Dear America: I Don't Want This Fucking Freezer
Adventures in pig butchering & other fun-filled controversial things
I keep trying to give away this fucking freezer.
“I’ll never use it!” I exclaim to anyone who will listen.
“Yes you will,” they reply, matter-of-factly, as if I have just told them that I want to give away my toilet.
The freezer came with the house. It’s located in the garage. Specifically, it’s in what I call “the creeper room,” a subdivided area of the garage that was once used as an art studio by the sellers.
(Read the story of how I ended up buying a house in rural America here.)
The freezer sits there looking like an Oldsmobile. It’s a chest freezer—you know, like the kind you’d find a severed head? It’s bad enough I can’t go into a public restroom without wondering if this is (finally) the time when I’m going to swing open the door to find one of those staring up at me from the bowl.
I try to think of the things I could put in there.
Christmas decorations? Summer clothes? My magnificent collection of mortgage documents and disclosures?
Alas, the chest freezer sits solemnly by its lonesome, a 3-foot by 5-foot metal cavity just taking up space.
“You’ll need it this winter,” the locals urge. “For storing meat.”
I laugh to think about how much meat I could possibly eat—me, a 39-year-old child-free woman. Then I think about what I am much more likely to store inside such a thing: frozen pizzas. One-hundred frozen pizzas! Perhaps this idea has merit, after all.
Back in my apartment in Philly, I used to get Blue Apron delivered weekly. At least, before it made me extra fat. God, do you know how gluttony good those meals are??? They send you the exact amount of ingredients and a recipe, and you put it all together. There was never any need for storage. They’d send me more next week.
Not exactly the mentality of the rural American lifestyle, where “next week” you eat what’s in your freezer. And, what’s in your freezer is whatever you have hunted, killed, and butchered in preparation: deer, pork, beef, bus drivers.
Sometimes, you hire other people to raise animals for you, so they can be butchered when they’re “ready.” Turns out, pork meat is picky. (So are bus drivers.) You raise the piglets all summer long, each one growing at a rate of 2-4 pounds per day. (Two separate farmers told me that stat—and we think we pile on the pounds.)
Come fall, locals brag about how big their pigs have gotten.
“Mine was 280.”
“I hit the 300 mark!”
“You’re an asshole.”
“Just because I’m better at pig rearing than you!”
“We’ll see next year.”
And then, once the weather cools, it’s time. A pig cannot be butchered when the weather is too warm—this is critical. You must wait until there’s frost. Nature needs to feel like a walk-in freezer. Otherwise, the bacteria will ruin it in a matter of hours.
That said, you can’t wait too long, either: then the pig will gain too much weight, making it difficult to handle.
It’s a delicate dance.
Timing is essential.
This is an art.
The pig is hung in the air by its feet, its throat cut. This is the humane way of doing it, I am told, though I am also told I probably don’t want to be there for that.
However, my ears perk up at this line: “You can’t eat it if you don’t kill it.”
This lands as strangely profound.
I ask if the pigs are also sometimes shot, and the answer is yes, but most folks don’t like to take the chance they’d miss the brain. Pigs don’t die easily from gun wounds unless done correctly, and they take this very seriously. Deer, on the other hand, can be shot easily, or sometimes killed with a bow. Bow hunting season is happening right now. There are hunters in these woods, which means riding a four-wheeler around is frowned upon; you’ll scare the deer off, and piss off the hunters. These are the intricacies of country living; a subtle social more that wouldn’t be obvious to the outsider.
The date of November 25th—the Saturday after Thanksgiving—is when the “regular” deer season starts here in Pennsylvania. Beginning then and lasting through December, hunters can use traditional firearms. You are allowed to “harvest” one antlered deer per hunting license.
I like the term “harvest.” It speaks to the essence of what this all is: food. Or, as the Pennsylvania Game Commission website states: “to process for consumption.” Yet another useful turn of phrase.
Then again, there are many. Another one I spot? “Sporting arm.” This is a nod to what I can’t help but notice: that this is truly a hunt. Man versus nature. Just like it’s been since the beginning of time.
It’s primal. And here, it is a natural part of life.
I think about a common idea circulated among the liberal elite: “They’re so afraid we’re going to take their guns.”
I, myself, have uttered this very phrase—complete with obligatory eye roll—during moments of heated debate. That’s because your environment informs your opinion, and I’ve spent the last twenty years living in big cities around the world. The closest I’ve come to “harvesting” my food involves resetting the password on my UberEats account. In cities, where gun violence is a problem, you want them to go away. I remember being in Philadelphia learning that someone was gunned down on the very corner I had just walked, not minutes prior. And this was in the “nice” section; the historic section, where I lived.
