Category Archives: Meat Activism

Processing: Rapid Pulse 2013

I was honored to be included as one of the artists in Chicago’s 2013 Rapid Pulse International Performance Art Festival run by the phenomenal Defibrillator Gallery. But as happens in life sometimes, I got sidetracked from posting some of the wealth of documentation of the performance. At the time, the piece was unnamed, but in the ensuing months the title Processing has stuck with me (I’m currently working on a piece called Flensing–gerunds have power behind them). And so, here are some of the hundreds of images taken by two talented photographers Arjuna Capulong and Mark Zoetrope.

I also must take a bit of time to thank my two lovely and tough assistants Lauren Wessel and Mara Mayhem for co-performing with skill and grace and only the promise of some cuts of lamb as payment (sigh…performance art…so rewarding but not particularly lucrative).

The performance took place in the windows of the gallery and was a durational piece that unfolded over the course of 6 hours. Almost all of the cuts of lamb got distributed to people who had either claimed them in advance via an Indie GoGo funding campaign or as part of the first-come, first-served giveaway at the end of the night. I made delicious use of any that remained. A number of people sent me images of what they cooked from their chosen cuts, and I need to put together a separate post honoring those collaborations.

And so, here you go:

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Girls Don’t Grill Hamburgers, Really?

“Whaaaaaat?!? Girls don’t grill hamburgers!”

That was my 4 and a half year old daughter’s exclamation upon seeing this picture of me on Facebook flipping burgers at Saturday’s benefit party for the upcoming Rapid Pulse International Performance Art Festival.

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(Thanks to benefit attendee “HR” for snapping this pic and sending it to me to post on my social media at the event…hopefully there will be some good professional pics to come.)

My jaw dropped, and I felt a bit queasy.

If ever I questioned what I am trying to do with the Burlesque Butcher character, these stinging words from my daughter heightened the necessity and deepened my resolve. Words from my daughter–a child who has watched me butcher and cook numerous animals (many of them over a grill), who has accompanied me to farms and slaughterhouses to pick up animal carcasses, who has helped me build things with real tools, who has seen me sweaty and grungy doing typical “boy” things as often as she has seen me in dresses with perfect makeup and heels. Where is she getting this stuff? Her incredulous comments speak to a vital need for far, far more active normalization of the equalization of genders in all forms of cooking and food preparation. When I think back…has she ever seen a woman other than me grill something? I don’t think so.

Why is most home cooking done by women (and expected to be done by women) yet ignored or even regularly maligned while considered necessary? Why is most restaurant cooking (especially at the celebrity chef level) done by men? Why do women not carve the turkeys and roasts they prepared at dinner parties but rather let that final glory be overtaken by men? Why does backyard grilling default to men?

When pressed as to where my daughter got the notion that girls didn’t grill hamburgers she revised her original exclamation, hedging, “Well…girls don’t usually grill hamburgers.” I resisted the urge to rant and built on the door she left open a crack to explain (in 4-year-old accessible language) that it’s totally okay for girls to grill hamburgers and that, in fact, they should do it more often!

At the event itself, while out there in the alley over the course of a couple hours (everyone entering and leaving the space had to walk by me, so ample opportunity for discourse), I had three different types of conversations, which also reaffirmed what I’m doing with this character. With men, most of the initial comments were along the lines of “it’s so fun/cool to see a woman manning the grill for once” (granted these were men at a performance art event, so more inclined toward feminism and breaking gender norms). I got a few, more lecherous, men who either ogled or made comments about how what I was doing was sexy…and, to be fair, it was, and I like to feel that I make sexuality approachable, so the ensuing conversations also ended up being positive because I used my sex appeal as an entry point to explain the critique–and given the context the reception was welcoming not antagonistic. In a non-art context, though, I shudder to think what the reaction from most men might be…what I do does walk a fine line between T & A and social critique. Most women, when they do grill, don’t do it in platform heels. Women mostly just said they “got it” (I assume meaning the critique), but didn’t really engage me in much discussion while at the grill (later, when back inside just socializing at the party they did). It was fascinating (and compelling) that while at the grill, the vast majority of my conversations were with men.

Just the other day I was at a backyard barbecue hanging out with two seemingly feminist-leaning men, one of whom was cooking burgers over the grill, when he turned to the other man and asked if he knew how to tell if the burgers were done. He didn’t ask both of us mind you (he didn’t know about my performance art or long history with meat so he’s somewhat forgiven). The entrenched gender association of grilling with men, thrown in my face so blatantly and unexpectedly, floored me, especially when I thought I was in a context in which we both would have equally been asked such a question. The other man admitted he was a vegetarian so had no clue as to how to assess burger cooking progress. So me being me, I (hopefully gently concealing my shock) mentioned my meat passion and showed him how to press slightly on the burgers to sense how cooked they were by how jiggly they felt (more jiggly=more rare, although it does take practice to really get a feel for it–those of you who have a hard time getting perfectly medium or medium-rare burgers, might start using an instant read meat thermometer in tandem with the press-and-jiggle method to perfect your technique). The questioner genuinely seemed to be paying attention, which is not the usual reaction I encounter when guys ask for BBQ help, and I offer it, rather than some neighboring guy. I have gotten into some nasty tiffs with mansplainer personalities over meat advice.

