03 October 2022

"Pig Years"

This is an interesting book, recommended to me by a friend in my gardening Zoom group.  In Pig Years, a young woman recounts her experiences as a seasonal worker for four years on small family farms in upstate Vermont and New York.   It's more a "slice of life" presentation rather than a diary per se, including extended vignettes of rural life (road and weather conditions, neighbor personalities, demolition derbies) as well as the farming.  

Rather than try to describe the contents and the style, I'll present some extended excerpts (page numbers will be approximate depending on editions etc):
"When the first Chub Wub was slaughtered due to an untreated hernia, the farm children wept for their favorite pig, asking to be fed his heart in an act of compassionate consumption." (xii)

"After all the males are operated on... I empty a bucket of testicles in the woods: a magnified pile of lima beans.  The pigs return to their pen with gentle steps." (xv)

"As their replacements are born, every Wednesday pigs are taken away for slaughter.  The farmer brings me the unsalable pieces to eat.  I butcher the heads of three red pigs for their cheek meat, lifted by leathery ears and sawed away at on my kitchen table.  I place each medallion of jowl into a Ziploc bag and peel away the white gristle that helped to bind the face together.  I dig a hole in the woods and place the three cheekless heads in it..." (xvi) 

(from an old Shaker journal) "Work made me well.  Used to be I'd milk twenty cows and cut a cord of wood every day... been cutting wood over forty years and lost only two toes." (7) 

"The tie between us is very fine, but a hair never dissolves" (quote from Emily Dickinson) (8) 

"Part of the job is losing oneself in nature.  Cast out into the farm amongst the plants, animals, machines, I feel unindividuated.  Of course, I act upon the world.  But the work is so elemental as to be impersonal: animals fed, dirt plowed.  The weather acts; I accept.  If I leave, another will surely take my place... The seasonal work is a kind of stasis happening year after year.  There is no ending and no beginning to an agricultural story, only a descent into a repeating cycle." (17) 

"We  prepare a home-made dinner for Brother and Sister, their last meal.  I make sweet white flour cakes with caraway seeds and dried cherries, taken from Sarah's baking cupboard... I jam a pig-shaped cookie cutter through the flesh of a beet, summer squash, a cucumber, a collard leaf, a block of cheese, a tomato.  I press the assortment of vegetal pig silhouettes into the creamy brown faces of the cakes.  A friend brings a forty-ounce bottle of beer from E-Z Mart in town to go with the cake.
    Sarah and I walk the food down the road... through the hayfield and brambles to the pig pen to serve them.  They eat in a more measured, urbane manner than normal on account of the peanut butter sticking to their thickly ridged mouths.  As usual, one discovers the goodness of the beer before the other and Sister sucks most all of the malt liquor down as fast as she can in slurps that would be applauded in any beer hall.  After her bowl is drained she stands stupidly, looking out at the surrounding mosaic of leaves.  The pigs are handsome and we size them up, admiring, with some solemnity, Sister's spots and Brother's fat.
    At noon the next day we shoot them.  Ethan rolls plantain leaves and puts one in each ear.  Brother is shot over his grain bowl when I'm not looking... (41)  [continues with details of the butchering]

The pig bodies, now reduced to meat, bone, and four hooves, are slipped inside contractor bags and lowered from the tractor into the truck bed.  We drive them to the vegetable farm's walk-in cooler, where they will hang to cool overnight.  At the farm, I pick herbs to put in the sausage we will make.  My fingers, soft with fat, smell faintly of iron and the crisp oil of lovage and bitter parsley, the diesel of thyme and oregano, so sensual that I unabashedly pass the softened and perfumed palms of my hands over my nose and cheeks, sniffing politely as one who does not deserve that which I am given and that which I have taken away." (44) 

"One morning, fifteen minutes into the workday, Sam cuts his right pointer finger with an angle grinder in the dirt driveway of the trailer.  He was lying beneath the giant mower, tool spinning above his face, when he started to swear, words that mixed into the sound of the grinder's motor.  He came out from under the mower's metal housing holding his hand to his chest and I gave him my seat in the truck about to leave for our river field.  Diana ran out from the trailer with a roll of paper towels for the car ride to the hospital, but there was hardly any blood and there was no blood in the dirt beneath the mower either.  Sam's finger was cut in a neat, surgical V, which exposed the white fat and bone on its inside.  It didn't bleed because the heat of the grinder cauterized as it cut.  By the afternoon Sam is back driving the tractor with his finger pointing up against the steering wheel and covered in a cocoon of gauze.  Suspicious of the townspeople's proclivities - babies here are ten times more likely to be born addicted to opiates than in other states - the hospital didn't give him any pain meds." (82)  

