Every year my sister-in-law Sarah throws a giant pig roast at her home in Colorado Springs. This year David and I attended for the first time.
On Thursday we drove with Sarah to Castle Rock to pick up the pig. It weighed 108 pounds, and was wheeled out to the car in a long, cardboard box that looked like it ought to be draped in an American flag. Instead, we pulled a plastic bag around it, because juices were dripping out of one corner of the box. Once the pig was safely stashed in the back of the Subaru, we returned to Colorado Springs, where we dropped the box off at Front Range Bar-B-Q.
On Saturday afternoon, the Front Range Bar-B-Q guy parked his smoker in front of Sarah’s house. The smoker looks like an old-fashioned train engine. The pig was laid out with an orange in its mouth and pepper slices over its eyes. Its snout was hairy and its skin was glistening. It had already been smoking for several hours. Sarah had asked the Front Range people to finish the cooking in front of her house because she wanted to smell of the smoke to fill the air.
In the Torah, the fragrant smoke of grilling meat is the essence of the sacrifices at the Temple. When the pleasing aroma rises to God, the offering is accepted. Of course the animal being sacrificed at the Torah isn’t a pig. And as far as I know, the text makes no mention of oranges in the animal’s mouth or pepper slices over its eyes. After the smoke has risen to God, the pilgrims and their friends feast on the flesh. That’s what happened at the pig roast.
Coolers were filled with beer and soda. Two guitar-strumming singers from Manitou Springs played folksy covers. Guests brought sides of hummus, green-bean casserole, artichoke dip, pasta salad, silky-smooth collard greens. Counting the babies, there were about 70 people altogether. The pig was brought in from the smoker and laid out on the table, where we could watch it being sliced as we loaded our plates with meat and and topped it with sauce.
The sight of the pig laid out like that turned my stomach. But I’m not a vegetarian and I don’t keep kosher, so I helped myself to a little of the meat and spooned over some of the sauce. I think it tasted pretty good. But I didn’t really taste it. I couldn’t get the sight of that pig out of my head.
There are lots of reasons for not eating animals: human health, animal cruelty, environmental sustainability. I find them all compelling – but not as convincing as the deliciousness of a good lamb curry. The laws of kashrut present dietary restrictions as God’s commandment. I don’t believe in a god who commands, and love the salty bite of bacon – but I’m Jewish enough to feel guilty when I eat it. And I suspect that I would have been less put off if that pig had been a goat or a lamb.
Or maybe not. The way that pig was displayed, with everyone talking and laughing around it felt – what? Disrespectful, I guess. It was as if we were saying, “Ha ha, joke’s on you. You’re dead and we’re having a party.”
And if the specific strictures of kashrut strike me as arbitrary, its more general encouragement of eating awareness resonates deeply. I like the idea of taking the physical instinct to feed your face and turning it into an act of devotion. You don’t need to believe in God to see the point of slowing down, considering what it is you’re putting in your mouth, and remembering that your life depends on it.
I believe that if a person is going to eat animals, she should be willing to face up to what she’s doing. Someone who can’t stomach a slaughterhouse tour has no business eating what comes out of it. I’m pretty sure I could be sickened by such a visit. But I haven’t been to one yet.
The night after the roast I had trouble sleeping. As I lay awake, I wondered if come morning I would finally take the plunge and tell David I was giving up meat.
I didn’t. Today at lunch, I passed up the leftover pork in favor of chicken. Then I dug in with gusto, picking the bones clean and gnawing the cartilage. Surveying the remains on my plate, I realized what I had done. I forced myself to imagine the living creature I’d just consumed. But the thought was too unpleasant. I quickly set it aside and told myself, maybe tomorrow.