Friday, July 25, 2014

“When we slaughter, we drink Schnapps”

Written July 19, 2014

Martin is calling something up to me from the bottom of the small hill, near the entrance to the barn. I turn off the water falling nosily into the watering can, and look down to him.

“Say that again – I didn’t hear you!”

“Do you like Schnapps?” he is holding up two shot glasses and a bottle of clear liquid. It’s around 8:30 in the morning – we’ve only just finished our coffee with breakfast.

“Yes, I could have a little?” It’s going to be a hot day, I can tell already. Hard alcohol wouldn’t do me very good. But I hate to be an ungracious guest.

“When we slaughter, we drink Schnapps.” He says, putting the glasses and bottle into the wheelbarrow and going back into the barn.

I’ve been trying to figure out all week if I’ll be expected to be involved in this slaughtering of a baby goat for the party tonight. At one point Martin’s wife, Silke said “I do not like helping with the slaughter. It smells like death!” and I nodded saying, “I don’t know if I would like it either.”

Which is a massive understatement.

I’m the kid who opted to dissect an earthworm instead of a frog in 9th grade. When I was 5 or 6, my friend Elise’s parents were going to a chicken slaughter, and they thought, Katy is a farm girl, Katy can handle this. Maybe Katy will even like this! I remember arriving, seeing the ax come down once, a headless body run a few steps, then I found my way inside the house and would not even look out the window until the day was over. In my childhood-colored memory, this was a rainy, dark day of killing thousands of chickens, axes, blood; all things I did not want to think about. And I didn’t even like chickens.

As I said, I’m – at least a bit of – a farm girl. We had rabbits since I was 8, goats and sheep just a few years later. I went to farm school during the summer every year of elementary school (yes, this was a thing in my neighborhood). When Martin said “You would like to clean goose shit now, please?” I did not even blink. I’m good at not breathing in for a while.

But slaughter? I have a hard time even cooking with store-bought, white chicken breasts if I think too hard about what the squishy, soft substance I’m touching is. I’m a huge, squeamish (no pun intended) chicken when the animal is dead and yet to be cooked.

So I pick up the two watering cans – each morning I drench the soil of the tomato and lettuce plants in the greenhouses, going down the rows slowly, emptying each watering can then carrying them back up the hill to the house to fill them again, a process that takes more than an hour – and walk to the greenhouse. Two trips go by and I emerge from the greenhouse to see Martin tying the second hind leg of a very still, limp kid (remember: it’s the word for a baby goat, folks) into a tree, thick blood pooling at her neck and falling into the grass below.

Ok, so the actual moment of slaughter I did not have to deal with. Good. I didn’t even hear her cry out, which surprised me.

Martin waves me over and fills both of the shot glasses. A single splatter of fresh blood is on his shirt. “This is tradition my Bosnian friend teach me. Schnapps with the slaughter.” We clink glasses and throw the liquor down our throats. I don’t do shots often and this is strong. I squeeze my eyes shut against the shudder and the tears welling suddenly.

“This is house-made Schnapps from my Bosnian friend also.” I look down at the bottle, thinking maybe his friend produces this brand and Martin says, “No, this just empty bottle. House-made Schnapps.”

I’m trying not to look too hard at the goat behind Martin, the blood spill slowing. “I’ll finish the greenhouses?” I ask.

“Yes. And I must now begin the slaughter.” He takes off his shirt and picks up his knife.

Each time I emerge from the greenhouse – a beautiful fresh breath after the thick humid air that wraps around my neck and waist, smelling heavy with growing things and childhood memories in Sharry’s gardens – I look over to the tree to get myself used to the image of the kid, her skin being cut and pulled slowly from her body.

