Most of what I do, I do for my children. While a rousing game of Candy Land and the Frozen soundtrack might not be my first choice on a Friday evening, the food always is. What I eat has become far better quality now that I am concerned more than ever about its provenance. Unfortunately, I’m a not a hunter, a gatherer, or a farmer. I don’t even know how to harvest the prickly pear cactus from my backyard—can it be harvested?—let alone how to hunt my own meat and grow my own produce.
I am part of a family of five in which both my spouse and I have full-time jobs in air-conditioned offices. I can only imagine what would unfold if I ever killed an animal: My oldest child would weep over the death of the animal, my middle child would chase and collect any nearby insects to store in her bed for later, and my youngest child would grab at the animal’s carcass.
But wanting a connection to our food, last Thanksgiving, my wife and I took our kids to Double Check Ranch, a working cattle ranch with its own slaughterhouse visible from the guest cabin. We cooked with cast iron on gas camping stoves, explored the ranch and the surrounding land, and communed with the cows.
The day before Thanksgiving, we pulled up to the ranch and found our way into our tiny cabin. Laying mattresses and blankets on the floor, we built a nest for the family (and the family dog) to sleep on. With the mattresses and blankets, it was impossible to open the cabin door—which, we learned later that night, would make midnight bathroom trips particularly difficult for our 3-year old. So it was that we spent five days and four nights living outdoors on the ranch and sleeping cozily under one roof. We brought our fruits, vegetables, grains, coffee, and beer from Tucson, and Paul Schwennesen, the owner of the ranch, provided us with plenty of grass-fed beef raised and processed right there by our cabin.
Possessing a mildly obsessive personality, I went back … twice. The first time back, my family I brought friends and we walked the land where the cattle ranged, toured the slaughterhouse where the animals are processed, and saw the bull scheduled to be slaughtered the following day. True to form, my 11-year-old was mildly uncomfortable knowing which animals were about to be slaughtered, my 3-year-old did in fact love looking for bugs, and my baby picked up whatever she could and put it in her mouth.
The bull set to be slaughtered was obviously angry, scared, and capable of destroying anything or anyone that got in its way. Paul and I watched the bull as it stared at us while pawing the ground, snorting warnings, and swinging its horned-head side to side. While sitting with me on the hood of my minivan, far out of the bull’s range, Paul said, “I feel really bad for that bull.” Although I’ve known Paul and his family for years, and I know them to be thoughtful, kind, intelligent people, it was refreshing to hear the owner of a ranch and slaughterhouse feel empathy for the animals he slaughters.
Intrigued, I went back alone to Double Check yet again to watch how the animals are slaughtered and processed.
As I pulled up to the slaughterhouse, I was met by Garret, Double Check Ranch’s operation manager. The first thing I noticed in the slaughterhouse was the enormous bull lying belly-side up on two steel rails. The next thing I noticed was the clean smell of wet concrete and the musty smell of wet fur. No smell of blood, death, or chemical cleaners in the air. In fact, until the processing of the bull began, the slaughterhouse doors were open letting in fresh air and sunlight. The processing was quick, efficient, and respectful.
One day, I’d like to take my family backpacking. I’d like to live off the land as much as possible. I’d like to show my children what foods can be gathered from our surroundings, and I’d like them to learn from and appreciate the sacrifice of the animals we eat on a daily basis. Until that day comes, my family takes part in our CSA, pays attention to the seasons, and visits our local slaughterhouse where we pet and feed the animals we will later eat for dinner. I want to have a connection to my food and I want my children to grow up expecting this connection.
Clayton Kamm is a criminal defense attorney in Pima County. He began cooking at the age of 4 when he created a marmalade and mayonnaise toasted sandwich. It tasted awful. Since then he has had slightly more success with his creations.