fully sentient, from the sky. ” As such, I believe that we have our place in the food chain as well as preferences which have been well defined by nearly all of our genetic predecessors for hundreds of thousands of years; those preferences including meat.
Obviously we are capable of evolution, both on a physical and moral basis. Furthermore, we should exercise our ability to move to ever higher levels of morality, in part by intelligently defining our diet.
Such thoughts compelled me to attend this event; leading me to wonder, could I learn to eat in a more sustainable and sane manner relative to my consumption of meat? In short, if I couldn’t go vegetarian all the time, could I do better?
For while I had no doubt that meat is a part of my ancestral chain, I also knew that current mass production methods are wasteful and insensitive, if not cruel. I wanted to know what I could do to minimize my participation in that system.
I also had other, less well defined reasons, for attending the kill; most of those reasons having to do with issues of consciousness
Given personal events which had arisen over the last several years of my life, I wanted to know, were these animals conscious, did they possess awareness, or even intelligence, and what did these terms mean when applied to the food chain as a whole? What was the difference between consciousness, intelligence and awareness?
Moreover, did such qualities exist in all animals, or were they only present on some sliding scale given the complexity and size of the animal? Was it more moral to kill a chicken than a sheep? Should we eat according to size?
Was it possible to measure consciousness per pound?
I thought the people attending this event might have, if not answers to these questions, then at least some thoughts worthy of consideration.
My recent and personal studies in this area had suggested animals did, to some varying degree have some form of consciousness. “I furthermore assume,” Koch continues in Consciousness: that “many animals , mammals especially , possess some of the features of consciousness : They see , hear, smell, and otherwise experience the world. Of course, each species has its own unique sensorium, matched to its ecological niche.” (p.23).
Koch also further opines that:
It is possible that consciousness is common to all multicellular animals. Ravens, crows, magpies, parrots, and other birds; tuna, cichlid, and other fish; squid; and bees are all capable of sophisticated behavior. It is likely that they too possess some inkling of awareness, that they suffer pain and enjoy pleasure. What differs among species and even among members of the same species is how differentiated, how braided and complex these conscious states can be. What they are conscious of—the content of their awareness—is closely related to their senses and their ecological niches. To each its own… The repertoire of conscious states must somehow diminish with the diminishing complexity of an organism’s nervous system. “
Hmmm, or, rather, yikes, or…. again, how do we measure that consciousness? More to the point, how do we factor such findings into our lives in a moral manner in a rapidly declining world?
These are not trivial nor metaphysical questions. The more we learn of human consciousness, the more we should, arguably, be held responsible for our actions.
For, if what Koch writes is true, than the more we understand about consciousness, especially human consciousness, the more aware, and therefore, responsible we should become for our world. The more we learn, the more important it is that our ethics arise from our own understanding, from our own enlightenment and cognition rather than blind, or unquestioned, reliance upon secondhand sources such as religion.
Consciousness should become our primary, if not sole, source of universal comprehension. Koch:
Without consciousness there is nothing. The only way you experience your body and the world of mountains and people , trees and dogs , stars and music is through your subjective experiences, thoughts, and memories. You act and move, see and hear, love and hate, remember the past and imagine the future . But ultimately, you only encounter the world in all of its manifestations via consciousness. And when consciousness ceases, this world ceases as well. Consciousness, (p. 23).
And what if the consciousness of animals begins to even closely approach that of humans? Don’t we owe them better than the intentional infliction of not just pain, but suffering, in order to satisfy our own personal sensory desires?
Such a reality is not far from unlikely. Again, Koch:
[T]he structure of the nervous system is comparable across mammals: It takes an expert neuroanatomist to distinguish between a pea-sized chunk of cerebral cortex taken from a mouse, a monkey, and a person. Our brain is big, but other creatures—elephants, dolphins, and whales—have bigger ones. Neither at the genomic nor at the synaptic, cellular, or connectional levels are there qualitative differences between mice, monkeys, and people. The receptors and pathways that mediate pain are analogous across species.
Physiologic measures of pain confirm … dogs, just like people, have an elevated heart rate and blood pressure and release stress hormones into their bloodstream. And it is not only physical pain that we share with animals but suffering as well. Suffering occurs when animals are systematically abused or when an older pet is separated from its litter mate or its human companion. I’m not saying that dog-pain is exactly like people-pain, but….Consciousness, (p. 35).
So at what point does suffering on the food chain cease to be permissible? I wasn’t certain before the kill and am not certain now. Apparently that line does not begin with mutton. For in the approximately fifteen seconds it took that 3 1/2 year old sheep to die, I did not experience some sort of epiphany- I was not stuck by a lightening bolt of compassion while on the road to Damascus.
I did not certainly enjoy seeing the ewe have its throat slit, but my mind did register the fact that what I was seeing was a necessary part of killing that animal to feed others. All of which begs the question. What factors should be preeminent in constructing our societal and personal ethos? Should we develop rules based upon my visceral or emotional reaction based upon viewing this slaughter or should reason, logic, dictate? I don’t know.
I do know that my lack of strong emotion was unquestionably ameliorated by the fact Danforth was honest and sincere in his practices. His every effort was clearly focused and directed toward the rapid and human slaughter of the animals before him. Furthermore, he was also insistent that all present share the same respect for the animals being dispatched.
After the workshop, Danforth was kind enough to answer some of my questions.
He said that the live workshops were always interesting and unpredictable, if only because he never knows how people will respond. “I always tell people before a kill,” he says, “to try and not anticipate how they will react.” He said that he’s seen just about every conceivable reaction from people attending the workshop- tears, fright, anger, no emotion.
Danforth said his first experience with live kill involved his assisting, as part of his education, with the slaughter of fourteen pigs one morning in rapid order. He said that he was most surprised on that day that he did not undergo any great emotional or mental shifts during that time.
I told him I felt the same way. And I had. Nothing in my worldview changed as a result of the kill. I felt little emotion, though my lack of emotion was due, I knew, in some small part to the fact that I really wanted to capture this event faithfully and objectively. In such circumstances the camera can make one just a little bit braver.
Yet, in the days since the kill, in reviewing the events of that weekend in my mind, I have not felt any retroactive regret, sadness or pain. As I said before, what I saw lined up with my prior moral views. I simply was not surprised. Or maybe I’m only beyond hope. Maybe after 56 years of involuntary and voluntary viewing of man’s ugliness to man, I’m not capable of any real shift in emotion.
I wish I could give a better an answer, yet I’m left with just an honest one: The world is, as the world is, and I am willing take responsibility for my culpability….
I will also say, however, that this exercise compelled reflection, which is never a bad thing. I had chicken for dinner tonight and it was delicious. I also remain very much aware that almost all of the animals we consume are sentient beings due more respect than we currently accord them. They give their lives that we might live; and we should treat them as such.