To be clear, my aversion to seeing dead things has nothing to do with feeling bad for the animal. I came to terms with eating meat a long time ago, and I think it’s especially great to enjoy the meat of an animal who has lived an organic, free-range, happy life. It doesn’t freak me out that I’ve been petting, feeding and talking to this kid all week. It’s just that I have absolutely no interest in what’s going on inside of me, you, our cat or even an earthworm. For some reason the inner workings of our bodies give me the heebie jeevies. I don’t want to see it, or even hear about it, frankly.

Martin is pulling the last of the skin off the goat as I finish in the greenhouses, and he asks me to bring him a full watering can. He tugs the limp skin off the bottom of the body, along with the head, and throws it to his anxiously waiting dogs. I’m standing in the doorway to the barn leaning against the door as he talks to me, tells me about his Bosnian friend who taught him how to slaughter, how he wishes his friend were here because his friend loves the kidneys and liver and they will have to go to waste because no one here will eat them, about how he has a gypsy pot that he made kid stew in three years ago but there is no time for it any more, about how there are so many gypsies in Germany now because the welfare system here is good, about how he wants to move to Romania where he could own ten times as much land but his wife says no.

Martin is a fascinating man. When we work together in the afternoons and evenings he talks pretty much straight through, and I only need to ask simple questions or comment affirmatively to keep him going. He is in his early 40’s, stoic and blunt (he said to me later that day “I can’t drink too much tonight because my friend is coming to the party and his wife is so ugly. I might say something if I drink!”) He licks his plate clean at the end of every meal, then takes what is left from any serving plates and eats directly from them, with the ladle. He loves scream-o music, much to the disdain of his wife and daughters. He finds most people “silly”, commenting on how silly the neighbors are, on how silly people who grow patio gardens in the cities are (“why pretend? Just move to the country and do work instead of talk!”) and how silly his children are for watching TV all day.

Martin does not ask me to do anything, and I force myself not to back away as he opens the chest of the kid and pulls out guts, stomach, heart, liver… you know, all the stuff that goes inside. Some of it he puts aside in the wheelbarrow, some of it he tosses to the dogs, some of it he brings to the pigs (“But they are getting too fat! I must have a look and slaughter them, as well.”) He tells me that he slaughters all of the smaller animals on the farm – goats, chickens, rabbits, pigeons, all 15 geese at Christmas time – and sends the cattle and pigs to the butchers. Towards the end of this, he asks me to scrub clean a long stick with a point on one end and handles on the other.

Nothing too gory - the kid cooking on it's stick.
Now the kid is empty besides the muscles and bones. The blood has all dripped out. Martin has made a hole just below the tail and pulls the kid halfway down the long stick so that between this hole and the neck, the meat is all attached and can be roasted above the fire. He pulls back the hind legs and begins to put a wire round them so they are tugged backwards, but he can’t get a good enough grip on them and the wire at once.

“Hold these like this please?” he asks me.

Other delicious party fare.
I can’t hesitate. I’m not allowed to be freaked out by this, I’ve been telling myself. So I grab those haunches and push them as close to the stick as I can. And yes, they feel just like chicken, besides the fact that he’s already salted the meat.

The meat goes into the cellar for a few hours, and I go back to weeding and moving around animal shit. I help Silke make salads for the guests throughout the afternoon, while Martin starts a fire. Once the men arrive, they are all too happy to grab a beer and sit by the goat, taking turns rotating it for the two hours necessary to cook the meat over hot coals, even though it is 34 degrees Celsius. 

It was a good party, with close friends and lots of laughter. It was like the party my parents threw for me the night before I left on this trip, actually, except I could not participate in the conversations at all. No one spoke any English besides Martin and Silke. I bounced around, helping Silke, watching the goat cook, finishing a few chores so Martin could be with his friends. The goat tasted just fine, but I’m neither an expert nor even a huge fan of meat, so I’ll say that with a grain of salt.

Cutting the meat, ready to eat
At the end of the meal everyone passed around shot glasses again for another round of Schnapps. As we all shouted Prost! and threw the liquor down, I ticked Schnapps off as something I’ll never see the same way again.

The house, with the crowd on the back porch.

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