Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Wether is Wonderful

A couple of weeks ago my daughter was getting her hair done when Laura, the lady who cuts her hair, mentioned that she had just bought a lamb, slaughtered, butchered and processed for $80. I asked Emily to get the farmer’s number from Laura for me, but Laura did one better and just called the guy and sent him to me.
So, Friday afternoon I’m in the back prepping when Jared comes back and tells me that some guy wants to talk to me. “Who is it?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” is the answer. “He’s got a card with your name on it.”
Now I’m thinking 1. Great, I’m about to get served a summons, 2. Well, it could just be an amateurish hit man, and 3. I’ve really got to get the staff to ask a couple of questions before turning me over to people.
The guy turned out to be Marcos, a big sixty-something Mexican who’s worked on ranches all his life, mostly as a shearer, traveling all over the West shearing sheep. Marcos is one of those guys who smiles constantly while he’s talking to you, not in a used car salesman or politician kind of way, but a genuine smile that gets only bigger when he’s talking about his animals.
We talk about what he’s got available, no lambs right now, and won’t have any for a few months, but he says he’s got a three year old wether (castrated male sheep) that he’ll let me have for a hundred bucks.
I balk for a minute, mutton can be pretty unpleasant, that’s why people eat the lambs, when they’re young the meat is much more tender and hasn’t yet acquired the gaminess that a lot of people don’t like. But Marcos assures me that the meat will be fine.
“Okay, let’s do it.”
“When do you want it, I can kill it tonight, have it to you in the morning.”
Wow, I just ordered an animal killed. I don’t feel good about this, but we have become so detached from our food, forgetting or never realizing that something, be it plant or animal, has to sacrifice so that we may live, the circle of life so obscured by popular entertainment, and mega-mart shopping where our hunt for sustenance takes us nowhere near the source of the food, no way to know how it was harvested, or by whom.
But here this man is matter-of-factly telling me that he will kill my sheep that he had just described with true affection.
So, I feel badly, for the animal and the farmer, but I know Marcos doesn’t feel bad about it. It’s his job, he’s done it all his life and he wouldn’t want anyone else do it because he does like the animal and he knows he can slaughter it more quickly and cleanly than anyone, and in his mind the animal is meant to be eaten, my backing out would only postpone the inevitable.
“That will be fine.” We agree on a delivery time before the restaurant opens since the last time we carried a large dead animal through the dining room some folks got a little upset.
“How do you want it?”
“Just dressed.” I want to do the butchering myself, so I just want it skinned and cleaned.
“Head on, or off.”
“On, please.” This gets a smile and a nod, maybe this gringo does know what to do with my animal.
The fact is, I’m really not sure what I’m going to do with his animal and I spend the night tossing staring up at the ceiling, thinking that I have to make sure every bit of this animal gets used, it’s dead right now because I said to kill it, there can be no waste.
The next morning Marcos arrives and I walk out front to his truck and there is the wether, skinned and gutted, legs locked in rigor, the face with no skin a bizarre mask.
“You say you want fresh, so I wait and kill him this morning.”
Wow, that’s fresh alright.
“Ok, you take him. I cannot help, I shattered my pelvis last year.”
‘Awesome, good thing I left the fuckin’ head on,’ I’m thinking, as the crazy-eyed, bloody, no-lipped thing flops back and smacks the side of my leg when I lift the carcass. Luckily there are not a lot of people out and about yet, but we do get some appalled stares. "Don't make eye contact, Margaret." I imagine the accountant in the two wheel drive SUV telling his wife as they pass.
Also lucky that the one and only person walking by is a cook from a place a couple of doors down who is more than happy to help me get the heavy and awkward carcass inside and on a table in the back kitchen where I’ll break it down. He grins and nods. "Cool," is all he says.
Then Marcos and I have a couple of strong americanos and he tells me more about where he came from in Mexico and of his animals. He talks most about his fighting cocks, saying that he doesn’t fight them much anymore, but he enjoys breeding and raising them, and then about his ex-wife, and how she cheated on him, and how he went to kill her, but that with him in jail and her dead there’d be no one to raise his little girl, and he’s still smiling, but it’s a hurt smile, and for the thousandth time I am reminded of how arrogant and judgmental I was as a younger man and how I would have looked down on him for his, to my mind, outdated views and customs, but now I can see him as just another man, doing his best to get by, and we can drink coffee and laugh at each other’s stories, all because of this animal on my prep table.
Later, as I’m breaking down the carcass into manageable cuts I’m thinking the same things as I had been the night before, but I’m starting to know what I’m going to do with each part, and at the end of it there is very little waste, mostly gristle and silver skin. Everything else is wrapped and put up, and one foreleg sizzles away in a roasting pan having been rubbed down with a little bit of olive oil and salt and pepper and topped with two sprigs of fresh rosemary. On the stove top the spine simmers away in a big stock pot, the collagen and marrow being slowly turned into what will turn out to be an amazingly tasteful stock.
I roasted some potatoes with the fat from the leg and made a sauce from those same drippings by whisking in just some butter for what was an absolutely delicious dinner, and today I made sausage with some of the trim and scraps and it was the best sausage I’ve made yet.
Marcos was right, the meat is wonderful, rich and flavorful. He knows his animals.


Maria said...

Good for you. As you know, I grew up on a farm and have never been squeamish about animal carcasses. I also learned early on not to get sentimentally attached to any of the pigs or chickens. There was no Wilbur the pig in my life.

My mother used to make head cheese and it was fantastic. I never learned how to do it and I suppose that is okay since we don't see too many heads in the meat section of our grocery store....

Eric said...

I've got the head, but it's spoken for...sorry.

Terroni said...

I love the part where the two of you are talking over americanos--the way this lamb brought you and your stories together.

And suddenly...I really want some sausage.