Welcome to Anxious Carnivores, a mini-series about the changing culture around meat consumption. Despite growing pressures to quit meat, many Americans can’t quite do so—but they’re feeling weirder and weirder about how they eat it.
Editor’s note: This article contains graphic descriptions of animal slaughter on a small farm.
The cows are named Baby and Snowday. Baby is a beautifully mottled brown and white, and Snowday is a solid, milk-chocolate brown, her head topped with a tuft of funny cream-colored fur. They both have the most delicate eyelashes, bashful and lush.
They are five years old, which is old for a cow in America; these are retired milk cows, once living on a family farm as part of Darigold, a farmers’ cooperative that works with small dairies across the Pacific Northwest. In their twilight years now, they’re at Vorfreude Dairy Beef, a farm off a long, loping little country road in the green foothills outside of Portland, Oregon. It’s owned by small-scale beef purveyor Rachel Hinnen, and today she is “harvesting” these animals—she is preparing them for slaughter.
Hinnen is part of “the meat community,” as she calls it. While you can find people pursuing ethical meat production in many corners of the world, the practice has particularly gained traction in this slice of the American Pacific Northwest, where a “conscious carnivorism” movement, which advocates buying hyper-local meat or practicing butchery, has been growing for at least a decade. You might be familiar with Colin the Chicken of Portlandia fame, a skit in which a restaurant server describes to diners the name and life of the chicken on their plate. Or, more recently, a viral Tweet of the fake Uber Eats feature “Meet Your Meat,” in which you can learn that your ribeye was named Janice and enjoyed alfalfa. But the real-life meat community is serious—a more earnest group of true believers you will not find anywhere, with a conviction that borders on semi-religious. You should meet your meat, they believe. In fact, to truly eat meat ethically, this means observing every step of the process: birth, life, and death, from the pastures to the butcher shop.
“I’m really glad you’re here for this,” Hinnen tells me as we stand together in the February mist. She wears a no-nonsense work hoodie, slate tights, and muck boots, her long, blonde hair tucked beneath a knit beanie. “I think it’s really important to experience this part.”
The sky is warship gray. Rain falls like television static. The mobile slaughter truck is due in one hour, and the field is redolent with the smell of cow shit. Baby and Snowday—named by the family dairy where they previously resided—are not the only bovines on the property. In the pen behind us stand a group of retired Jersey dairy cows, squat and fat and rust colored, who are marked for slaughter in the coming weeks. In the next pen over three more cows—“my pets,” she says—who go by the names Domino, Lucy, and Oreo.
“I can’t kill the OGs,” she laughs. Domino and Oreo (two classic black and whites) have developed the rapscallion habit of hopping fences, which one might think would mark them for the slaughter truck but has instead endeared them to Hinnen, the way a problem child is often a mother’s secret favorite. Lucy (latte brown and cream) is another story entirely. “She accidentally wound up pregnant,” Hinnen tells me, “and I spent three weeks saving her life every day from a series of complications. By the end I felt like, you know—‘I nearly killed myself trying to save you, so how can I kill you now?’”
Much of the beef we consume in America comes from younger cows, aged between 18 and 24 months old. Most are raised specifically for beef production, the product of generations of selective genetic breeding to increase yield size and fattening speed, aided by a modern cocktail of hormones and antibiotics. Beef from older cows—including dairy cows—has long been commonplace and revered in Europe, particularly in Spain, Austria, and the United Kingdom. But in the United States, dairy cows past their prime are typically blended alongside thousands of other animals a day as part of a general ground meat supply.
Retired dairy beef is highly prized by a small but enthusiastic number of American beef connoisseurs, showing up at specialist butcher shops and on farm-to-table restaurant menus. Some small butchers separately slaughter certain cows like Snowday and Baby so that their meat can be sold and consumed individually, their unique flavors more present like those of a single origin specialty coffee microlot or a walled clos of hallowed Champagne grapes.
I’m given a bit of busy work feeding Hinnen’s pet cows—a.k.a. the permanent collection—from a plastic pail of compressed hay treats. They lap it up from my hands with their massive prehensile tongues, agile as monkey tails, frothing with saliva and anticipation. (The word vorfreude in German means “joy in anticipation.”)
