The lost art of butchery

People keep asking me, what will you do with this entire year off?  Well… read more books, learn new skills, discover new talents or passions (and pursue them), get back into running, volunteer at a shelter or soup kitchen, and perhaps number one on my list; learn to be a butcher.

I’ve likely horrified my vegan or vegetarian friends already, but rest assured that my desire to cut up raw meat looks nothing like mass farming with cruel, confined cages or brutal modern slaughter houses. Let me explain.

Just over 100 years ago Canada welcomed a surge of immigrants from eastern Europe. Many countries in that area faced increasing struggles with overpopulation or political unrest, and Canada offered a safe haven, with either free, or almost free sections of land (160 acres). The catch? The land was in the Canadian prairies.  It was cold, harsh, barren in some places, overgrown in others. All of it was remote.  The Minister of the Interior at that time geared his marketing campaign towards Hungarians, Ukranians, Romanians, Latvians instead of the “more ethnically desirable” British. He believed that the “un-desirable” immigrants (everyone besides the British, apparently) were more hard-working, perseverant, and generally just more hardcore than the British, and could therefore suffer out the relentless, brutal winters and create small communities or homesteads in the Canadian wilderness. When referring to the hard-working qualities so many eastern Europeans possess, the Minister of the Interior said “a stalwart peasant in a sheep-skin coat, born on the soil, whose forefathers have been farmers for ten generations, with a stout wife and a half dozen children, is a good quality.”[2]

So they came. In 1912, on the heels of extreme hostility due to the Russian Revolution, my great grandparents left Latvia for Canada. What they arrived to what was 40 acres of spruce and pine forest, sprinkled with hidden streams, creeks, and swamps. Narrow horse tracks were the closest things there were to a road. Rocky outcroppings were hidden amongst the overgrowth. The bush was so thick that from inside, you couldn’t see the blue sky on a sunny day. There was nothing. But there was also everything. It was safe. And it was theirs.

They built their first house using trees they felled by hand, and although it’s a little more weathered, worn, and tilted; it’s still standing today. And MY GOD, I don’t know how they could have kept warm through so many winters in it. Hardcore. In 1914 they finished building the barn and a second house the same way. They didn’t use any nails, but dovetail joints instead. The barn is still standing, still used, and has an epic hayloft that was so fun to play in when my cousins and I were kids… even though we weren’t technically allowed to. Sorry Grandma.

More buildings went up, more fields were developed, more animals were acquired. But how did they do all of this in such a remote location, with what little they had after fleeing communist Russia? They had enough money to buy some basic supplies and a cow. With the milk from the cow they made butter and cheese and traded with the closest farms for other goods. They had their own veggie gardens, and built an ice chest to keep things cool in the summer and insulated from the bitter cold in the winter.  Once the fields grew large enough, they would cut, rake, and stack the hay by hand to feed the herd. With their pigs and chickens they could trade meat for other, larger farm necessities. And so on and so forth. Some years were more successful than others and they had to work extremely hard for every little step forwards.

Every time an animal was killed it was out of necessity, and every part of the animal was used. Of course hunting on the property was common, and if it was a domestic farm animal, pretty much the entire family was a part of raising whatever it was; cow, pig, or chicken. Over-consumption of meat or dairy wasn’t a thing, because there just simply wasn’t enough to make gluttony possible. Without their pioneering spirit and reliance on the farm and farm animals, they literally would not have survived those intense Manitoba winters, where in a cold spell it reaches -40C for days on end.


Modern day meat-eating looks a lot different, right? Huge battery farms with confined spaces and questionable practices are commonplace. Side of beef after side of beef rolling along the assembly line where the disengaged, apathetic workers pack and wrap for hours on end.

Today’s problem is one of disconnection – out of sight, out of mind. That disconnection can be easily translated to lack of appreciation or respect for the life of the animal you’re eating.  Lack of appreciation just keeps the cycle moving in the favour of the massive torture chambers they call “farms”, where it’s all about mass production with little care for animal welfare.

I’m lucky that I have these stories of my ancestors to connect me to the process of farming. I’ve killed an animal and then eaten it for dinner, and appreciated every mouthful. Our family still has that very farmland, with those original buildings, where we continue to grow vegetables and raise animals to eat. And I’m also proud to say that we do it in a way that doesn’t rape the soil of nutrients or torment the animals in our care. It shouldn’t come as any great surprise to many of you when I say I want to learn to be a butcher – my maternal grandfather was a butcher for over 30 years in my hometown, I used to work in the local butcher shop as a teenager, and I’ve spent many summers helping to raise, and then slaughter our 250+ chickens on the family farm. Those experiences have shaped my feelings towards the farming industry and driven my desire to get involved more deeply to be another positive voice and advocate for change.

I am absolutely grateful that I can draw inspiration from the stories of my great-grandparents and try to stand in line with the values that they’ve un-knowingly instilled in me. By no means are these ideas new; the importance of organic, pasture raised farming, humane killing, less over-consumption, and more moderation. But I do think we need more people to join the industry who are committed and passionate about the necessary shift away from factory farming and inhumane slaughter houses.

This is why I want to learn to be a butcher, I believe I have the necessary level of appreciation, respect, and reverence to get involved with and promote more sustainable farming methods; methods that focus more on quality and moderation instead of faster and larger. Step 1 for me is to volunteer or work at a local organic butchery here in New Zealand to get some basic skills and see what the local farming and butchering scene is like.

To be continued……


One thought on “The lost art of butchery

  1. You’re hired! As a vegetarian I have always thought that when I am ready to slaughter and butcher an animal, I will be ready to eat it. Not yet, maybe not ever, but I am glad you are.


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