"By the waxing sun of early afternoon, with everything edible in the pen sucked up, the pigs escape into the neighbor's lawn.  They walk through a bed of burning coals dumped from a woodstove and are unharmed.  Red sparks fire around their hooves before they lower their snouts into the embers and eat the mineral-rich wood ash." (161) 

"My family's seven-fish dinner comes on a day of beautiful sun.  It is the Italian tradition for Christmas Eve... After sunset, Graham and I drive to my grandparents' house for fish soup, smoked fish, shrimp calamari, anchovies, and fried smelt with lemon - missing the seventh fish altogether.  In the old days, there were live eels in the bathtub..." (190) 
One of the final chapters includes a prolonged and brutally frank description of the author undergoing a miscarriage while staffing a booth at a farmers' market.  
"I want to cry but instead focus my eyes blankly ahead at a woman offering jarred pickles and the tables of soap and baked goods and sample cheeses.  I just stand there doomed like a sapling growing in shade, selling my oversized cabbages and squash.  When I an no  longer hold it in, I go to the bathroom and unleash a hot flow into the toilet - it is pure red blood.  I didn't know I had so much to spill; it's a constant stream of warm life and it hurts so that I bite my lip and stare searchingly at the butterfly wallpaper in the stall..." (197)
As the above excerpts may indicate, the author uses the present tense very effectively for the narration, and her prose is often quite lyrical. 

I encountered several new words in the book:
"The spring has its own self-made viriditas, unstitching the seams of the bathhouse..."  Greenness (or freshness/youthfulness), from the Latin viridis.  Cf verdant.

"Root harvest is the hardest work of the year, pleasurable in its finitude when the weather turns cold, and the reaping heavy and repetitive before the stoppage of all work and growth.  Our fingers crack as their moisture is sucked away by the dirt's thirst..."  The state of being finite; limitedness.  "Finitude is rather formal and used in philosophy, while finiteness is used in mathematics; however, infinitude is used in mathematics more than infiniteness. Less formal is to reword to use limited: “(the fact that) life is limited” rather than “the finitude of life.”"

"I go to my grandparents' house at night for my mom and her sister's birthday party.  Irish twins, born a little less than a year apart, they grew up celebrating together."  Either of a pair of siblings born less than 12 months apart, especially if born within the same calendar year or school year.  Term used in the nineteenth century to mock the fertility of Irish families, often used in a derogatory sense to imply loose morals. 


  1. Butchering for cheek meat ... that right there is food for thought, when the thought is about going vegan. An animal as smart or smarter than a dog, and we are eating it's cheeks, probably sautéed with shallots. Oh, I mean a pig, not a human.

  2. In New England and I imagine most farm communities across the country they wasted nothing that could be eaten or used for another purpose. Pigs were popular because have large litters, they eat anything, and grow fast. The only thing that escaped was the oink.

  3. "Irish twins, born a little less than a year apart"

    Never heard that term. My brother and I are 53 weeks apart, so I suppose were not Irish twins...

  4. The problem with books like this is that they're read by NPR types who enjoy a romanticized (or poetically gritty), fantasy version of where our food comes from. In this romantic and delusional state, these same consumers, who might be at the moral edge of change, remain dumb white affluent liberal foodies, disdaining plant-based diets and the whole arena of serious animal ethics. The vegan is the subject of mockery when vegans are much needed moral examples. It's all about hedonism and the preference for one flavor over another. The author's truth gets hijacked in a culture of rampant egoism. Other than that, probably a great book.

  5. Are those moon flowers winding their way up the shovel? I grow those every year on the railing on my porch, but the flowers on mine are always white.

  6. Driving through Orleans county in Vermont, I see huge sheds surrounded by bright green fields of grass and others of corn. The sheds house dairy cows, who stay in there all year long. The fields are green from all the liquid manure sprayed on them - which makes for great yields of hay and silage, used to feed the shedded cows. The fields of corn are similar use - to grow corn for silage to feed the shed bound cows.

    The cows that I see in the fields are destined for the beef market. They stay in the fields all summer until early fall, when they are rounded up and sent to auctions.


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