In the beginning, when she was teaching herself to slaughter and butcher, she sequestered the animal before delivering a bullet to its brain. She thought it would be more respectful to let it face its end privately. Plus, there were the feelings of the other pigs to consider. What would it do to them to see one of their own go out by gunshot?
It turned out that being alone with the doomed animal just made both Emily and the pig nervous, like an awkward first date with a homicidal conclusion. And, they say, adrenaline isn't good for the meat.
EMILY, WHO IS MY WIFE'S COUSIN, lives in Homer, Alaska. I'm from Anchorage. I've been coming to Homer every summer since I was a kid, but I've never lost a visitor's appreciation for it. To get a sense of the natural setting, picture every postcard you've seen from Alaska. Eagles swooping over a sparkling ocean. Glaciers cascading down snow-capped mountains. Otters cracking oyster shells. In Homer, you see all that on a five-minute walk. Sometimes I get so scenically saturated I think my eyes can't absorb one more wild, gorgeous detail. And then the sun goes down, a full moon rises over the water, and the air turns herbal with spruce sap and pushki weed.
People don't end up in Homer the way they might end up in Cleveland or Minneapolis or even Anchorage. There isn't one big economic draw. My mother, who has lived most of her life in Anchorage, says Homer is a place people go to manifest dreams. It sounds New Agey, but she's right. There was a time when all of Alaska was like that; I'm sure my grandparents felt that call when they drove their Buick up here from Illinois fifty years ago. Some of the state's frontier glow may have faded since then, but in Homer, it's been preserved. I can't think of a Homer person I know who is not right at this moment industriously manifesting. Pottery. Books. Peony farms. And so many dreams in the community seem to revolve around food: In this town of 5,000 there's a brewery, three from-scratch bakeries, two coffee roasting companies, a robust fishing industry, oyster farms, a lush farmers market, and a dozen restaurants, many of their menus seasonal and local.
Emily is thirty-six, and she's a farmer. She learned how to butcher pigs the same way she's learned most everything she knows about farming: trial, error, and Google. She didn't grow up with agriculture—or guns, for that matter. The daughter of a union laborer and a community relations worker, she has a degree in photojournalism. She didn't become interested in growing things until her late teens, when she worked in a commercial greenhouse, farming basil.
She came to Homer more than a decade ago with an idea to buy some land and have a big garden. Now she has a really big garden, ten acres of farm that she calls Twitter Creek. (It's named for a nearby stream, which itself was named well before the social network launched.) She works the land full time; she built her own farmhouse and greenhouse. She added pigs, bees, egg chickens, and meat chickens to an acre of orderly vegetable rows, all of it carved by her own hand out of forest and wildflower fields.
Emily also got a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to build a high-tunnel greenhouse, made of tall half-circle steel ribs clothed in clear polyvinyl. This extended her growing season and brought up the soil temperature, boosting her output. Danny Consenstein, director of the Alaska Farm Service Agency (and, in true Alaska style, also a bluegrass musician) told me that he suspects that Homer now has more USDA-funded high tunnels than any other zip code in the country.
Emily's farm requires an astronomical amount of work. Whenever I used to slosh down the pitted road to her place, I'd reflect on the chicken filth, the endless weeding, the rain and frost, the ever-present mud. I couldn't figure out why she did it. But I get it now. In a world of searchers, she has found her thing. A dream, manifested.
AS A TOWN, HOMER HAS A GREAT AFFINITY for the culture and cuisine of Louisiana, and last month my family and I were heading down from Anchorage for Emily's boucherie—a big, weekend-long pig-butchering party very loosely modeled after community-wide parties held in the Southern state, at which people dispatch a pig together and cook up the whole thing. As my wife and I hustled our two boys out of the car, a fog had settled over the vegetable field, and I could feel winter in the September air. We were late to the slaughter: by the time we arrived, the 330-pound hog called Juvenile Delinquent, Joovy for short, was already deceased, subject to Emily's revised pig-killing protocol.
Pig meets pistol according to size, and size is influenced by personality
Pig meets pistol according to size, Emily explained, and size is influenced by personality. Alpha pigs, the pushier ones, get fatter quicker. Joovy was the second-pushiest in the pen, after Big Bertha, who Emily had already slaughtered and sold earlier that year. Two more hogs, Lil Red and Lucy Patch, were still happily snorting around in the mud past the field.
Of all Emily's pigs, Joovy was the only male, and she liked him best. He got his name because he was curious, always biting her tools and knocking over the water bucket. He had a thing for head rubs. "I liked his spunk," she said. "I would have kept him forever if I thought I could handle a year-round 700-pound hog."
