I first heard about Killing It, and about Camas Davis and the Portland Meat Collective, through an interview on Fresh Air while driving home from a practice. Though I’m vegan (I feel it necessary to state this up front, sort of as a disclaimer: Here is the lens I am looking through, I’m trying to say), I was struck by Davis’s candor about what she does, and the reverence she holds for the animals she kills, butchers, and eats. Her book, a memoir of her journey from losing her job as a magazine editor, through learning whole-animal farming and butchery in Gascony, France, to starting and running the Portland Meat Collective, glows with the same luminous honesty, an honesty that refuses to turn away from the uncomfortable truths of eating meat.
Davis begins with a description of the first time she saw a pig being slaughtered, at the Chapolards’ farm in Gascony. The Chapolards are one of a few “seed-to-sausage” farms that grow their own hogs, grow the feed for those hogs, and have a stake in every step of the process of turning those hogs into food. Davis’s descriptions of her time there evoke the beautiful country of Gascony in summer, with golden afternoons, delicious, simple food, and a lot of hard work. A main concern of the book is whether she is romanticizing what raising and killing an animal for food takes, both in body and spirit; she repeatedly stresses how important reverence for the animal’s life is to even be able to eat any of it, a viewpoint I found refreshing.
The weeks in Gascony and the months afterward, finding the people who would help found the Portland Meat Collective, were also a time of intense personal change for Camas Davis, and she attempts to interweave those changes with the story of figuring out what ethical meat means to her, to mixed effect. As I was reading, I repeatedly thought, “I love this book, but I’m not sure I like her.” She involves herself in a love triangle, judges other women who aren’t in France for what she thinks are the right reasons, and while she isn’t sure she deserves all the press she receives once she’s back in the States, she accepts it anyway. Of course, I’d think that as I was reading a particular section, but after I put the book away and thought about it some more, I realized that this is a memoir. Memoirs are written by people who’ve been through intense personal change, and reflect who they were at the time. And maybe Camas Davis wasn’t the best person she could be at that time, but now I’m writing this review, I respect her for being transparent about who she was, and brave enough to let us – strangers – into that complicated time of her life. And I can see how, for her, her personal life and her work life were inextricable from each other.
In fact, a main theme of the book (and her philosophy on what she does) is transparency. There’s a TEDx talk she gives (the book made me want to research further, follow her footsteps so I could see with my eyes what she made me see in my head) where she compares it to those paper fortune tellers we made in middle school, and how what she tries to do, with her classes and her advocacy, is to unfold those fortune tellers so we can see all of the process of meat at once, from growing the feed to boiling the head. I think she included the personal parts of her story in Killing It to enact that philosophy of transparency in her writing, and I do admire her bravery. She got a lot of flack from vegans, vegetarians, and even meat-eaters for her transparency in butchery, and I wonder how the people featured in her book feel about the parts they played in her life.
After reading this book, I’m not going to start eating meat again. I was fascinated by the descriptions of how to “open a pig like a book,” or separating the loin from the ribcage, or scooping the brain out of the skull. Intellectually, I would love to attend one of the classes offered by the Portland Meat Collective or a sister collective around the country. People like Camas Davis and the farms and butchers she works with are eating meat in the most ethical way possible. But for me, eating meat is about more than the treatment of the animal in its life and death. What I kept reminding myself of as I was reading this book, and becoming interested in the methods within, was that animals are intelligent creatures, with their own rich inner lives that, while alien to our own, are worth no less. Regardless of how well they’re treated, they do not deserve to die to fill our bellies, at least in a bountiful country like America, where alternatives abound. However, since I know we’re not going to stop eating meat anytime soon, I hope Camas Davis’s methods and ethos begin to gain steam. If I did eat meat, I’d only want to eat meat done her way.