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Butchering, unplugged

November 4, 2009

rifle season 10-09 001

The meat-packing crew

“So, at that moment when you’re about to pull the trigger and kill this animal, how does that feel?” This animal is the cow elk whose hind leg I am whittling into flawless roasts; the hunter I’m quizzing is Dan. Poor Dan. When he tells his hunting story, I’m the only one who inquires about his feelings. Perhaps it is because I always feel sad, even after ten years of hearing about these wild creatures, one moment munching mountain grasses amongst the herd, the next crumpled on the ground, nerves twitching as life seeps from this massive body.

“When I’m taking the shot I’m pretty detached from my feelings,” Dan explains as he peels sinew off a backstrap. Oh. Perhaps that’s why the vast majority of hunters are men; detaching from my feelings seems as likely as chopping my own finger off – it just kind of goes with my hand.

Dan mentions the remorse that settles as he performs the somber work of field dressing the still-warm body: tugging hide from flesh, loosening thick legs from pelvic bones, sawing ribs free from the vertebrae stacked like a white tower of legos. But tangled in that remorse is gratitude like a chorus of angels singing about meat that is local, sustainable, free of factory chemicals and delicious.

“We all kill to live in some way or another” Dan muses, “I’m glad I can be so intimately involved in procuring the meat we eat.”


So, Dan got an elk and a deer. And then went right back to working 10 hour days. If the following week was a movie preview, you’d first see me tenderly washing the children’s bottoms in the bath. Then cut to me at the kitchen table hacking away at a deer leg while Dan reads books to the kids. Next I’m investigating a new freckle on Col’s face, which, whoops! turns out to be a speck of raw meat. Then cut to Dan hefting a 100-pound elk hind leg flecked with spruce needles and elk hair into the house at midnight.

I love this sort of work—the kind that is physical, predictable and has a beginning, middle and end—probably because much of my life is like trudging through this dark, circular tunnel. I keep rounding the bend to arrive back at this place: version #23 of the argument regarding why we wear jackets when it’s 40 degrees outside. I should just lie on the crumb-strewn floor while blasting the pre-recorded tape of my voice cheerleading the kids as they struggle with their jackets. Almost there Col… now your other arm Rose…no, don’t give up now…push through, push through!

Butchering is so straightforward. When you get down to the smooth, white expanse of a scapula, you’ve finished a shoulder. Slice off anything that isn’t pure, glistening ruby meat and return it to the woods. Backstraps become steaks, hind legs are roasts and the piece-work of sinewy shoulders goes to the pile that we’ll grind into burger and sausage. When you shut the freezer door on a deep well of swimming white packages, you are done. Crack a beer!

butchering 002

Butchering this massive elk hind leg reminds me of that Shel Silverstein poem "Melinda Mae," about the girl who said she'd eat a whale. "She took little bites and chewed very slow, just like a good girl should. And in 89 years she ate that whale because she said she would."

butchering 006

Whew, I feel 89 years older...meat chunked off down to the bone.

Saturday was the big push. If Salvador Dali painted our picture you’d see all these slow-moving bodies grabbing knives and beers and elk steaks, sometimes mixing up the three and trying to slice a hind leg with a beer or take a swig on a knife. Everyone would be smiling, their hands busy. Our friend Chris, who grills meat like a 50-year old man who’s been holed up with his rifle in a survival shack on the bayou, put out perfectly cooked plates of elk burgers, deer ribs and smoked deer steaks.

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Chris, neither 50 nor from the bayou

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Smoked deer steaks: Like salmon that spawned in the mountains and came back as mammals, says Dan licking his fingers

Our former neighbor Cody, who was in his twenties when we met and will always seem impossibly young, came with Logan, both of whom helped Dan pack out the elk. You know how I can tell these guys are still in their twenties? They’re so unencumbered, so light you can almost see through them as they glide around, never having spent a minute frowning over a growth chart or trying to insert a bulb syringe into a screaming, snot-packed newborn. Last summer Cody returned from a long roadtrip and told Dan “It was awesome – just two bachelors and a dog touring the West in a van; we woke up every morning and said, where should we go now?” You just shouldn’t be allowed to say that to a parent.rifle season 10-09 021

But the best thing is these guys approach our children like they’re these delightful little creatures, a million times better than a figment of their last mushroom trip. When Rose deadpans every three minutes “more dat rib meat,” charmed Logan hands her a deer rib so fatty, taking a bite feels like you just applied a month’s worth of lip balm. When Col insists on writing his “address” on every package of meat, Cody convinces him a simple “C” will suffice.

rifle season 10-09 022The kids mob Logan on the meat grinder and he never alters his expression of cheery calmness, like he could be swaying to a live reggae band instead of pushing meat into whirring blades while children’s arms fly around like sparrows kicked up by a cat. But the kids really do help, not in a way of speeding up the process, but in a most unusual way of not slowing it down. They form balls of ground meat to be wrapped, shuttle packages to the freezer and are happy to be included in the giddy, buzzing hive of productivity.

rifle season 10-09 028

Cody, our favorite fun hog

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who gave the 2-year old a sharpie?!