She told me that before she shot him in the pen, she'd given a little speech about him to the assembled people who came to help. She'd carried a pistol out to the middle of the pig yard as a friend filled the trough with sprouted grain and a little molasses. All the pigs came running and buried their faces in the mush. She moved in.
"I set my intentions really sturdy first," she told me later of her process. "I say a little prayer, and then I shoot it in the head and thank it for what it is doing."
The emotional constitutions of the other pigs remain intact, she explained. In fact, they don't even flinch. "They just go right back to the food trough," said Emily. "And they're like, ‘Sweet, we get more food now.'"
THERE ARE MORE THAN A HALF-DOZEN micro-farming operations around Homer, including Emily's. They're serious business: Emily was at the point that the farm was just about supporting her all year round, though she still had to pick up a little extra work substitute teaching in the wintertime. Farm tourism that included events like this dinner was exactly the sort of thing she wanted to add to her lineup to make everything pencil out. This dinner, a test run, was mainly for friends and family. All forty of us were paying guests.
Emily dedicated the event to her Uncle Ray, a longtime Homer character who had been killed the summer before in an ATV accident while working at a remote cabin. Somewhere along the line, we'd stopped calling the weekend the boucherie, and started calling it the Bouche-Ray. Ray was a mustachioed wearer of wide-brimmed hats who liked to smoke cigars. He worked as a carpenter, but really he was a musician. He played in a Cajun band and had a way with just about every instrument. Accordion was always my favorite to hear him play.
They worked to live, and by live, I mean play music, make art, fish, cook, and drink really good beer
As far as I can tell, Homer's love for Louisiana started with Uncle Ray and his partner, Jen King, who we call Aunt Fancy. They had a Cajun band for twenty-plus years called Ray-Jen Cajun. Their good friends Karen Berger and Steve McCasland, who own Homer Brewing, are from Texas originally, but Steve's grandparents live in northern Louisiana. Karen and Steve began throwing Mardi Gras parties, which over the years grew to the point of public coronation of "royalty" and a parade through town.
Eventually Karen, Steve, Ray, Jen, and a big group of bluegrass musicians from Homer and Juneau—all raging Louisianaphiles—traveled down to Cajun country proper for the Festivals Acadiens et Créoles. "By God, everybody and their mama went to Lafayette," Karen told me.
That was maybe eight years ago. More trips were made after that. More parades put on. More paper bag–brown roux mixed around in Steve's gumbo pot. It was Ray who first suggested Emily raise a pig or two. When he died, we marched through Homer in a New Orleans-style second-line parade, waving hankies, beating tambourines, weeping, and marching in the saints with saxes and tubas.
A LONG TABLE DOMINATED Emily's small living room and a roll of butcher paper hung from the ceiling. When we walked in, she was at the stove, where a pot bubbled away, giving off aromas of wine and sage.
I've been with my wife Sara for fourteen years, and I've known Emily long enough that I can't remember when we met. She played music at our big Anchorage wedding in 2008. When our second son was born in June, I texted her a picture from the delivery room.
Sara and I both come from enormous Irish-Italian families. Her mother has nine siblings, my father has eight. The aunts, uncles, and cousins go on for miles, an extended network crisscrossing Alaska. As I fell for Sara, I fell in with her family and friends. Her sister and brother-in-law played in a bluegrass band in Juneau. Sara's people were different than the law school–bound city girls I'd been trying to understand in college. Nobody stressed about work. They weren't preoccupied with titles or degrees. They worked to live, and by live, I mean play music, make art, fish, cook, and drink really good beer. There's something to be said for being present in your life, for appreciating what is. I can lose track of that, living in the city and facing the relentless time problem that is working and having children, but being on Emily's farm reminds me.
Two guys hunched over Emily's table, wiping sweat on their T-shirts, sawing hunks of flesh off long bones. I recognized a belly slab as bacon. The pig's head, feet and organs were neatly arranged in a hotel pan. A saw, a mallet, and some sticky-looking knives were strewn about among open butchering books. I stepped on a wayward chunk of raw pig fat with my bare foot.
After Emily shoots a pig, she told me, she slits its throat and bleeds it right away, before "death throes" set in. (Death throes are when the 300-pound pig starts thrashing around, spasming even after death.) Then she throws the animal on its back, dehairs it, guts it, and quarters it.
In the last five years, Emily had slaughtered and butchered eleven pigs. Back when she did the first one, she and a couple of friends cut up the carcass according to how one of them remembered dressing deer. What they ended up with was a bit of a mess, "a lot of sausage and a couple roasts," she recalled. Now, on her twelfth pig, all the cuts—picnic roasts, Boston butt, ham hocks, bacon—were being mapped out according to the books. The pieces were separated, wrapped, and labeled.