Women…please! Unabashedly take over your backyard grills this summer (and carve the Thanksgiving turkey and the Christmas roast—I can’t tell you how many times I have bitten my tongue watching some man who had no freaking idea what he was doing butcher a carving job acting as the star of the show after his wife had slaved over the meal all day). There is no reason men should be monopolizing these “showcase” cooking roles and receiving accolades for what usually amounts to subpar food (with all due respect to my handful of male friends who do cook some mean BBQ or grilled items…).

Because clearly, even with a strong, feminist presence in her life, my daughter has, at 4, internalized some abhorrent stereotypes. The vast, vast majority of other people have too. These subtle forms of misogyny need to be more actively fought!

(And remember, you can help support my upcoming Rapid Pulse Festival performance here! For a donation of just $10, you can receive a recipe booklet with my favorite lamb recipes, some of which I created myself.)

Why I Can’t Sell Meat

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A number of years ago, when I first got into buying my meat farm-direct and butchering it myself, I had an interesting conversation with one of my farmers, when I asked why they didn’t just slaughter and butcher themselves (they were having a hard time finding a slot at a slaughterhouse for my order). She said that in Illinois not only can you not legally sell an animal you slaughtered (or butchered) yourself, you can’t even give it away.

I still haven’t been able to corroborate that “no gifting” rule, as, if I recall correctly, in Illinois hunters can donate the deer they kill and field dress to charity organizations (although there may well be some special rule that allows for that specific practice only). But clearly there are plenty of rules that pretty much prevent anyone small from being able to legally butcher and exchange money for meat.

One of the major impediments to a profitable life facing small farmers are the statutes in most (if not all) states against the sale of meat butchered on the premises due to a variety of one-size-fits-all rules and regulations (the fabulous Joel Salatin has done a lot of advocacy on this issue and still can only process chickens on his farm). Illinois (as a consummate nanny state) might be one of the worst offenders. Reading through, as one example, the IL Sanitary Food Preparation Act (410 ILCS 650), a few things clearly emerge that would prevent any small farm, much less an individual, from meeting the criteria. There are other regulations too (beyond just food-specific ones including business licenses, zoning regulations, etc.), but I’ll just highlight a bit from this statute for now.

(There is one fascinating exception written into the law. Small beekeepers producing honey are exempt from all the regulations (see Section 7). The bee-keepers’ lobbying group must be strong! But then again, beekeepers wear those scary looking suits, carry smoke puffers, and voluntarily walk into swarms of bees. I don’t think I’d want to mess with them either.)

Two particular highlights from ILCS 650:

From Section 3: “every building, room, basement or inclosure [sic] occupied or used for the preparation, manufacture, packing, storage, sale or distribution of food shall have an impermeable floor made of cement or tile laid in cement, brick, wood or other suitable material which can be flushed and washed clean with water.” [Now, I’m not saying something like carpet would be a good floor covering on which to butcher, but there are certainly plenty of other scenarios besides cement or tile, and flushing and washing clean with water isn’t the only way to properly clean a floor post-food prep.]

From Section 10: “It shall be unlawful for any employer to require, allow or permit any person who is affected with any communicable or sexually transmitted disease to work, or for any person so affected to work, in a building, room, basement, inclosure, premises or vehicle occupied or used for the production, preparation, manufacture, packing, storage, sale, distribution, or transportation of food.” [This is the one I’m going to research further to write about, because, you know, HIV or herpes or HPV, for example, are clearly food-borne illnesses and should prevent people from working. Right? No. Absolutely not.]

So, what’s an artist to do given these legal constraints? (For that matter, beyond small farmers who should have the right to self-butcher on site, the regulations prohibit, for example, a neighborhood food coop buying a whole animal and having a skilled member breakdown the animal into cuts to sell to others. It may even prohibit a group of friends going in on an animal together if only one of them is doing the butchery.) I think a lot about issues of risk and ethics (in fact I’m teaching a class called “Risk and Ethics in Performance” at SAIC next spring that covers food-borne illness risk, in addition to things like exposure to blood-borne pathogens, public nudity, civil disobedience), so I’ve given this a lot of thought both as to how to creatively circumvent these rules and allow people to determine their own risk level without government intervention.

