HARVEST + FEAST — BACKSTORY

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How I got from eating meat, to not, to taking photos of how animals become meat; and then eating meat again in a whole new way.

by Jaime Fritsch
 

A significant part of the pleasure of eating is in one’s accurate consciousness of the lives and the world from which food comes. The pleasure of eating, then, may be the best available standard of our health. And this pleasure, I think, is pretty fully available to the urban consumer who will make the necessary effort.

—Wendell Berry

Portland, OR — 2012

I’m a photographer living in an old homestead farmhouse on the northern tip of the city. Everybody in the neighborhood has a garden, many have chickens and some even have goats. I’m mindfully exploring food, reading a book or two a week, traveling every couple months to do just enough commercial photography to help support a family and spending much of my time just thinking and feeling out life in the womb-like, cradled-in-nature existence that is the Pacific Northwest.

One thing though about such generous breadth for contemplation fostered by places like Portland is that eventually you start to dig up challenging subjects you maybe never even knew were there — the rate of depression in my then home may more likely be attributed to this dedication to self-discovery than the actual weather itself.

As a guy named Nietzsche once said,

“Sometimes people don’t want to hear the truth because they don’t want their illusions destroyed.”

And he’s right. We sometimes don’t want to experience truth because it’s painful. One of my many destroyed illusions while living in that foodtopian temperate rainforest was the story of how I put meat on the table. And while that truth was an initial hard pill to swallow, learning the animal-to-meat process was one of the most edifying experiences of my life and has informed why and how I eat meat in a respectful, reverential yet exciting way. A simple carrot is so much better when you pull it yourself or even just know where it came from. The same held true for meat.
 

Husbandry considerations

I’ve known for years that farm animals should be raised outdoors with plenty of room to graze, play, eat, drink, bathe, etc. — they are after all living a life similar to mine in the sense that they’re roaming around this same Earth seeing light, hearing sounds, smelling smells, tasting food, feeling pleasure and pain and experiencing emotions — they are, after all, sentient. I’ve also known that animals raised for meat should die a quick, as-painless-as-possible death. We were fortunate in Portland to have access to small-farm and home-raised meat from great sources; sources that were raising and harvesting animals the way I knew we should be. But no matter how well these animals lived and how pain-free their death was, I was still beginning to take issue with killing animals where I had no connection to or awareness of the process. I didn’t acknowledge the animals’ lives or deaths.

Killing and death are so intrinsically interwoven into our global ecosystem that to deny the place of either in the natural order of things would be akin to decrying gravity. With this in mind, I was intellectually pretty okay with killing animals for food, but it was still just axiomatic logic as opposed to experientially gained wisdom.
 

My first harvest

I was buying pastured chickens that I would slow-smoke over pecan wood from a farmer that lived down the street. I had visited her farm on Sauvie Island to see how the animals lived and she asked me to take photos of her pigs she was raising for a special farm-to-table popup dinner in collaboration with some people in the neighborhood.

The pigs’ names were Sally and Jesse. They pastured during the day and slept in a 10×10 open-air enclosure at night.

For the days leading up to meeting Sally and Jesse, I had been abstaining from eating meat as part of my food exploration — and as I’m photographing them, I’m going back and forth between feeling hungry just looking at the rotund beasts and feeling guilty for just that. I finish up and go sit with my farmer friend for a spell while we enjoy the cusp of late summer and early fall that Oregon is amazing for. I tell her I’m trying to really get into where meat comes from. She suggests I come back to the farm in three days to witness a chicken harvest and I agree.

My son comes with me back to the farm and I’m instantly amazed with the fucks he does not give standing just feet away as blood absolutely gushes from a very recently very alive chicken. I’m not sure if instinct kicked in for this genetically omnivorous little human and he knew on a cellular level that killing a chicken is perfectly normal or if he’s just too young to understand. Regardless, for me it’s different and strong feelings are surfacing. I’ve been enculturated for years to not talk about or even think about killing animals, all the while eating meat every day from animals that somebody else killed.

For me, I feel grief.

Back at home I feed my son, put him to bed and import the day’s images to sort and review. As I’m going over the images and simultaneously processing my feelings, I notice my interior landscape transforming into something else from the grief I’d felt earlier. Gratitude. I genuinely feel grateful for the dead chicken that will now feed my family. I’m not intellectualizing it and realizing that I should feel grateful — I’m actually feeling it. Amazed with what’s happening inside me I share the images with friends and colleagues to find an approximately 80/20 split on their reaction: 80% feel it’s revolting and are maybe even somewhat angry with me for pulling the rug out from under the illusion of chickens growing already defeathered and butchered on trees where we just pick them off like an apple and throw them in the oven, while 20% thank me for sharing and engage me in discussion surrounding the images.
 

Death For Food x Set & Drift

Particularly insightful for me was getting to share and talk about the images with Sean Kelley of San Diego-based art curation group Set & Drift which he and his wife Stacy operate out of the Bakery Design Collective in Barrio Logan. Sean is a soft-spoken, easygoing art nerd and designer. He’s also a closet FTW enthusiast, quietly reveling in subverting convention.

Sean and I spent a lot of time talking about what happens when you take part in harvest and how it changes you. In fact, the very next harvest I went to was with him out at Curtis Womach’s on a trip down from Portland.

Through harvest, we were organically developing an almost ineffable sense of reverence for the animals we were eating. We were getting more flavor and more satisfaction out of oftentimes less meat. Every bite of chicken had sunshine and grass fields and bugs in it and every piece of pig had earth and musk. Fully connected eating was visceral and psychedelic as if it tuned us back in to an ancient, mostly forgotten wavelength.