When I arrived, Emily and her team had been at work breaking down the pig for thirty-six hours, with short breaks for sleeping. Every six hours or so, Emily prepared a pork dish so everyone could refuel. I stopped to admire two thick loins just before they splashed into a bucket of brine. "I don't feel tired. I'm so excited. Being tired doesn't even register," Emily said.
HOMER'S FOOD SCENE HAS MATURED SIGNIFICANTLY in the last five years. Much of this is because demand has grown: Locals like good food, and increasingly the town is a destination for seasonal residents from Anchorage and Outside (as in outside of Alaska—we capitalize that term here) who have money to spend at restaurants and markets. Every time I visit, a new restaurant is open, and there are more vacation houses built where once there was empty land.
To get to Homer, you simply drive south from Anchorage until the highway ends five hours later. It is, literally, the end of the road. The town rambles down a lush hillside to the rocky shore of Kachemak Bay; its most distinctive feature is a narrow peninsula known as the Spit that juts out about four and a half miles into the water. A road runs down the spine of the Spit, with businesses and beaches along either side. The harbor is located toward the end, near a literal-minded hotel called Land's End.
Kachemak Bay and the surrounding land are rich in seafood, edible plants, and game, and the area was traveled by Alaska Natives for thousands of years before European and Russian explorers landed there in the late 1700s. Homer began as a small coal mining—and then a short-lived gold mining—operation in the 1890s, and slowly grew. Much of the area was settled by homesteaders. What is now downtown Homer is land that, around 1920, belonged to just one dairy farm.
Today, if you were to walk down the aisles of one of Homer's two grocery stores, you'd probably pass a married couple or two from the neighboring Russian Old Believer religious communities. The young women would be wearing headscarves that matched their floor-length skirts, and they'd likely be pushing babies in their carts. You'd also probably see an unshowered fisherman in a gut-splattered hoodie and Xtratuf boots. There would be somebody with dreadlocks, and also maybe a retired judge from Anchorage who has a second home in town, and everything on the shelves would cost two dollars more than you're used to paying back home. Farmers market prices aren't really so high in comparison, because—thanks to the high cost of getting it up here—all groceries in Alaska are expensive.
Carri Thurman, co-owner of Two Sisters Bakery, a twenty-year-old Homer food landmark, traces Homer's blossoming restaurant scene back to the kitchen at the Land's End Resort in the mid-1980s, where she got her first Homer job. A number of people who worked in that kitchen went on to start successful restaurants in town, including Fat Olive's and Cafe Cups. Those places inspired other places. And then, more recently, came the high-tunnel produce explosion. "I'd say our ability to get seasonal stuff has grown 300 percent," Thurman said of the greenhouse-aided boom. "I mean, it's crazy."
THE CHEF FOR THE BIG DINNER was a thin, serious-looking guy named Brian Grobleski. He'd trained at the Culinary Institute of America and worked in restaurants in a number of cities, including a recent stint in Chicago, where he'd been at a place called Floriole. He opened the fridge, and I peered in at Joovy's head on the shelf above the produce drawer.
Brian came to Homer in 2012 through the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms program, sort of a Couchsurfing.org for people with an interest in organic farming, and landed a job on a farm run by the Kilcher family. (This was just about the time the family, relations of the pop singer Jewel, became the subject of the reality television show Alaska: The Last Frontier. Reality television is epidemic here. Everybody you meet in every small town is either on it, working for it, or one degree away from it.)
He swirled a jar of nasturtium vinaigrette and offered me some to taste. It was bright with a radishy heat. He told me that he'd come to Homer in search of a new relationship with ingredients, saying, "When you go to other cities, it seems like there's such an attempt to manipulate the food, rather than appreciate what's already there."
He was tired of kitchens driven by competition, where preparations seemed to grow increasingly complex. The very food itself seemed anxious to him, and he needed to get away. "I had my chapter in life of turning things into foams and jellies," he said. "To me, it wasn't genuine." He wanted to work on a farm directly.
Brian's not alone in his move—or his motivations. I've met so many former food service folks who came to Homer and became farm people that I came up with a term for them: chefugees. Brian and Emily met at the farmers market where they sold vegetables at adjacent booths. Meeting Emily reinvigorated his love for cooking, he said. She works so hard that others can't help but work hard too.
HOMER HAS AN INTIMATE SORT of culinary ecosystem. Farmers know chefs. Chefs know diners. Homer residents are sophisticated eaters, making a strong support network for culinary businesses. Kirsten Dixon, a chef and cookbook author, co-owns La Baleine, a summer-only restaurant on the Homer Spit, and also runs the nearby Tutka Bay Lodge, where she offers cooking classes on an old crab boat. "I love it when the crusty old guy is an expert on Italian wines, or the fisherman who walks in has a passion for mushrooms," she said to me. "We really have a vibrant culture and food scene."
