By Rabbi Julian Sinclair
I spent last Wednesday at Wind Dancer Rancher, an organic farm in Northern California. The day was cold, wet and blustery. Together with 25 others, I had volunteered to take part in the slaughtering, plucking, evisceration, koshering and packing of the Turkeys that were to be eaten for Shabbat dinner at the Hazon food conference the following weekend.
Lisa Leonard, the farmer, cradled the first bird in her arms as Roger Studley, the organizer explained the order of the day. Someone asked Lisa her opinion about the intelligence of Turkeys. “Well, let’s say they ain’t the sharpest tools in the shed,” she answered. “But they do have personalities. Like this one here, he just hates cell phones. Like he’d attack anyone who he saw using one. “I know the feeling,” I murmured empathetically.
Then we gathered around Andy Kastner, the shochet. Andy is 28, a rabbinical student with curly brown hair and soulful eyes. He learned to be a kosher slaughter because he loved animals, but he also loved
Shochet, Andy Kastner
meat. He decided that he needed to be able to take responsibility for the way animals were killed if he was to continue as a carnivore.
Lisa’s partner Jim held the Turkey. (Lisa doesn’t like to watch when the birds she has raised from chicks are killed.) Andy said the blessing, gently extended the animal’s neck and with two swift back and forth strokes severed its trachea and main arteries. Blood spurted on to Andy’s white coat and on to the wet ground. Jim placed the dying bird upside down in a metal traffic cone. It kicked for a few seconds (reflex actions, said Jim) and was still.
Then we hung the dead Turkey by its feet from a bar in an open barn and started plucking. The downy belly feathers came away in clumps in your hands, exposing white, pimply skin. Within seconds the resplendent Heritage Breed bird was starting to look like meat.
When the carcass was thoroughly bald, Rabbi Seth Mandel, the Chief Kashrut Supervisor of the Orthodox Union opened up the body cavity. He removed the intestines, checked them for cuts or lesions, and then examined a lung for signs of disease. “Fine, healthy animal,” he pronounced of the free range, barley-fed bird. Next the turkey was soaked in cold water, salted inside and out, then rinsed, and placed in a polythene bag that was signed with Rabbi Mandel’s seal of kosher certification, and placed in an icebox.
Then we did the same thing 24 more times.
The goal was to produce meat that was not just kosher but also organic and local. Hazon wanted to ensure that the animals it served had lived Turkey-like lives and, so far as possible, met with humane deaths. These birds were pesticide and antibiotic free. They were not treated with the brutality inherent in the mass production of meat, either in life or in death.
The mass production of meat is a major factor in global climate change. The UN recently estimated that a staggering 18% of greenhouse gases are produced by the meat industry. Pesticides and fertilizers for animal feed together with transportation together emit vast quantities of greenhouse gases. The average item of food on an American dinner plate has traveled 1500 miles to get there. The preparation these turkeys all took place within a 30 foot by 30 foot area of farm. In an industrial system they would have been trucked all over the country to undergo the same process.
Of course, there are big questions about whether this kind of meat could ever be produced on a larger scale. The farmers sold it to Hazon for $6 a pound. The same day (Christmas Eve) turkey in Safeways, San Francisco was marked at $1.50 a pound. The meat we helped make was just about as humane and sustainable as meat can be. Whether it could be more than a middle class indulgence is another question. (I hope to look at that next week.) But if meat did cost more, we’d eat less of it and that would be a good thing for the earth.
Did I eat the turkey? Sure. Given that I sometimes do eat meat, it didn’t seem to make sense to turn down probably the most eco-friendly flesh I’d ever had. But when I took my first bite, I shuddered involuntarily. The mental mechitzas that we erect between meat and dead animals were ripped away as I alternately recalled and repressed the images of that wet Wednesday morning. And I tried not to leave any of it over.
Bensching, saying grace, on that meal was an entirely different experience. Normally I’m just saying thanks for the food on my plate. Heaven knows where it came from. This time I fervently thanked God for the farm, for Andy, Lisa and Jim, for the wet, muddy ground, for the proud, dignified birds pecking in the dirt when we arrived, for the wind and rain that had flayed my face the whole day and for all of the elements with which I was connected through that one act of eating.
Knowing the costs involved in producing even those most sustainably raised and humanely slaughtered animals will probably lead me to eat less meat in future. And that’s no bad thing.
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