About this blog...

Food has been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember. Food and the festivities surrounding its arrival to the table has always been a focal point in our family. For many years I have been amassing the cookbooks, recipe cards, cooking journals, diaries, manuscripts and clipping files of our once extensive family.

Personally, I’ve been professionally involved with food for over 40 years in numerous and varied culinary capacities across the country so I also have the collected stories, as well as current and on-going food-related experiences from my own life I’d like to share.

My idea has long been that someday I would bring all of this marvelous raw material together into a culinary journey through our family’s heritage. This journal is the beginnings of that journey.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Life and Death on the Ranch

The arrival life and passing of death are little more than conceptual appurtenances in the daily lives of most people.  They are things to be philosophized about in hushed tones and deep, abstract conversations, if discussed at all.  To actively observe (let alone participate) in either is a rare and notable event; "Life and Death situations" are few and far between for most of us.  I think we are collectively a little less as a people for being so removed from things so important.
Farm life, where "Life and Death situations" are regular occurrences, brings one much closer to this constant and natural ebb and flow then many people normally get. Here on The Ranch, there are new lives being created and entering our world all the time.  We are a very small operation and it is not unusual for us to have 125-150 babies here every year.  That's nearly one every third day on average (although they never come spread out over a whole year like that).  

We just kicked-off our 2011 kidding season 11 days ago and have already had 40 kids born (my excuse for not posting recently), but the magic of seeing new life born never gets old.
Some of this week's "kid-crop"
Death is also something we deal with on a more than passing basis.  While we very rarely lose animals to sickness or injury we have had to "put to sleep" a few of our 4-legged partners and friends due to age or infirmity over the years. We also raise almost all of our own food here which includes the slaughtering and butchering of dozens of chickens, a couple of pigs, at least one steer a year and sometimes a goat or two.
Goats are the hardest, for me at least.  Our goats are not only the foundation of our core business but they are the reason we are in business.  We tell people that we got into making cheese and that we started the dairy to "Support out Goat Habit", which is the honest truth.  We both love these intelligent, goofy, and productive creatures who act more like pets than livestock. Never the less, we do still eat goat from time to time.
A week ago we had an incident where glorious new life and tragic death happened almost simultaneously.  One of our excellent milking does from last year "Blackie" had developed mobility problems late in her pregnancy and had actually been "down" for the last 5 weeks.  My wife, Kathryn (also our herd manager) tended to her on an almost hourly basis, bringing her food, water, turning her regularly to keep her comfortable etc.  We had a cold & wet stretch of weather a couple of weeks ago and we actually brought her into our bedroom to live for a few days. 
Blackie in our bedroom
Our hope had been that upon kidding she would recover and, again, be a productive part of our herd but as her due-date approached she started to deteriorate rapidly.  It was clear that Blackie was not going to recover but Kathryn used all her skills and resources to keep Blackie and her unborn babies alive, one day at a time, until we could reasonably expect the kids to live upon birth.
When her kidding day came Blackie was already having a hard time keeping her body going.  The first two kids came out pretty easily but the third one just wouldn't come out.  Blackie was just too tired to do the necessary pushing so Kathryn "went in" and tried to help.  The kid was in  a bad position and it was a long and difficult time for all of us.  In the end, the kid was born dead and Blackie was exhausted and hurting.  As hard as it was, the only decent thing to do was to euthanize her as quickly and painlessly as possible.
Kathryn took the two surviving kids away and it fell to me to kill her.  The best way in this situation is a shot to the head.  I've had to do this a few times before and it is never easy but as I placed the muzzle of the revolver to her head and prepared to pull the trigger, I couldn't help but remember one of my very first experiences with a goat...
Got My Goat
Tucson AZ,1981
I  was working the kitchen of the restaurant of a hotel just off the freeway.  I’d hit it off with a guy named Vance, one of the waiters.  Over a short time we’d become friends.  Not buddies or pals or male-bonded-type of friends, just friends.  We had found that we shared some common interests and while our lifestyles were worlds apart we enjoyed each others company from time to time and liked doing some things together.
Vance lived in a small community of rented-out mobile homes and trailers in a semi-rural area north of town.  The area was in the county, just outside the city limits and while it wasn’t ever going to be Park Place, most of the homes were parked on good-sized lots.  Zoning was rather lenient.  Many of his neighbors kept small livestock and Vance had acquired quite a menagerie of his own including some chickens, several rabbits, a ton of cats and a couple of goats.