The fear that drives the nanny-state laws to be one-size-fits-all, instead of making exception for individuals and small providers, stems from the question “but what if someone gets sick?”. When we get sick from food, we want to blame someone else. And often, blame can and should be placed (for example in clear-cut cases of negligence). From my perspective, as long as the consumer (or gift recipient) is aware of the circumstances of butchery, they can make an educated choice whether to buy from that provider or to use the gift. We all have our own levels of risk we’re willing to take. Sometimes people get inadverently sick. Life happens. Would you sue your neighbors if they invited you to a dinner party and unintentionally gave you food poisoning?

I’ll give an example from the non-meat world as to how ridiculous regulations agaist gifting self-butchered meat are (people tend to have a particularly weak fear threshhold for meat items, due to media hype over mass, industrially produced food-poisoning incidents). I have received plenty of jars of homemade canned items over the years, some of which I know have a pathogen risk (being low-acid and thus at risk for botulism, which in my mind is a far scarier risk than something like E. coli). Given this, if I don’t know anything about the person’s food preparation background, I’ll gently ask what cannning method the person used. If such items were pressure canned, I’ll happily consume the contents. However, if water-bath canned, I’ll graciously accept the gift, but won’t use it—too risky in my mind. How many people use gifts of home-canned food without ever considering the circumstances of production? The gifting of jars of preserves is not banned by law (at least as far as I know…in Illinois, it wouldn’t surprise me if it was!).

People who take on projects like home canning and home butchery, from my experience, have really done their homework (I’ve never asked about canning procedures and gotten the wrong answer). No one wants to get anyone sick. Small farmers and small butchers can’t risk their reputations by getting people sick—so they have to take extra precautions. They also don’t have the profit margin to absorb the losses, like the giant, unethical, commercial-industrial producers.

For thousands and thousands of years people have been butchering meat under conditions quite different from what the IDPH (and the USDA) specify. And they’ve been fine. There are unwritten rules that need to be followed. Meat can only sit out at room temperature for so long before problems start. (You’d be surprised how long that is—I know I was surprised when I started reading butchery and food science books and articles. How many of you have traveled outside of the first world and seen animal carcasses hanging outside butcher shops all day? Believe it or not, that’s totally ok, because those animals were almost definitely slaughtered that morning.) Meat raised under proper conditions (or wild, hunted meat) does not have the same pathogen risk as animals in CAFOs (concentrated animal-feeding operations). With the advent of things like ice and refrigeration and soap and bleach, risk can be virtually eliminated.

So…how, as an activist, can I work within our fear-based, nanny-state system that prohibits me from butchering meat and selling it (or even giving it away). Well…I can transform it into “not meat”. I can transform it into art. Thus the “This is not meat, this is art!” labels were born. I am clearly labeling my artistic product as not meat. The person who voluntarily takes (or, through the Indie Go Go campaign, signs up for) a meat gift knows the circumstances of the artwork’s creation. If he or she decides to eat it, than that’s his or her decision. There are no laws against, for example, buying a million-dollar painting, then cutting it up into tiny pieces and eating it. You, as meat-art recipient, may do what you will with your gift!

Attacked!: An Ethical Beak-to-Tailfeather Response or What To Do With That Turkey Carcass

I’m saddened that my first long post was prompted by unpleasantness, but I’m trying to turn that around in a constructive, joyful manner. Yesterday, radical animal-rights proponents viciously attacked me and several fans of the Facebook version of The Burlesque Butcher in response primarily to this picture:

Granted, it is an arresting image–slightly macabre and not something one sees every day: a woman lovingly kissing a roasted hog’s head. That woman is me, of course, and the action was captured this past summer at the end of another successful hog roast after I had spent at least two hours breaking down and portioning a 130 lb. hog for an event crowd of over 100 very appreciative people. I was full of emotion on so many levels…elated to have splurged on a proper sustainably raised and humanely treated hog for the second year in a row, proud of breaking down a hog carcass faster than I ever had before, melancholy because I knew this year was the last year for the event–a pending divorce and move away from the house I had lived and entertained in for a decade meant the 10th iteration of our annual hog roast was the last. And so, ever one to play to the camera, I picked up the hog’s head and gently kissed it on the snout–out of reverence, out of respect, out of admiration, out of joy, out of amusement.

To then have complete strangers attack me as barbaric, tragic, and worse, was not something I expected. For many months, that picture has served as my avatar for a variety of different forms of social media and not once did anyone object. Most people, knowing me and my near obsession with how improperly most livestock is treated and how much of each precious animal gets wasted because people no longer want to take time with cooking or eat the so-called cheap cuts, saw the love in that picture, the beauty, the gentleness. This was a hog whose favorite food was the expired and spilled chocolate milk from the dairy at which he was raised, a fun fact I had just learned when at the farm to pick him up two days prior. This was a hog who got to run around with his siblings in a large pen, dotted with mud puddles to swim in. (The dairy explicitly started raising hogs for meat just so they could productively use non-sellable milk from their lovely grass-fed cows instead of having to throw it out–it doesn’t get much better than that.)