Here, however, it is almost as if firearms are viewed as essential life tools. They serve a purpose. A critical function. They are an advanced piece of technology over what was available to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, who have been eating off the land since the beginning of time.
This makes it evident why the American gun debate is what it is today: these are two very different worlds, living under one set of laws. And, this world has been left out of the conversation.
I probably don’t need to mention that this is the real reason Trump’s campaign was so successful. Feeling included is just as powerful now as it was when we were kids on the playground. You would have gone to the end of the earth for the ones who wanted you on their kickball team.
But, enough about guns and men with bad hair: let’s get back to pigs.
Back on the farm, once a pig’s throat has been cut, it will be left to bleed out overnight. The next morning, the butchering will begin. Families will round up their children for the event, including their adult children living nearby. It is an all-day, all-hands-on-deck affair. The men will saw up the pig outside, while the women wrap and label it in butcher paper inside. Little kids happily join in, too, sometimes getting their hands dangerously close to slicing machines used to take whole slabs of meat and turn them into perfectly-portioned pork chops. No one reprimands the children for getting too close; this is how they learn.
The girls, on the other hand, are inside learning how to spell “ribs.” And “sausage.” And “bacon.” They’ll label each one, sometimes reversing the letter “b” and writing “p,” so the package says “pacon.” It’s endearing, watching such a joint family effort spanning multiple generations.
A 300-pound pig might yield 150 - 200 pounds of meat, particularly if you’re keeping the organs. One pig will give you plenty of different cuts:
10 ham steaks
8 ham roasts
Tons of bacon
All the ribs
Probably some I forgot
And, of course, the local favorite: 40 pounds of sausage
Sausage is big here.
It is not saved as a special treat, the way we think of hot dogs as being only for times of celebration: here, sausage is a daily part of life for families of the land. It is eaten for breakfast. (And, in fact, “breakfast sausage” will be labeled differently from “Italian sausage,” which is pronounced “I-talian,” like “I, robot.”) It is eaten for lunch (usually as a sandwich). It is eaten for dinner (sometimes thrown into a pasta sauce, a pot of baked beans or a pan of peppers and onions). And it is eaten as the default option, when there is simply nothing else to eat. (That’s what freezers are for.)
At least, this is true for those who live off the land. These are the families who fondly tell stories, with pride, of only needing to go to town once a week for the essentials; that everything else is there at home. It’s not just meat, of course: there are also eggs (and lots of ‘em—did you know a chicken lays one egg every day???), there are canned vegetables, there are canned fruits, there are canned things to put on pies.
In fact, my new neighbor here, a supermodel waif who is a total country-living superstar, brought over an entire basket of canned goods for me as a welcome gift: peaches, apple pie filling, apple sauce, cherry jam. Of course, she is also certified to butcher her own animals, and does so every year. This year, she raised and butchered 10+ pigs, some of which were for other people. Now there’s a new kind of side hustle, eh?
The sausage thing, though, intrigues me. Contrary to how I always think of sausage—containing fun-filled “add-ons” like liver and heart and intestines (or maybe I’ve just spent too much time in Scotland)—what I witnessed here was much more pure. It was simply the ends and pieces of meat that weren’t sliced nicely, trimmed for fat and thrown into a giant bowl for grinding later.
It was all meat.
So much meat.
This, of course, is where the chest freezer comes in. Some people even have two. They are, as I have learned, an expected accessory in any garage or basement here in Northeast Pennsylvania.
And this is also why it is seemingly so ludicrous that I would want to give mine away.
“The meat’s good for a year,” they urge. “Keep it!”
In a year’s time, I think, I might be in Portugal. Or Spain. Or Switzerland. Such is the life of a modern nomad, always thinking about how to minimize possessions. I buy mostly Kindle books, have all my mail scanned and emailed to me, and find even carrying a camera cumbersome.
The fact that I have purchased this house in the middle of the countryside is…new.
The fact that it sits on five acres of land I must steward is…terrifying.
But, comforting all the same, because for the first time in my life, it’s like having one BIG suitcase where I can store the things that matter to me: paintings, old family photographs, diaries from my childhood, the books I have written.
Just like a chest freezer, I suppose—except I’m storing a different type of sustenance.
Isn’t it odd, the things we value?
The things we make space for?
The things we keep safe?
Perhaps we all have our own version of a chest freezer in our lives.
But maybe it doesn’t always look like a chest freezer.
Maybe it looks like home.
Either way, this is mine.
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