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Read an Excerpt from Killing It

A longtime magazine editor learns the art of butchery in rural France.

Killing It An Education by Camas Davis book cover

Camas Davis was at an unhappy crossroads. A longtime magazine editor, she had left New York City to pursue a simpler life in her home state of Oregon, with the man she wanted to marry, and taken an appealing job at a Portland magazine. But neither job nor man delivered on her dreams, and in the span of a year, Camas was unemployed, on her own, with nothing to fall back on.

So when a friend told her about Kate Hill, an American woman living in Gascony, France who ran a cooking school and took in strays in exchange for painting fences and making beds, it sounded like just what she needed. Upon her arrival, Kate introduced her to the Chapolard brothers (Dominique, Marc, Bruno, and Jacques) and two of their wives (Cecile and Christiane), part of a family of Gascon pig farmers and butchers, who were willing to take Camas under their wing, inviting her to work alongside them in their slaughterhouse and cutting room.

***

All manner of nearly dried or drying sausages hung from two dozen horizontal wooden dowels that the Chapolards had attached to a vertical metal structure. Americans are more familiar with the Italian word for these sausages: salami. Dominique schooled me in the French version.

Saucisse sèche,” Dominique said, pointing to a somewhat shriveled, purple-looking sausage, more like the color of Jehanne’s salted and dried duck breasts. Flecked with ground meat and what looked like fat, the saucisse sèche was about an inch in diameter.

Saucisson,” Dominique said, pointing to a much larger dried sausage the color of the tiled roofs in Toulouse. I knew that the word saucisse, when used alone, referred to fresh sausage, so I deduced that saucisse sèche meant dried sausage and that saucisson was just a larger version of saucisse sèche. Dominique gestured for me to squeeze the saucisse sèche and the saucisson between my thumb and forefinger. Each had a little give to them, but the saucisson seemed softer than the saucisse sèche. They were all clearly made out of meat and fat and encased in pig intestine, so why did they look so different? “Could it be they came from different parts of the animal?” I tried to ask Dominique in French. He pointed to his butt and thigh and said, “Jambon,” followed by a lot of other French words I didn’t understand.

Later, Kate would explain that saucisson is made from lean meat from the hind leg, or ham, that has been completely trimmed of fat, sinew, and connective tissue, with 20 percent of fatback added back in. Saucisse sèche is in some ways a by-product of saucisson, made from meat from other parts of the animal plus a good amount of the fat, sinew, and connective tissue that was trimmed in the process of making saucisson.

Only when I finally understood this did I come to appreciate the deep level of resourcefulness that the Chapolards employed when it came to using the whole animal.

Dominique took me back out to the cutting-room tables, where Bruno, Cecile, Christiane, and Marjorie were hard at work. I watched him thinly slice a long cylinder of fresh, lean muscle, for which I had no name yet.

“For Christiane’s paupiettes,” he said, making me repeat the word, Pope-ee-YETS. He handed the slices to Christiane, who wrapped small scoops of ground pork inside of each, then a thin slice of what looked like bacon around that.

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On another table, Marjorie rolled three-inch-wide pieces of skin into tidy little packages and tied them with red-and-white butcher’s twine. They would sell these at this week’s market, too.

Nearby, Cecile formed fist-size balls of what looked like ground meat and wrapped them in caul fat.

After slicing meat for Christiane, Dominique began trimming a flat piece of meat that looked like what Christiane had wrapped around the outside of her paupiettes. He pointed to his belly and said, “Ventre.” Then he walked into another room and returned with a beautiful, thick, tied roll of that same piece of meat, covered in ground black pepper. “Ventrèche,” he said, encouraging me to smell it. It smelled like black pepper, wood smoke, and salted meat funk, the good kind. “French bacon,” he said in English, pronouncing it bay-cone and letting out a big, happy sigh afterward.

Marjorie began cutting cubes of meat from a large muscle for brochettes. The afternoon moved on like this. What is this? I asked. How do you say that? We’ll use the liver for this pâté. We’ll use this fat and skin for gratton. Soon it will be time to salt these jambons. Christiane demonstrate for me how to put the chunks of meat Marjorie was cutting onto wooden skewers, making sure that the grain of the muscle of each piece ran in the same direction on the stick. Everything felt chaotic and new to me, but underneath the chaos I sensed a well-thought-out order, a rhythm and philosophy that only the Chapolards knew.

Marc, the one brother who did not look like the others—tall, darker- skinned, with a longer face and thicker lips, the only Chapolard without a beard or a mustache—walked in and nodded at me courteously, but did not kiss me on my cheeks or smile. Le sang, I heard him say to everyone in the room. It was time to make boudin noir. Blood sausage.

Marc motioned for me to follow him into another small refrigerated room off the main room, filled with shelves of product that I could not yet identify. There were metal molds of pressed meat. A few more of those blue plastic buckets of cleaned intestines. Another bucket of beautiful, lacy caul fat, which, in such a large amount and floating in water, took on the appearance of a deep-sea mutant, like a cross between a jellyfish, an octopus, and a manta ray. A machine with a very short conveyor belt and two metal rollers took up one corner. It wasn’t industrial-size, but it was big enough that I felt I should proceed with caution. I pointed to the machine and asked what it was.

Marc grabbed a long piece of pigskin with a thick inch of fat still clinging to it and sent it through the two metal rollers to show me how it cleanly separated fat from skin, handing me a piece of each to feel and smell. The skin was smooth, a pale peachy pink, and full of gelatin, the gelatin that binds meat together in their pâté de tête, the gelatin that thickens soups and stews and cassoulets. The fat was creamy and white, and just a touch sweet-smelling.