Inspired by the experience we started to think about what this project could be and I continued to shoot the series of portraiture of meat animals along with photo-documentation of their harvests.

Story

Living in Portland over 1,000 miles from my closest ally in Death For Food, I started to reach out to people about connected eating in my locale. Most notably was food writer, butcher and good meat activist Camas Davis, founder of the Portland Meat Collective. After showing Death For Food to Camas, she inadvertently changed the course of the project by offering to contribute a story. She wasn’t offering to contribute her views, her mission or her agenda. She was offering to tell a tale that people could maybe relate to.

This resonated with me immediately.

Story became the undercurrent of Death For Food. It was a perfect fit for an exploratory project that was adamant about not having an agenda for people other than awareness and connection. Out of respect for would-be participants in the project, it was important to keep a heavy agenda out of it. I wanted to show people images and tell people stories and open up discussion. Encourage them only to trust themselves and be their own barometer.
 

Red pills on the house…

I wanted to get the perspective of food people on Death For Food so I talked with my friend Michael McGuan of former Linkery. I was down from Portland in San Diego for a few days visiting and Michael and I were eating a late-night Baja-inspired dinner at El Take it Easy as we discussed fully connected eating and bumped fists over Catholicism. He had actually had a pretty similar train of thought that led him down a pretty similar path ending up at some of the same places as I did to take part in the full process of getting meat.

To share a deeper perspective with diners on where their food came from, Michael and I envisioned a dinner / photography exhibition featuring portraits of the animals on the menu and documentation of their harvest. This is a challenge because, unless executed properly, it’s easy for something like this to come across as what food writer, TV talker and Death For Food contributor Troy Johnson calls, “Ted Nugent,” real quick. It took a full year and some yet-to-be contributors before we really figured out how to design this dinner.

Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico

Fast forward to early 2014 and I’m still hard at work turning the concept Michael and I had envisioned into a reality. By this time the Linkery and El Take it Easy are gone from San Diego and so is Michael. Looking for people doing bold food work in the area like the Linkery dudes did, Troy introduces me to an unlikely ally; this time it’s in Mexico and his name is Javier Plascencia. I say unlikely only because even though I haven’t been living under a rock and I do know who Javier Plascencia is, I had no idea how steeped in connected eating this particular chef, or really the entire Valle de Guadalupe region and even Mexico as a whole, was.

We arrange for a visit with Javier to tour the Valle and I fly 1,100 miles with my camera having really no idea what to expect.

Sean Kelley picks me up at the airport and we head straight south, pulling over for a stretch and a set of tacos on the side of the highway due west of Valle de Guadalupe. As I order, I think about the fact that your average Mexican taqueria serves more animal body parts (tongue, head, throat, intestines, brain, etc.) by a factor of maybe ten than your average American restaurant. To me this speaks worlds to the notion that Mexico is pretty comfortable with where meat actually comes from.

Within another hour we’re deep in the Valle experiencing how they do food. I hate to say there is a right or wrong way of doing things as we all bumble around here on this rock called Earth thinking we know our heads from our asses until a loved one dies or we lose our job and as everything falls apart we realize we don’t know dick. But by golly if there is a right way of doing things in regard to food, it would appear to me it’s happening in Valle de Guadalupe.

The, ahem, “right” way

It was during these couple days Sean and I spent in Valle de Guadalupe that we seemed to really get a grasp on the “right” way to present the concept of fully connected eating in a manner that would truly benefit people. Inspired by the way of the Valle, we designed a workshop/exhibition/dinner experience with chef Plascencia that was beyond anything we had previously envisioned.

The first thing to transform was the exhibition and how we viewed its utility for the project. Experiencing the Valle confirmed that the photography was really meant to be a catalyst for a life-altering experience, rather than an end itself. We told the chef where we were going in our thought process at the end of that first day touring around with him as we kicked back at Finca Altozano. Javier has this way of receiving information that makes you wonder for a second if he even heard it — he ponders — and then he reciprocates in a way that tells you he is actually really listening as opposed to just waiting for his turn to talk. He finishes thinking and responds with ideas for a dinner experience featuring head-to-tail pig, goat and lamb; with a quail course featuring quail harvested on-site by the eaters.

The head-to-tail aspect of the dinner is important not just on an experiential level — actually seeing and eating the entire animal — but also out of respect… respecting this animal enough to eat all of it, not just the parts we conventionally deem in America as fit to eat.

The harvest aspect of the dinner — killing for food — is a sobering reality, not a sensationalized fetish. It has been a reality for our ancestors since the beginning of time and is still a reality for most cultures outside of the United States. It’s a reality for every cheeseburger or chicken wing we eat too, but we just look the other way, every day. We have a choice to embrace that reality and step forward into truth and what Wendell Berry describes as pleasurable eating through consciousness, or deny it and step back toward the factory food model.

I want truth. I want real. I want every bite of food I take to mean something to me.

I’ll be at Finca Altozano on July 13, 2014; killing part of my own dinner cooked by Javier Plascencia and talking about it with other food people. Together we’ll [quite literally] feel out questions like:

  • Now that I’m in tune with killing for food, am I okay with it?
  • How does meat taste now?
  • What is the ecology of my meat consumption… how does it ripple outward?
  • How much meat should I eat?
  • What are my standards for raising animals?
  • What are my standards for killing animals?

I don’t make any money off the event. Nobody does. Every penny of your ticket pays for all the hard costs associated with such a huge undertaking. We all just believe in the movement of fully connected eating and want to share it.