I was 15 minutes late to the Allen Farm this morning. It was cold and getting out of bed felt like torture on my bare skin, so I delayed as long as I could before rolling from beneath the covers to a standing position while cartwheeling in circles to gather the previously worn and cast aside clothes littering my floor. Socks would be worn for the third straight day, a T-shirt, button down and sweatshirt were already layered and pulled on easier than I thought. Rigid, odorous and stained jeans that a week earlier sat on a storeroom shelf completed the dressing before already-tied shoes were slipped on.
The order of business was to end the lives of six barnyard animals, clean and skin them and hang them for the next 11 days, all in preparation for roasting them over fire on the day of Ned and Kaila’s wedding. Fernando brought many knives and the confidence of a bullfighter. He was the maestro of the meat-cutting morning; we all shuffled around him as he danced around the hanging animals making sure cuts, speaking only when necessary in heavily accented English. We watched Fernando as he stripped off the first two-year-old ewe’s coat and exposed her insides to the world, saving what he wanted in a bucket to his left. We pitched in where we could. Lee took the second life in one calm cut directed away from himself and the sheep. Julian from Chicago killed the third. It was his first time and he moved quickly and less calmly, but he was effective.
We did our best to carry out simple tasks, attempting to make things easier for Fernando. His biggest concern was that his cup of South American mate coca-based tea remained filled and hot. As the third sheep hung from a beam high above, dangling from a motorized winch, Mitchell and I took a ride to gather some shotgun shells for the calves in the gooseneck trailer parked on the top of the hill. They were not needed; a hammer was used instead, but it gave Mitchell and me just enough time to talk about our families (his mom is 88, they aren’t close, his father died at 51, heart attack; my grandmother is 98, my mother also died young) and on the drive home we shared recent injury stories (his, a chain saw to the knee, Mass General, surgery; mine, boiling water on foot, Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, surgery).
By the time we returned the sheep were cleaned and hanging together in a row from the same beam at different heights. Clarissa brought us coffee, stepping over piles of blood and dodging hanging carcasses like this was another day on the farm — which it was. There were many hammers to choose from, but the three-pound hammer built for breaking rocks was the obvious choice. Fernando entered the trailer with a calf half his height with a distended stomach and lanky legs. He moved slowly and calmly but was firm and he gripped and adjusted his grip on the hammer repeatedly as the calf circled him. It took some time for him to pounce but when he did it took only a moment for him to exit the trailer leaving behind him a fallen cow with a slit neck bleeding into the wood shavings at an increasingly slow rate.
The blood was bright and vibrant, contrasting starkly with the muted shavings. I was brought back to the dahlias I was pruning last evening. Their relationship to the green grass caused me to stop and stare while resisting the urge to photograph the moment. It was too bright and too real. These moments of color make me blink, double take and check my surroundings to confirm that this is not in fact a dream. The sheen of a mucous-laden freshly iced bluefish with bright eyes has shades of blue, yellow and silver unknown to me in any other form. The color of glowing oak embers on a pitch black night. Every shade of green in the spring.
Then there is the color and shine of a beet, recently uprooted from the earth, boiled quickly until the skin slips off and all that is left is a perfectly round orb with a pointy tip, shiny like a bluefish. Its color is dark, healthy and richer than the color of blood. Blood looks alive as it flows warmly onto the ground, while a beet matches its glossy sheen, only to give way to an earthy glow. Beets stain your teeth, tongue and shirt purple, first while you shovel them in, then dressed only with salt, olive oil and sherry vinegar.
Beets are a bold vegetable. They stain everything they come in contact with and their inherent sweetness makes them have a hard time fitting in on the plate. Their roundness makes them hard to compose as well; to me cutting them seems unnatural. That is why I have taken to tearing them. Their starch-filled fibers tear in uneven ways, much like a ball of mozzarella, giving exponentially more surface area to absorb flavor and a natural look like scattered boulders on a mountainside. When beets are young, tender and cooked quickly they need nothing to enhance their flavor.
The cows we killed today were young and their meat is sure to be tender. I cut off a section of a freshly-plucked liver while it was still warm and took a bite. The same does not hold true for liver. It tasted bad. It needed a lot of things.
Boiled Beets with Vinegar
2 pounds beets, scrubbed clean with tops removed for another use
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat and enough salt that the water tastes of the ocean. Drop the beets into the boiling liquid and cook vigorously for about 15 minutes, depending on size of the beets. They should be cooked until the skins slip off easily. Once cooked, pour into a colander in the sink and run cold water over each beet as you cool them. Once peeled, place in a large mixing bowl, tear into pieces and season with olive oil, vinegar and salt. Serve while still warm in the center.
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 pound trimmed beef liver
Half a yellow onion
2 cloves garlic, smashed
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon chopped rosemary
Heat a medium-sized saute pan over high heat and add oil until it begins to smoke. Add the liver and cook over high heat for about 45 seconds on each side, then remove from pan, chop onions and cook for about three minutes until soft. Add garlic and butter, then roughly chop liver and add back to pan. Finish with salt as needed, rosemary and smear onto toasted bread!