I would visit Vance occasionally, going over to his place every week or so for a poker game with him and his ever-changing assortment of animal and human “roommates”.  Sometimes we’d drink a lot of beer and play cards very late into the night.  Following one such session I found myself suddenly a business partner with Vance after he lost a hand to me that included ½ interest in all his animals.  A few days later, when things were much clearer to both of us, we discussed the arrangement and decided that he would retain full possession of the beasts and be responsible for feeding and taking care of them.  I would simply get some rabbit meat, chicken, eggs etc from him until I was paid back a cash equivalent of my stake in the critters.
Let me tell you a bit about Vance.  He was quite a character.  Younger than me by a few years, he was tall and awkwardly lanky, very soft spoken but quick to laugh.  He had a heart of gold and was a sucker for strays, be they any kind of animal or, more commonly, the two-legged kind who he was always taking in.  He was unabashedly homosexual and while not a flashy or flamboyant man, he never tried to hide who he was.  He was also a practicing psychic.  Not the kind on TV or the ones at the other end of a $12.00 per-minute-phone-call.  He was an apostle in a certified psychic church (and was later ordained as a minister there).  All of these things made him something of an oddity in his neighborhood of mostly low-income, poorly educated dead-enders for whom “odd” meant different and different meant he didn’t belong.
Vance regularly fielded anonymous threats stuffed into his mail box, or had to pick up bags of trash which had been thrown onto his front yard, or endure regular  rude comments and verbal assaults from those living near him, all of which he took in stride, minding his own business.
One day I took a call at home from Vance.  He was in tears and sobbing.  Eventually I was able to piece together that something had happened to one of “our” goats, and he wanted me to come over.  15 minutes later I drove up to his trailer and found him, crying, standing over the prone body of what I assumed to be the afflicted beast.  I had never really taken much notice of the goats.  I have no clue what breed they might have been or even if they were mostly males, females or some of each.
In looking at the one lying on the ground at Vance’s feet I could tell it was in bad shape; rapid shallow breaths, grinding teeth, wild, bulging eyes, the occasional kick of a leg.  Vance bent down and was apparently saying something to it when he saw me.  He stood and approached me spilling out a story in rapid gasps.  According to him, the goat had been poisoned by one of the neighbors.  He said it was in a lot of pain and he didn’t think there was anything that could be done for it.  The reason he’d called me was to put it out of its misery.  He just couldn’t face doing it.
I had never done anything like that in my life and hadn’t the first idea how it should be done, let alone the question of IF I could handle doing it.  Vance said he had it all figured out.  His neighbor to the east, who had seen the downed animal, had told him that he had a handgun in his trailer and that Vance could borrow it to use in dispatching the goat, if he wanted to.  This was something of a surprise to me because this neighbor had always been one of Vance’s biggest antagonists there.
I mentioned the neighbor’s apparent character inconsistency and Vance agreed it was odd.  He said that he seriously suspected that this same neighbor had been the one who poisoned the goat to start with but couldn’t prove it.  He thought that the guy really wanted to help now.  “Maybe he has a guilty conscience or something”, Vance offered.
Vance was an incredibly trusting and often naive sole sometimes but what could I say?  The whole situation was making me very nervous and uncomfortable but he was my friend and his obvious distress (and that of the goat as well) prompted me to do whatever I could to help.
I had never fired a handgun before and knew nothing at all about them but I went over to the neighbor’s trailer to ask to borrow his firearm.  He invited me in, somewhat suspiciously I thought, and brought me to his kitchen table.  I saw the gun on the table and a box of rounds for it on the window sill behind it.  The man took up the gun gave me a quick demo on its use when I told him I didn’t know how to use it.  He described it as a .22 caliber revolver “incredibly easy, even fool-proof to shoot”.  He showed me just what to do, even offering the best place to shoot the poor, dying goat; “right between the eyes” he said.
Finding myself armed (and probably pretty dangerous in all my ignorance) I headed back to Vance’s.  We decided that there was no sense in putting off the inevitable any longer.  The goat, still on its side, now moaned, spasms shaking its body.  Vance bent down once again and whispered something in the goat’s ear, stood, nodded to me and headed off to the other side of the yard.
As I brought the barrel of that old six-shooter toward the goat’s forehead he (she?) became very still, perhaps understanding that we were just trying to end its pain.  I touched the tip of the gun to a spot on its fur between and just above the eyes and squeezed the trigger. 
