One week ago the mutton in my shepherds pie was staring at me from a small pen on Mack Hill. This ram has become part of our harvest, as much as the tomatoes, herbs and potatoes pulled from the garden last month. Few families produce more than plant matter from their backyard gardens in this new era of the mass produced meat market. After eating my own farm raised meat, I’ve grown more confused as to why this simple healthy process hasn’t regained its line on the chore list in rural America.
Much to my relief, my first butchering experience went smoothly. Coffee, our wether, could not pay for his food bill with his wool fleece, and a vet robbed him of his breeding abilities before he came to our care. Poor Coffee had but one use left, providing low-cost protein for our farm families this winter. So, after a happy summer binging on all the green grass he could eat, it was time for Coffee to perform his final duty.
First, he was set aside in a small pen. He stayed there for a day to fast and relax in his new surroundings. Coffee licked his lips as I set down his last meal of hay and grain–the filet mignon of sheep cuisine. He would just get a few bites. Only swift, steady hands could bring this to a satisfying end. There would be no frightening trip to the slaughter house where Coffee would panic during his slow walk through the kill floor. I focused on how lucky Coffee was to have a swift smiling death, free from the prelude of fear the average lamb endures.
With his head bent down in culinary ecstasy, he could not see me lift the hefty sledge above my head. My racing heart gave me the power and focus I needed to deliver the fatal strike. A wave of calm swept over me he fell instantly without a single bleat of surprise. I didn’t hesitate to land a second blow just to be sure.
Our new mutton is still far from the table. We’ll hang the carcass face down in the cool dry basement. A few hours with a boning knife and his brown wool pelt is off and ready to be salted and tanned. The guts need to come out now or the meat will spoil. The pictures from a butchering book made it easy – good thing we remembered the fast. A quick slit of the neck and we forget about our fresh meat for five days. It needs time to bleed out and let rigor mortis pass. The dogs won’t be allowed downstairs for a while.
The rest was a pleasure, newspapers and a few hacksaws were on the table and we chose how thick to cut our chops. That’s how to turn a few acres of grass and strong nerves into affordable and healthy meat. That shepherds pie I was eating was fantastic, and I can look forward to more since we harvested pounds and pounds of mutton for the freezer. The cleanup was easy with hungry pigs in the pen. They were happy with the unsavory leftovers. In a way, even the scraps will come back to us–pork is on the menu next week.