Nonfiction: In France, an American Woman Learns the Butcher’s Trade

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KILLING IT
An Education
By Camas Davis
339 pp. Penguin Press. $27.

Nearly 10 years ago, Camas Davis found herself depressed, heartbroken and purposeless, “feeling like such a failure.” Having been fired from her job as an editor at “a scrappy city magazine” in Portland, Ore., she headed to the French village of Agen, in Gascony, “in search of meaning” — and butchery skills. She spent seven weeks in this “French Shangri-La,” living and learning alongside her agritourism hostess, an American named Kate Hill.

Davis’s French education entailed, among other things, pouring 30-pound buckets of blood into a mixer to make boudin noir, stuffing the intestines of the pig she’d just helped kill with its own meat for saucissons and learning how to force-feed geese to enlarge their livers for foie gras.

Davis is now a butcher (although she remains uncomfortable with that title), an educator and “the founder and owner of a unique meat education program” known as the Portland Meat Collective. The story she tells here is of discovering meaning and purpose by learning butchering skills and then, thanks to the classes she develops back home, teaching others to do the same. As she concludes before returning from France, “learning to kill an animal and turn it into dinner had changed everything.”

What Davis really takes on in “Killing It” is the tension, as she puts it, between “life, death and dinner.” She wants readers to contend more immediately with the act of killing and eating an animal, imparting what she represents as a uniquely French respect for a culinary attitude the British chef Fergus Henderson has memorably dubbed “nose to tail eating.”

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There seem to be two books between these covers. The first takes place in France and soon after, when Davis returns to Portland to get her classes, and herself, off the ground. This entails locating animals, farms and experienced butchers who are able to teach their skills to others. The second encompasses her tumultuous romantic entanglements, along with awkward descriptions of the publicity that brought her considerable attention: an award from Martha Stewart and a photo shoot for her magazine, a knife ad that featured Davis’s image on a billboard in Times Square, a story in The New York Times Magazine that had her posing with a pig’s head on a silver platter.

For anyone who has kept up with the food world during the last 25 years, much of this material will feel overly familiar. Too often Davis’s insights and questions appear better suited to the village idiot in Agen than to an American reader in 2018. On fertilization: “The manure gets put back out in the fields, where it decomposes and renews the soil with nutrients.” On grass-fed beef: “I knew it was more expensive than grain-fed, but I didn’t know why.” On meat: “Did how these muscles on a pig move have something to do with the pale color of the loin and the darker hue of the coppa, with why we cook a pork chop in a frying pan and a pork shoulder in a smoker or a Crock-Pot?”

There are too many of these “golly-gee” moments in “Killing It,” moments that leave you wondering if Davis was really ever that naïve. Perhaps one should credit her with such innocence, since without it her earnest mission to impart what she has learned in France becomes just plain silly. “What if,” she writes of the people who will sign up for her classes, “I not only inspired them to change their buying and eating habits, but also to change the way they saw the entire world?”

That’s an extraordinarily tall order — and one that sits awkwardly beside the book’s other overarching concern: Davis’s desire for a personal transcendence that hinges on the “real.” In the end, she finds that the success of the Portland Meat Collective interferes with her desire to live authentically and she ends up experiencing herself as “the spectacle of the female butcher” rather than the genuine article.

By standing to the side of so much of her own story — her messy love life, the evolution of her public persona, even what must surely be her formidable knowledge of meat and butchering — Davis leaves her readers on uncertain ground. Her prose skitters along with her own insecurities, becoming thin and abstract rather than rich with the details of her engagement in the gritty work she clearly loves. Rather than leading us to grapple with what she presents as the transformative power of looking death in the eye, Davis’s approach seems to suggest that we not take her book too seriously. It is, after all, just one more part of the spectacle she disdains.

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