“A cow never had a better life,” Hinnen tells me, preparing a bundle of sage as a sort of pre-harvest ritual she conducts on mornings like this one, balancing the herbs carefully atop a fence post. I hand her my lighter—hers is in the truck—and her words grow uneasy. “I hate these days,” she says. “I don’t sleep well. I cry over every single one of these cows, and I fall in love with every single one.”
I ask about the inherent contradiction of this, you know—loving an animal so much throughout its life, and then overseeing that being’s death. “I get what you’re saying,” she says—she’s heard this question before—“but truth is, it would be a problem if I didn’t feel that way. It would mean I didn’t care, you know? And the point of all this. The point is to care.”
Smoke billows from the sage, and the smell immediately alters the cows’ demeanor; they become noticeably mellower, even contemplative. Or is that just my projection? My own anxieties?
“Let me send you back over to the Jerseys for a minute,” she tells me. “I want to make a video and I get self-conscious.” Hinnen climbs into the pen, crouches down in the shit and muck, and talks quietly into her phone as the rain falls, the sage scenting the air, the cows posing just beyond her shoulders, framed artfully in the shot. Later, the video appears in Hinnen’s Instagram Stories, an instantaneous update for those who cannot be here to witness their steak being killed.
The origin story of the meat that Americans consume is fundamentally uncomfortable, like that of our clothing or rechargeable batteries. Meat consumption as a narrative is fundamentally informed by death; it’s always there, lurking, like the omnipresent specter in Hitchcock or Shakespeare. The wider conversation about the ethics of consuming meat dates back to Plato, Pythagoras and Epicurus, as well as the Buddha, the Bhagavad Gita, and the concepts of halal and haram in Islam, which, among other rules, consider how an animal is slaughtered before it is eaten. Across cultures and centuries, meat consumption—both our love of it and the questions it raises—is woven into the fabric of who we are, fundamental to a broad panoply of faiths. From the oldest cave paintings of water buffalo hunts to widely varying modern screeds (“Our Moral Duty to Eat Meat” versus “Moral Veganism”), seemingly everyone—and everyone’s ancestors—has a take.
The current ethical meat movement isn’t new either, with organizations like the Ethical Omnivore Movement drawing a sharp line between the consumption of factory-farmed meat and dairy and other, smaller means of arriving by these products. (“There should be no shame in the use of animal-based products—just in the cruel, wasteful, careless, irreverent methods of production,” its website reads.) Guides to ethically eating meat abound, even as we wrestle with the so-called “meat paradox,” in which animal lovers are still able to enjoy that delicious cut of steak.
What’s novel today is the extremely onlineness of it all. Social media has intertwined with the age-old practice of raising animals for meat in a distinctly modern way; everyone and their mother is quite literally on social today, and America’s family farms, butcher shops, and heirloom meat geeks are no exception.
I found out about Vorfreude Dairy Beef via this great discovery engine of our time. That said, Hinnen’s Instagram account, @vorfreudedairybeef_, is tiny with barely 500 followers. Her business involves direct sales of beef “shares”—typically a quarter of the whole slaughtered cow, sold at $6.85 per pound on the hanging weight—to home chefs, friends, and assorted beef enthusiasts. She also makes candles, soaps, and body butter from beef tallow processed in her own home kitchen and sold at local farmer’s markets and retail pop-ups, and she’s working on a line of tanned leather wallets, earrings, and belts. Plus, “cow yoga retreats” and “photo sessions.”
Some little kids might circle toy ads in the Sunday paper; Hinnen, age 10 in suburban Oregon, would scout the classifieds section for old cattle ranches, begging her baffled parents for cattle and land. After high school she deferred college to work on a vast cattle station in rural Australia, and now, at 33, she’s built a small, intimately personal business around raising cows, loving cows, and yes, slaughtering them to produce high-quality grass-fed beef. “Since I was old enough to have dreams,” she says, “I have dreamed about this.”