I’m getting half of a Berkshire hog from the eastern Washington grower Wooly Pigs.

Just getting the order in was a learning experience, since Wash. state forbids growers from both raising and butchering pigs for sale. Which means a customer must provide her personal instructions to an independent butcher, and that means knowing how you’re going to use 150 pounds of pig ahead of time. In theory, this was appealing — I’ve grumbled previously about difficulty finding pork shoulder, a cheap cut that often gets fancied up into sausage — but giving coherent instructions to the butcher required knowledge I didn’t yet have. So I consulted numerous cookbooks and other sources; Michael Ruhlmann’s Charcuterie was especially helpful, though it was all I could do to not make immediate plans for homemade proscuitto, pancetta, and andouille sausage.

Anyway, being on the steep part of the learning curve, I had a few conversations with Heath Putnam, Wooly’s friendly, pale, and highly caffeinated proprietor. He emphasized that I would need to tell the butcher to save the tongue and sweetbreads if I wanted these, and the lungs, which apparently make a delicious stew when cooked down. He suggested I come to the farm sometime to watch the pigs being killed – no euphemisms here. Buying a pig wholesale is better for the animals, Heath said, because there’s no opportunity for them to get scared or stressed if they’re getting killed on the farm and don’t know what’s coming. He claims this is better for meat quality, too.

Thanks to Wooly, I’ve begun rethinking my assumptions about eating “local” meat, since ours was flying in on a pallet from Spokane, Wash., 300 miles away. One argument for local meat is our Wagyu beef from Sweet Grass Farm, which is 100% grass-fed on Lopez Island pasture. But Sweet Grass is the perfect storm. It’s not something that’s easily replicable or that has scaleability. And unless you’re on a fully diversified farm, pigs are going to eat forage plus feed, so another consideration is the cost of shipping a lifetime’s worth of pig feed. Maybe the pig should live near its own food source, rather than near me.

Something else about ordering half a hog was recognizing that a specific animal was dying so that we could eat. Would I want to watch the killing? I couldn’t answer that question. There’s the gross-out factor, though I work at a trauma hospital and see plenty of terrible stuff, if in a different context. Wooly has generated a lot of documentation to show that the animals live a good life on free range, with their parents and siblings. So I think the question is how to respect the animal’s death, and short of quitting meat altogether, which we’re not going to do, it perhaps means re-examining how we cook with and eat that meat. Does it mean saving the whole animal for a special feast, a concept deeply embedded in some cultures? Does it mean using every scrap of the animal, ie. working up to lung stew? Or is there a way to eat meat more carefully, to treat it as something more valuable than simply a fast and snappy way to bulk up on protein?

Well, the pig landed in Seattle yesterday. More soon.