Literary Hub

The Thing About Pig Heads

pig butcher diagram

One Monday morning, Bruno and Dominique asked me to help them process pig heads for the first time, a task that required me to wield a cleaver, a tool that had, of late, filled me with dread. I’d watched in the weeks before as Dominique and Bruno effortlessly cleaved straight lines through racks of ribs. When they’d encouraged me to try this out myself, I stood up straight, put on my most confident face, and managed to make several minor dents in various portions of the rib bones, with not even a hint of a continuous line in sight. I also flinched every time my cleaver hit bone, not so much because I was afraid of the cleaver—sure, it was dangerous and could easily cut my finger off with one wrong swipe—but because I was, to put it bluntly, afraid of fucking up.

And yet Dominique, perhaps sensing my hesitation, continued to hand me rib bones. After a few tries, my dents finally turned into cuts and my lines turned from haphazard hacks to something resembling the pattern left in the snow by a downhill skier, but I would probably need another 50 sets of ribs before I got it right. No wonder people used band saws—any freshman could use a band saw and achieve a straight line the first time around.

Bruno and Dominique applied cleaver to skull in a slightly different manner than they did to ribs. They’d each place a head at the corner of the table, right above where the table leg met the tabletop—the sturdiest part of the table, they explained—then they’d draw the cleaver up into the air and strike down right between the two ears. The cleaver immediately lodged where it was supposed to, but because it was too difficult even for them to pull the cleaver back out immediately and go for a second swing, they’d adjust their grip on the cleaver’s handle with their knife hand, grab on to the skull with their other hand, pull the skull and the lodged cleaver up into the air together, and bang it down on the table. They’d do this a few times, until they’d cleaved about halfway through, then they’d pry the cleaver out, pull the skull apart as best they could with their hands, and, to finish the job, gently and rhythmically hack away at the crack’s center with the cleaver, using smaller chopping motions, until the head split in half completely.

No one wore protective gloves in the Chapolards’ cutting room—Dominique once said something to me about how wearing protection makes you more careless, which seemed blurry in its logic. The day they encouraged me to cleave open my first pig head seemed like the right time to change that policy.

Dominique started the pig head for me, lodging the cleaver into the middle of the skull. Then I grabbed the cleaver handle with my right hand and the skull with my left and heaved the entire thing up into the air. It was heavier than I thought it would be. The cleaver alone probably weighed ten pounds, the head another 30. I banged the whole thing down loudly on the table, but the cleaver didn’t move at all. I tried again, this time lifting it up higher and using more intention and force on the way down. The cleaver moved a little, but it had decided to angle to the left.

Dominique held up his hand to stop me.

“Camees, this is not lovely,” he said in English. “I show you.”

He pulled the cleaver out of the head and, with a smaller arc this time, lodged it back in, angling it slightly to the right to correct for my mistake. These movements felt so brute and vulgar to me, my tool an ancient, imprecise caveman invention at best, and yet Dominique managed to be so meticulous and graceful in those same movements.

I mustered even more strength and force this time, pulled the whole thing up and then down toward the table, and as I did so I imagined that I was actually pushing the skull through the table, toward the floor. This Jedi mind trick served to change the impact in such a way that the cleaver nearly made it all the way through. My dad had taught me to chop wood this way—“Imagine the ax going all the way through the wood,” he’d said, “not just hitting the wood’s surface.”

“Voilà!” Dominique said. “That . . . is lovely.” Lovely/not lovely had become Dominique’s main way of assessing my progress in his cutting room.

“I grabbed the cleaver handle with my right hand and the skull with my left and heaved the entire thing up into the air.”

I went to pull the cleaver out of the skull, but it was stuck. The Sword in the Stone flashed in my mind. Dominique tried to pull my cleaver out, but even he struggled to remove it.

“C’est très formidable,” he said, laughing.

Once he managed to pull the cleaver out of the skull, he handed it back to me to finish the job. I gently chopped away at the crevice I’d created with the cleaver’s blade, but tentatively—my other hand still hanging on to the skull, right in the path of the cleaver. My arms felt wimpy. But this feeling was more a product of fear than a reflection of my actual strength. I didn’t want to hurt myself. I didn’t want to screw up the job, either. I needed to commit. I also realized that I needed to do this every day if I was going to get good at it. This was dabbling, I thought. Dabbling would get me nowhere.

It took me about ten minutes to finish cleaving that one skull while Bruno and Dominique finished the rest. By the end, I was out of breath and red in the face.

Bruno and Dominique then showed me how to gently scoop out each of the halves of brain from the skull. The contrast was stark: big men, with thick hands and fingers, cleaving away at a skull, then big men with thick hands and fingers delicately scooping out these tiny brains as if they were newborn birds.