How often does one get to do this? To hold this raw skin and fat and meat and bone in one’s hands, to simultaneously smell it all cooking, to be able to look outside and watch Jacques scooping up the grain that made this animal taste and look the way it does. To be able to poke my head out of the cutting room and smell the live pigs growing and gestating and eating and shitting just a few feet away. I could feel my brain growing new pathways as it all unfolded in front of me.

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Marc placed his left hand on one of the handles of a sturdy white plastic tub filled with cooked meat, which I assumed came from the heads they’d cooked that morning. He motioned for me to grab the other handle and follow him out of the room. As we made our way back into the main cutting room, it felt as if Marc was pulling me by this boat of meat and I was water-skiing over the fat-slicked floor.

The cramped room we took the meat into—more of an alcove, really—had two machines in it. A grinder and a mixer, I deduced, after Marc did a little miming for me.

Into the mixer we poured the lug of cooked, tender meat, plus a pot of chopped, cooked leeks and onions. I asked Marc what part of the animal the meat came from, and he pointed to his cheek and the hollow just below his eye. Back at Camont the next day, Kate confirmed that they did in fact use meat from the cheeks and around the eye for their blood sausage, plus a little skin and other offal like the lungs, spleen, or stomach. Marc sprinkled in salt and ground black pepper and then stepped away from the mixer. “Un moment,” he said and disappeared, reemerging with a blue bucket full of blood, which he placed at my feet. The blood was dark and thick, but still liquid, the result of that woman at the slaughterhouse catching it in a bucket as it spilled out of a hole near the pig’s throat and stirring it to keep it from coagulating.

Marc touched my shoulder and then motioned to the bucket of blood with a nod of his head. He said something in French and I noticed, for the first time, that he had a subtle lisp. I stared at him and waited, but he did nothing. He meant for me to do it. This was my job now. So I strained to lift the bucket, I’d guess a good twenty or thirty pounds, and rest it on the lip of the mixer. Marc motioned for me to pour it in.

“Slow,” he said in English.

You might expect me to stop here and talk about how horrifying the blood looked as it spilled into the mixer. Perhaps I’d gag a little, or become weak in the knees. But this would serve only to abstract this very simple ingredient—an essential, edible part of an animal raised for food—into something scarier than it actually is. And I did not travel to France with abstraction in mind. I came to France in search of the thing itself, the genuine article. In the Chapolards’ salle de découpe, the act of cringing felt like the very opposite of understanding. That bucket of blood helped me to understand how cringing can prevent us from thinking or feeling. For what is a cringe but an attempt to separate ourselves from the animal world, from the not-so-pleasant ways some of our food gets to our tables? It also separates us from the world our grandparents or great-grandparents lived in, a world that has, per Freud’s classic definition of the uncanny, become alien to us after a relatively short process of repression.

So I did not cringe. Instead I watched, mesmerized, as the red blood, the cooked, brown meat, and the white fat slowly bound together and the mixture turned a deep crimson. The tinny, sharp smell of blood and the sweetness of the meat and fat hit my nose but did not overwhelm it.

Bruno and Dominique retrieved a bucket of very large casings—I would later learn that these came from the caecum, the anus end of the intestinal tract, and are called bungs in English and the rather more charming culs-de-sac in French—and set up a small machine on another table. They threaded one long casing onto a hollow tube, then stuffed the canister the tube was attached to with our meat/blood/fat mixture. Bruno pressed his knee into a pedal below the machine that forced the meat down the tube that the intestine had been threaded onto, and it filled, like a tubular meat balloon, creating one long, slightly misshapen link of blood sausage. The image of these sausages replaced the raw image of the blood from just a few minutes earlier, and my mind struggled to catch up and adapt. This was a live animal. Now it’s dead. Here’s its blood. Watch how it disappears into the meat and fat in the mixer. Now we case it. Now it is sausage. Then we will poach it. Then we will eat it.

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Marc disappeared into the refrigerated room where they stored their finished product and emerged with a knife and a cooked boudin noir, perhaps left over from last weekend’s markets. He cut off a large, inch-thick hunk of it and handed it to me.

As I took it from his hand, I pictured the particular way the blood poured out of the bucket, how thick it appeared. I knew that the blood in the piece I held had been cooked and was no longer liquid, and, besides, I loved blood sausage, but I briefly imagined the thickness of that liquid blood in my mouth, and my stomach turned ever so slightly. Marc looked at me. I was meant to eat this piece of blood sausage. This was the test.

Bruno and Dominique looked up from the task at hand and watched me, waiting to see what I thought of their boudin noir.

I was disappointed in myself. I wanted to enjoy the blood sausage, the fruits of our labor. I wanted to fully embrace what it was like to be this close to the seeds and the sausage, the blood and the bone all at once. What was this minor form of disgust that had settled over me? I had prided myself for so long on being able to eat just about anything, anywhere, at any time.

I took a big bite of the boudin noir, its texture, soft, rich, almost like a thick butter frosting. It tasted like sweet metal, wet earth, and cinnamon, although I hadn’t remembered us adding any spices. Complicated and delicious. It was perhaps the best blood sausage I’d ever tasted, and yet I did not want very much of it. That is, perhaps, what taking part in the process does to you.

“C’est bon?”

I nodded.

“C’est vrai,” I said.

It was true.

Excerpted from Killing It by Camas Davis. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Camas Davis 2018.