Simultaneously two things happened.  First there was a very small sound from the gun, the merest “pop”.  An amazingly small noise.  At the same time, even as I was registering that sound, the goat kicked with all four legs and shrieked, its tongue protruding out of the open mouth.  I jumped back as it gave out another horrific cry, staring wild-eyed at me and writhing.  All I could think was “This isn’t right.  It’s not acting dead.  It’s supposed to be dead”.
It definitely was not dead.  I saw Vance re-approaching with horror and pain on his face.  I can only imagine what mine was showing.  I told Vance that I though that maybe the gun had mis-fired and asked him if I should try again.  He was practically beside himself, pacing back and forth, brow furrowed, tears running down his face, but he nodded and quickly retreated from the scene again.
The goat was calming a little and I really wanted to get this over with.  I quickly bent over again and went to align the gun barrel again when I noticed a definite blood spot marking the place where I’d shot before.  I couldn’t believe it.  I’d really shot this animal in the head and it had just scratched it?  What the heck was going on?  Not wanting to take any more time to think about what I was doing, I again pressed the gun to the goat’s skull, in the same place, and fired.
The gun made the same anemic “popping” noise but, fortunately, the goat was silent this time.  Vance was looking over from across the lawn and I was about to wave him over when I thought I saw breathing from the goat.  I help up my hand to Vance for him to wait up a minute while I watched the slow rhythmic rise and fall of the goat’s middle.  This couldn’t really be happening could it?  It was just too much to believe.
I motioned Vance to back away again and before I a chance to think at all, I once again put the gun to the goat’s head, (this time more to the side and nearer the eye) and fired.  And I didn’t just fire once.  I emptied the remaining 4 rounds into that goat’s head as fast as I could pull the trigger.
This time it worked.  The goat was finally dead.  I felt really terrible about botching the job on the first couple of tries and apologized to Vance.  Mostly I hoped that the goat hadn’t suffered too much.
The episode had really drained me and I begged-off helping him bury the animal.  I returned the gun to the neighbor then returned to Vance’s yard to say a quick good-bye before leaving.  Through his sorrow he thanked me for my efforts in helping out and walked me to my truck.
As we got to the street we were surprised as two Sheriff’s Patrol cars approached, with lights flashing, and pulled over in right front of us, effectively boxing in my truck.  The officers emerged from their vehicles, tense but polite and told us that they were responding to a report of gun shots at this address, and did we know anything about it?  Could this day get any worse?
We explained the whole sad tale to the officers, only omitting my incompetence at killing.  They took copious notes and asked lots of questions.  Apparently we had broken quite a few laws regarding discharging a firearm in a populated area etc. and it looked like we (actually me, since I was the only one doing the shooting) were going to get in some pretty serious trouble.  When they asked where the gun was now, I told them that I had returned it to its owner.  They then asked who the owner was but when Vance gave them the name they stopped for a second, looking at each other strangely.  They repeated the name back to us and Vance said that it was correct.
One of the officers then read off an address and asked if that was where the man who had lent us the gun lived.  How odd.  We hadn’t given them the address, but it was correct.  Vance told them that, yes that was his address and pointed toward the house next door.  As he pointed we all looked that way and saw him sitting on his porch watching us watch him.  He had a beer in his hand and was showing the biggest grin with the fewest teeth I can ever remember seeing all at once.  He looked very pleased with himself and suddenly things became much, much clearer.
It was he who had called the cops on us after loaning us the gun to use in the first place, and it was surely he who had poisoned the goat in the first place.  What a game he’d been playing at our expense!  I think it was clear to the deputies as well what was going on because they quickly became more civil with us and even dismissive of the situation.  After a couple more questions they let us (me) off with a warning not to do it again and sauntered over to the neighbors porch.  I didn’t hang around long but later Vance told me that they had stayed and talked with the neighbor for quite a while.  He was not smiling when they left.
That was my first ever experience with goats.  I later learned that the forehead is the worst possible place to shoot a goat for any effect and a .22 is really too small a caliber to be effective for the task at all.  Goat skulls are, quite logically, incredibly thick and tremendously hard (just think of all that head-butting they do for fun!).  I guess that was just another cruel joke on us by the neighbor.
Back to the present
I knelt down behind Blackie and stroked her neck and gave her a small handful of animal crackers to nibble on as I pressed the .357 magnum to the BACK of her head, aiming it to exit out the nose or chin area and fired. She died instantly, cleanly and, completely unaware of what was going on.  Exactly as it should be.  Blackie is buried on our property with her kid that died in childbirth.

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