Each year the butchering is slightly different. We’ve had young cows pass through the butchering table, as tender as cooked butter beans. We’ve had burly bulls, startlingly huge in a prehistoric, “brontosaurus burger” sort of way. Before kids, we’ve worked from dawn to dusk, sometimes with a symphony of friends slicing, grinding, wrapping. Other times, it’s just me and Dan, enjoying a date of sorts. One year our friend Stacie, a physical therapist, joined us and the packages got marked “illiocostalis dorsi” or “quad extensor.” When Col was a baby, and calcium deficient like many preemies, we pulled slippery white marrow from elk bones to swirl into his applesauce. Skimming through my butchering memory is like seeing a yearbook of all our friends’ faces.

Col asks “where is that elk now Daddy?” “It’s in our bodies Col, and we are grateful.”

May it go on and on.rifle season 10-09 029

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18 Comments leave one →
  1. David Smith permalink
    November 4, 2009 12:53 pm

    Chris sure can grill up some perfection. And you should taste the beverage that his Uncle brought out from North Carolina!

  2. Chris Chambers permalink
    November 4, 2009 1:11 pm

    The total respect and reverence for the elk and deer that the Turiel/Hinds clan show for the animals that Dan hunts is truly unique. I have hunted, butchered, and eaten game my whole life and it is easy to become complacent about truly appreciating the sustenance that the animals provide. I am truly privileged to have Dan, Rachel, Cole, and Rosie as friends and they constantly remind me of what is really important in the whirl of modern life.
    David, that non-alcoholic apple cider from the Appalachains is really tasty, huh?
    Rachel, thanks for another great post.

    • November 4, 2009 2:57 pm

      Chris and David, aren’t you boys supposed to be at work right now? Thanks for the love!

  3. November 4, 2009 3:59 pm

    Never thought I’d enjoy such a beautiful story about butchering – only you could work such magic Rachel!!

  4. Barb permalink
    November 4, 2009 6:36 pm

    Hmmm….. I really do love meat. Cooked grilled meat. Maybe I’ll book a ticket out next year and come be useful by..uhh… washing dishes and entertaining children. I will leave the butchering to you.

    Inquiring minds want to know more about Rose’s backpack, featured in photos in this post.

    • 6512 and growing permalink*
      November 4, 2009 10:19 pm

      Barb, children-entertainers are always welcome at the butchering table. Rose’s backpack, a hand-me-down from our neighbor, is from Dora the Explorer, who is both revered and scorned in our household, depending on who you ask.

  5. meredith pollick permalink
    November 4, 2009 11:38 pm

    Such beautiful writing! I love your strong voice… I almost get to be there with you.
    Keep on keepin’ on, girl!
    Love you and your fam.

    • 6512 and growing permalink*
      November 5, 2009 4:23 pm

      Wonderful to hear from you! I shudder to think what the last meat we ate together might have been…camp kee tov hot dogs? Mu Shu Pork from Shattuck Ave?

      • meredith pollick permalink
        December 7, 2009 4:22 pm

        You brought elk stew to my house in Forestville. It was yummy.
        p.s. It was always mushu chicken…

  6. November 5, 2009 2:19 am

    I remember the first day I walked through the slider to drink my tea on the back porch and entered Slaughterhouse 5! Giant hunks of flesh hanging from the rafters and bloody things laying about. Hmmm……perfectly normal. I sat down on the couch to enjoy my morning and pondered the massive elk knees sitting on the ping pong table. One of my fondest moments was playing ping pong with Farmer dave and the ball bounced once and then stuck perfectly to the table in a sticky little droplet of blood! It was an awesome moment! And then there was the food. Ooh la la! I loves me some elk steak and ground elk! Hannah used to make me elk stew and elk sausage and Colin Tonozi once made me the most delectable elk scramble. The elk mole you served me in Humboldt was legendary. Elk is to this day, my favorite meat. In fact, unless someone I know kills it in a manner as respectful and reverential as my friend Dan, I’m not interested.
    I love you guys. :)

  7. November 5, 2009 2:20 am

    Oh yeah…PS.
    I love that picture of Col holding up fistfulls of raw meat and Rosie all splatter painted with elk blood. :) Super awesome!

  8. Ike permalink
    November 5, 2009 6:49 pm

    Wonderful writing and pictures. It felt like I was there. We have not been in town during hunting season but perhaps that opportunity will arise. It is a great service to all of us who read your blogs that we are inclined to think more about where our meat (and all of our food) comes from. You have made hunting and meat preparation into the equivalent of a community barn raising. Congratulations Dan on the good hunt.

  9. 6512 and growing permalink*
    November 7, 2009 7:21 pm

    Your family is so precious. I’m so blessed to know you guys and share/ learn in this life. Love and appreciate you sweet Durango folks. Collin Tonozzi

  10. Cody "coyote" Edwards permalink
    November 9, 2009 6:36 pm

    Yeah! Great shots and even better writing about that whole sequential group effort. Ya’ll are a fabulous fam and I’m so happy that you’re raising those two little mongrels to be mountain folk just like their parents, even though Rosie just loves those cosmetics. (Hoof Alive)
    Love ya!


  11. December 14, 2009 5:38 pm

    I could see this in our future. Local. Sustainable. Born from nature instead of a crowded feed lot. It makes sense.

    Thanks for the link!

  12. Christal permalink
    September 2, 2014 1:51 am

    One of our best elk harvests came to be called “Blue Plate Special” remembered fondly as being very old, but very tender.


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