(Author's note: The following is a description of processing a steer. While not graphic or particular nausea intending, I do know there are readers that find this disturbing. I might recommend walking through the Longwood Gardens here and here.).
During my July visit to The Ranch and my regular touch base with The Cowboy and The Young Cowboy, they mentioned that a Tuesday morning was going to be loud, early. They were having a steer brought down and processed. There would be one loud noise of course, then some other ancillary noises.
Myself being the curious sort, of course I show up the next morning to watch.
Even though it is still Summer, the Ranch still cools off enough in the night and morning that one can almost feel coldish, at least in the morning. By the time I tromp down from the house to the barn and corral, everyone else was there: The Cowboy, The Young Cowboy, and the gentleman who would be working on the steer. The conversation was the sort that I suspect men having being having for time immemorial in various forms and fashions prior to the start of a task: the weather, the price of gas (or coal, or wood), others in the business; the chit chat of social niceties that make personal relationships in small societies work. After a few minutes of continued conversation, the work commences.
The Processor looked the part: a little over my height, he had not an ounce of fat on his body that I could see: all muscle and bone. He moved to get ready with an economy that betrayed a long understanding of the art of motion.
The shot almost surprises me. There was a "Cover your ears; it will be loud" from The Young Cowboy, followed by a single shot in the morning area. The steer drops.
As The Young Cowboy went to pull the loader into corral, I peek around the corner. The steer was on the ground, body twitching - especially the back legs. It seems like an eternity, but was maybe five minutes. It still looked a bit dangerous - per The Cowboy, it could be. Finally, when the legs had largely stopped moving, the back legs are chained and pulled out while the Processor went in and (judging from later) presumably cut open the throat. The loader drags the carcass out to of the corral to the Processor's truck, an almost one of a kind (to my experience) custom build with a winch, a small crane, and a meat locker unit on the back.
The Processor gets to work.
He and The Young Cowboy roll the steer onto its back, The Processor begins by cutting into each leg just above the hock; a quick crack at the end and the leg and hoof break off, to be put into a 55 gallon offal barrel. After removing them all, he pulled out a knife I had never seen before - a skinning knife, I suppose - and slices down the breast bone and slowly starts peeling away the skin from the body.
It is a marvel to behold: His technique is perfect as the hide literally peels away, revealing a pallid white body with hints of red underneath. After completing about a third, he places a bar into the haunches and the crane lifts the body up, letting fluids exist from the throat - not a torrent, just a flow.
When the hide is mostly pulled away, he moves to the upper body. He and The Young Cowboy discuss what else they want: out comes the tongue in a slab into a bag, to be followed by the sweetmeats. The body is raised and a deeper cut happens: out comes the heart and the liver, also to be bagged and placed into the ice chest.
Moving the offal barrel into the body, The Processor carefully slices all the way up, exposing the internal organs. One cut, and a stomach is emptied of its last meal onto the ground (more than I could have imagined was in there). Then, using the same technique he practiced on the hide, he slowly peels out the internal organs and guides them into the barrel. Nothing hits the ground. He continues to work the back of the hide as well until it, too, is completely removed.
Water is everywhere during this process. The carcass is sprayed, the tools are sprayed, hands are sprayed. Another round of spraying happens.
He moves to an industrial style electric saw, then starts cutting down the spine. The body slowly separates into two halves until only the head remains; which is cut off.
The Processor raises the crane to the level of the truck and using his knife, cuts the two halves into quarters. Punching holes in all, he slides the quarters into the cooler portion of the truck and shuts the door. Everything gets one more spray of water as The Young Cowboy brings the loader up to collect all of the pieces and parts for burial (apparently there is no longer a market for hides; it too is to be buried). The quarters themselves will be taken to a local meat locker to be hung and cut.
This whole process has taken under an hour.
At one point during the process, I ask The Processor how he started doing this and if he liked the job. He gives me a look, the look actual working people often give what seems like a frivolous question from a theoretician. Apparently I appear sincere enough: it was not a job he necessarily "liked", but it was a job - paid the bills (all cash) and allowed him to be independent.
The steer, I find out from The Cowboy, was one that had been born up at The Ranch and had lived its whole life here in the sun and rain and relative free range, pending only the last night of corralling. The end came in an instant, unlike the end that often comes to us.
This process was clean and efficient. There was not a lot of blood. There was no sense of this being a frivolous event: the meat will go to feed 2-3 families for the better part of a year. The provenance of the meat is known. Afterwards, everything was cleaned up - if one wanted to go so far, even the unused parts were "recycled" back into the earth.
It was a solemn experience, one a great many people no longer witness. Arguably, one cannot come closer to the overall food process than this: everything up to the point of slaughter happening in one place, and the food ultimately returned to the same general location. Is this not the true definition of a relatively closed loop.