Dominion, Distance And The Butcher’s Dilemma

Lucius A. Fontenot, Lève, photograph, 2017
Lucius A. Fontenot, Poulet et Poteau, photograph, 2017

Chanel was in the middle of a half-year cooking fellowship in Chicago when she phoned to tell me she’d just won a three-month butchery apprenticeship on an organic farm in rural Italy. A career chef just a couple years removed from the dawn of her vocation, she would leave me yet again, and less than a month after returning from Chicago. Chanel’s work had already taken her around Louisiana, from farm-to-table restaurants in Lafayette to her most recent gig with Chef Alex Harrell at New Orleans’ Angeline, plus around the country with Toby Rodriguez’s Lache Pas boucherie. Now, her passion would take her around the world. I spent the first few days after receiving this news moping around, piling up the pillows in my bed at night to approximate her shape.

I eventually roused myself into supporting her. Helped her pack. Drove her to the airport. Kissed her in the terminal while strangers with roller bags rubbernecked our goodbye.

“I’ll email you from Rome,” she said.

I nodded, sniffled, wishing very much in that moment that I’d fallen in love with someone just a little less amazing. I could feel the lonesome months waiting for me up ahead.
I didn’t want her to go.

Tenuta di Spannocchia lies tucked in the rural hills of Tuscany. Tall, spindle-shaped cypress abounds, as do wooly donkeys and thickets of ivy that trellis all over the stone castle walls. Plenty of stunning vistas. Lots of strong coffee and red wine.

There is not, however, a surplus of wireless internet. When we at last managed a video chat, Chanel’s face was a pixelated blob on my screen. I asked how she was doing. She hesitated, then confessed that it had been “kind of a rough day.” I should mention that Chanel left the states with Matthew Scully’s Dominion in her carry-on:

Factory farming isn’t just killing: It is negation, a complete denial of the animal as a living being with his or her own needs and nature. It is not the worst evil we can do, but it is the worst evil we can do to them.

Kind of rough reading for a butcher. But then, Chanel is not your average butcher.

A day on-the-job for her might include catching the blood of a just-slaughtered hog in a steel bowl at a boucherie in Eunice; later that same night, she might set down her plate of veggies to gingerly rescue a lizard caught inside our window screen. I don’t wanna scare you, she’ll say, reaching out careful hands toward the little guy. But if you stay in the house, you’ll starve, OK?

In short, my girlfriend is uncommonly devoted to living things, which she occasionally kills for a living.

With this paradox in mind, I listened to her describe what she’d seen at the processing facility where Spannocchia sends its pigs for slaughter every Monday — a relatively low-volume facility that caps the number of animals it’ll process per day at about 70.

“Every pen was full,” Chanel said. “And I don’t know if the guys working there were tired, or maybe because they had a lot of pigs, but they were kind of impatient.”

Chanel described the animals being forced down a chute, sometimes at the end of an electric prod. Shot with a bolt gun. Dumped into a tank of scalding water, then lifted up into a big metal box where their bodies were rubbed free of hair by spinning black rubber phalanges protruding from inside the machine.

“So it was really kinda rough to see,” she said. “Just because of my experience with killing pigs at boucheries.”

I asked her how it compared.

“A lot of it’s about the comfort provided for the animal,” Chanel said. “Just really low stress, low intensity, not in a rush.”

By contrast, industrial slaughterhouses, where the vast majority of meat consumed in the U.S. is processed, kill as many as three or four hundred head of cattle per hour. Which seems insane, until you think about the fact that our country consumes far more meat than any other country in the world — more than double the global average, according to a 2010 report by the U.S. Food and Agriculture Organization.

“We do one pig at a boucherie,” Chanel said. “That takes a whole day. But think about how many people wanna have bacon for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch and pork chops for dinner.”

Through the low-resolution image on my screen, I could just barely discern the worried, far-away look on her face.

“You can’t do a boucherie for every pork chop on the menu,” she said. “It’s just not feasible.”

As sentimentality toward animals can be overindulged, so too can grim realism, seeing only the things we want in animals and not the animals themselves.

As my time away from Chanel waxed from two weeks to five, I occasionally indulged in grim realism. I have needs, I’d think, frowning at the pile of pillows in my bed. I wondered if I should have told her not to go, or to delay the trip. I thought about how, before she’d left, we’d spent our mornings together around the kitchen table, steam rising from our coffee cups, Nina Simone or Billie Holliday low on the stereo. I thought about how sometimes, when a favorite song played, we’d dance out across the wooden floors of her old house in Scott, my head on her shoulder, singing softly.

Mostly, though, I thought about how much I wanted her to come home.

Lucius A. Fontenot, Lève, photograph, 2017

When I at last arrived at Spannochia for a visit in March, Chanel suggested I go up to the piano — a wide, sun-soaked grassy hilltop where all the pigs lived. I was reluctant to leave my post at the threshold of the “transformation room,” the immaculate kitchen space where Chanel spent most of her day prepping proscuitti, salami and rosmarina under the close supervision of the white-haired master norcino, Riccio.
Eventually, though, I made my way out beyond the grey stone castle, through the oak and olive groves, up a steep gravel path to the piano. Gazing out across it, the first thing I saw were the piglets, born just a few weeks earlier and still too small to venture far from their mothers.

I picked my way across the field toward their pen. I knelt in the soft earth a few feet away from the low wire fence. A dozen pairs of little dark eyes flashed up at me, curious, bright. I lifted my hand toward them, holding it to a gap in the fence, and after a moment of wary deliberation, one brave piglet touched his wet snout to my hand. I felt a rush of affection. Although I’d eaten my fair share of bacon and pork chops and even been myself to boucheries, it was the first time I’d ever actually touched a live pig.
Then, I remembered that I’d promised to meet Chanel that afternoon to share some bites of the pig cheeks they’d spent the morning boiling to make head cheese. The tiny piglet licked my hand, and for a long moment there on the piano, I felt uncomfortable.

“I’ve had so many conversations with people about what I’m doing,” Chanel told me later, over a web call after I’d returned to the States. “I’ll start talking about the slaughter, and you can see them grimace, like it’s hard to hear. And it is!” She paused, then said softly, “But, where’d you think that food came from? Did you think it came from someplace else?”
When I asked Chanel what she thought we could do about the whole dilemma, she was quick to suggest alternatives.

“You can support people that [slaughter] on a small scale,” she said. “A local scale. That don’t ship their pigs hundreds of miles.”

She also mentioned working to teach children different values around food.

“I think the first step would be to expose kids to the farms,” she said. “I think with knowledge comes appreciation. And with appreciation, we can make a big effort not to waste as much as we do. ’Cause I think that’s the big thing,” she added. “We don’t appreciate it, so we waste it.”

I smiled when she told me this. I realize now that so often, in the weeks that Chanel had been away, I’d been coming to our relationship in precisely the way Scully urges us not to relate to the animals we eat: from a place of power and control, begrudging them their needs and nature on account of the inconvenience it causes us, failing to really see them at all.

But I saw her that day, speaking to me with her characteristic passion, integrity and insight. And at the risk of overindulging in sentimentality, I have to admit that I love Chanel for exactly those qualities, even if they often lead her out into the world and away from me. It’s an inconvenient love sometimes, but I gladly submit to its dominion over me — pile of pillows and miles between us and all.