I inspected the two halves of brain from the one skull I’d managed to cleave open. They were covered in bone chips from my clumsy cleaving, but for the most part, the two halves had remained intact. I gently worked my fingers in between one of the halves of brain and the curved cup of skull that it sat in. The brain felt soft and cold. It was the color of coffee with lots of cream in it. I could see the coils and vessels that made up the brain’s signature structure. I’d always imagined the brain of any animal to be somewhat durable and hard. But this brain was quite soft and malleable, almost like flan.

As I pulled each half completely out of the skull using two of my fingers, I imagined my own brain in its own curved recesses. It was difficult not to, just as it was difficult to remove the shoulder blade and not feel my own shoulders, sore and tired from working in the cutting room.

Evolutionary anthropologists largely agree that eating meat (along with a side of tubers and honey) made the expansion of early human brains physiologically possible. They believe this because meat, as opposed to more fibrous sources of food, like leaves and fruit, provides more concentrated calories and takes less energy to digest, and so a diet with some amount of meat in it would have allowed our brains to grow and our guts to shrink.

Some evolutionary anthropologists have also remarked on the social implications of meat eating, suggesting that the social aspect of finding and sharing that meat—the communal hunting and scavenging that made eating meat in higher quantities possible—required us to grow bigger brains. Competing and cooperating, creating alliances, and teaching one another how to hunt takes a certain kind of intelligence, after all. Adding meat to our diets likely gave us the intelligence we needed to work together to find more meat to eat, which in turn made our brains keep growing.

So there I was inside the black hole again, standing in the Chapolards’ cutting room, holding the two halves of a pig’s brain in my palm, feeling my own brain floating in my skull—something I can’t actually feel, but nevertheless there I was feeling it somehow—thinking with my big human brain about meat and brains and evolution, about predator and prey, about the fact that, because we figured out how to eat meat long ago, our brains grew big enough to make us capable of questioning the ethics of eating the very ingredient that allowed us to ask such questions.

“Big men, with thick hands and fingers, cleaving away at a skull, then big men with thick hands and fingers delicately scooping out these tiny brains as if they were newborn birds.”

Pig eyes. My eyes. Pig brain. My brain. Pig tongue. My tongue. Pig skull. My skull. For some people, pressing like against like, as I was doing, standing there with a dead pig’s brain in my hand, inspires revulsion. But instead I felt kinship. Reverence. Wonderment. Trepidation. And melancholy. At once.

In his essay “Why Look at Animals?” John Berger has described the uncanny ways in which animals are “like and unlike” humans. In his view, animals resemble man in three main ways. They are born, are sentient, and are mortal. But in their “superficial anatomy,” in their habits, their relationship to time, their physical capacities, they are quite different. Because of this, when an animal regards a human, it

scrutinizes him across a narrow abyss of non-comprehension. . . . The man too is looking across a similar, but not identical, abyss of noncomprehension. And this is so wherever he looks. He is always looking across ignorance and fear. And so, when he is being seen by the animal, he is being seen as his surroundings are seen by him. His recognition of this is what makes the look of the animal familiar. And yet the animal is distinct, and can never be confused with man. Thus, a power is ascribed to the animal, comparable with human power but never coinciding with it. The animal has secrets which, unlike the secrets of caves, mountains, seas, are specifically addressed to man.

These “secrets were about animals as an intercession between man and his origin.” For us, animals bridge the gap between nature and culture—they represent our past, but also something greater. And thus, animals became our first chosen metaphor for ourselves, in the form of myth and legend, crude paintings on cave walls. These universal “animal-signs” allowed us to chart our own experience of the world.

“Animals came from over the horizon,” Berger continues. “They belonged there and here. . . . They were mortal and immortal. An animal’s blood flowed like human blood, but its species was undying. . . . This, maybe the first existential dualism, was reflected in the treatment of animals. They were subjected and worshipped, bred and sacrificed.

“Today,” Berger continues, “the vestiges of this dualism remain among those who live intimately with, and depend upon, animals. A peasant becomes fond of his pig and is glad to salt away its pork. What is significant, and is so difficult for the urban stranger to understand, is that the two statements in that sentence are connected by an and not by a but.” 

Animals provoked, and still provoke, some of humans’ first questions. Questions that, today, most of us would rather not have to grapple with. By refusing to grapple, by living in the land of buts and forsaking the ands, we can easily come to believe we’ve absolved ourselves from ever having to confront those difficult questions.

An and, not a but. That is what that split pig’s brain in my palm felt like.

“The test of first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote.

It seemed to me, standing there with two halves of a pig brain cupped in my palm, that we are often terrible at this kind of first-rate intelligence, that, in fact, so much of what we do is in the service of keeping opposing ideas at bay inside ourselves. Isn’t this what we’re doing when we eat meat without taking part in the process that brings it to our tables, without ever being required to stare back at the animal that made that meat possible? Did we not grow our industrial food complex precisely so that we didn’t have to simultaneously become fond of our pig and be glad to salt it, too?


Camas Davis, Killing It

From Killing It by Camas Davis, published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Camas Davis.

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