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And so I and some of the amazing fans who came to my defense got called psychopaths, sociopaths, murderers, attention hounds, “f*cking desperate for attention”, ugly, old, unhealthy, tasteless, shameful, would-be cannibals, and “more than a little dysfunctional” (that last one from someone who purported to be a mental-health professional, yet was making gross assumptions based on a handful of images). One woman hoped that I would be murdered (I deleted that comment, banned the poster, and reported her as abusive). Another woman accused me of mocking animals and “killing for pleasure”. I shudder to think at the insults that these same individuals would have flung had I instead posted, for example, this dynamic picture of me sawing open the pig skull to, in proper nose-to-tail fashion, serve the brain to interested party-goers (sadly, the brain had not been cooked long enough to eat–the fire had been a bit too low at the head end of the hog, and I was wary of taking it out of the skull and cooking it a bit more, given that it had been essentially sitting at what may well have been a danger zone temperature for the 6 hours of hog roasting).

Curiously, this assault on my page and my fans occurred while I was making turkey stock from the carcass of my Festivus party turkey–honoring the bird from beak to tailfeathers as much as is possible with a commercially produced Organic Valley turkey (obviously it was lacking things like the feet). I know these propaganda-blinded activists will never be convinced that meat eating can be done in a respectful and sustainable way, but it floors me that they can’t see I’m one of the good guys. If more people ate the whole animal, not just select parts, we would kill far fewer animals each year. And so here are some suggestions for getting the most out of your leftover turkey carcass, if you still have one sitting in your fridge.

I’m hoping my readers know how to make stock, so I will skip that explanation for now (but if you don’t, leave me comments to that effect and I can do a stock-making post sometime). So I added water to what’s in this picture, and let it do its thing. But you can get more than just stock or soup out of the carcass. One thing I do that I think many don’t is strip every bit of meat, fat, skin, etc. from the carcass after simmering. Some of this goes to the dog and some to me and/or whoever I might be cooking for.

Before I settled down to strip all the meat off the bones, I skimmed off enough soup for a late lunch, heated it to a simmer in a small pot, shredded a bit of the turkey from the soup, added some chopped carrots, and then immersed some pre-packaged gnocchi (which are a great! quick alternative to dumplings–you can’t always make every element from scratch).

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Then I set to the task of stripping every bit of useable meat, skin, fat, and cartilage from the bones. I keep two containers–one for human consumption and one for the dog–some meat is too dry and all the skin, fat, etc. is too soggy. The dog, in fact, had been drooling the entire 6 hours the stockpot simmered on the stove–he knows he always gets treats on stock-making days. What one ends up with looks like this: a large pot of golden, rich stock; a container of shredded turkey perfect for putting back in the soup (although not all of it is suited for this purpose) or doing some creative repurposing; a container of treats for the dog; and a small bowl of bones.

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It’s always astounding to me how little actually ends up getting thrown out (and yes I know there are good uses for the bones–the reality is that sometimes one can only do so much).

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So what to do with all this shredded, somewhat spent turkey that has been picked from the carcass? I used to adhere to the line of reasoning that the carcass had given all its essence to the stock and just gave the dog all the soup-soaked meat. And yes, it can be kind of sawdusty in texture after being simmered for 6 hours (not to mention the fact that often the parts that go in the stock pot are those that got overcooked, like the ends of the wings), but with a little cooking magic, tasty concoctions can be achieved.

One of my favorite uses for this meat is to make croquettes–you add back flavor and moisture. (Another is turkey, noodle, and veggie casserole with lots of creamy sauce.) Here’s how I make croquettes (and sorry for not having step-by-step photos…I was hungry and documenting slipped my mind):

Shred some meat fairly fine. Add some grated onion (the grating helps disperse the moisture from the onion better throughout the mixture), some torn parsley leaves, some breadcrumbs (I prefer panko, but you can use whatever), an egg or two or three depending on the volume you’re making, s & p, and paprika. Mix together and gradually add in a bit of liquid until you have a consistency that will hold together into a patty (I prefer heavy cream, but milk works fine as would broth or even water). Form into patties and fry over medium heat in a combo of butter and oil until nicely browned. Serve with leftover jus, gravy, demi-glace, or just naked. A runny fried egg is nice on top too!

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And of course, since I got to eat my dinner, Magellan the Newfoundland gets his too after so patiently waiting!

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