Alaska's isolation and extreme weather present some significant obstacles when it comes to food. Summers are a concentrated three-month burst of long days and temperate weather, but the rest of the year we do a slo-mo cannonball in and out of the deep freeze. There was a time in my parents' memory when all wintertime produce came in cans and all eggs were a month old on arrival and near spoiling. Now in winter, we do get fresh food—it arrives by plane or boat, and can be brutally expensive—but it is never really all that delicious.
Cooking is identity; it brings connection to place. Alaska gets this totally; Homer might get it most of all.
To be sure, there are good restaurant meals to be had in the state, but not many outside a few of the larger towns. Once you head out on the highway in any direction, it's nothing but Crunchwrap Supremes, gas station Slim Jims, diner eggs, and sugary white chocolate mochas. Maybe the wintertime produce and the prevalence of Anywhere-America strip-mall food breed in Alaskans a sense of deprivation. Maybe this is what spurs Alaskans to carry Bubble Wrap in their suitcases when they go on vacation so they can return home with harissa and Trader Joe's cookie butter and French cheeses bought at reasonable prices. I'm certain it is part of the reason so many people in Alaska are good cooks. Alaskan cuisine, if it can be defined, exists first in home kitchens.
Here, self-sustenance—what Alaska natives call "subsistence"—is at the heart of eating: fishing, hunting, gathering, and canning. Alaskans forage. We pick berries, hunt mushrooms, and gather seaweed. Because of the long winters, food preservation is a common fall activity. Certain fish smoking techniques are closely guarded family secrets. In some circles, pickles function as currency. Salted salmon roe is a delicacy, and sourdough starter an heirloom.
Our plates most often center on seafood. Salmon is widely available, affordable, and spectacular. Other fish, moose, caribou, and birds are common meals too. The stars of the cultivated produce world are root vegetables and crucifers like broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage. No matter where in the world you are, cooking is identity; it brings connection to place. Alaska gets this totally; Homer might get it most of all.
BY DINNERTIME THE NEXT DAY, Emily's farm was transformed. The butchering crew had finished with Joovy and joined a larger dinner crew, who turned their attention to the grounds. Emily's sister Julia screen printed napkins and aprons. Others flattened out the big greenhouse floor and built a plywood stage. Two long tables were constructed from plywood. Christmas lights were strung from the greenhouse ceiling. Out-of-town guests began to arrive. Some of them planned to spend the night, and they pitched tents in the yard. A bossa nova band set up. Voices and music filled the greenhouse.
The meal was, naturally, spectacular. The salad with nasturtuim dressing was served with a scoop of homemade ricotta and sweet chiogga beets shaved so thin, light shone through them. There was an earthy carrot soup, a warm salad of patty-pan squash and root vegetables, and that pork loin, bathed in a maple gastrique. Dessert was chamomile panna cotta and tiny scones made with pork fat. The sunset glowed pink through the corrugated plastic roof, and then a supermoon rose.
The next day, the crew was back in butchering mode, gathered around a big extruder in the yard, pumping fat casings full of sausage. A big outdoor burner kept a long-simmering pot of gumbo warm. We'd lost some of our number from the night before, but there were thirty or so of us still on the farm. We watched the chickens mill in the yard, stoked the fire and ate fresh-picked greens by the handful out of a big basket.
Emily set about making pig-head posole in an outdoor kitchen. Aunt Fancy and a couple members of Uncle Ray's old Cajun band played in the greenhouse. The accordion lilted clear and sad. I two-stepped the baby on the dirt floor.
Earlier in the day, a chicken had been killed, plucked, and butchered. Robbi Mixon pulled it from a buttermilk bath, floured it, and fried it up in a pot of bubbling fresh lard. Robbi is thirty-three; she runs the Homer Farmers Market. She's a semi-recent Homer transplant, having moved from San Francisco, where she worked as an event planner. Homer had grown on her, she told me. She likes running into people she knows in the grocery store. She'd been vegetarian for years, and then she fell in with Emily, and Emily's pigs. "I really connected to my food source," Robbi said. "So eating meat felt better."
A bunch of us stood around the pot waiting for pieces of the bird, our breath making clouds in the night air. In perhaps the best moment of the weekend, I watched my picky three-year-old take his first-ever bite of fried chicken, perfectly crisp and salty. His pants were slick with mud and his hands were filthy. "I like this," he said.
SUNDAY MORNING, WE ALL needed Advil with our coffee. Most people rolled up their tents and hit the road, and I offered to cook dinner later for the few of us who remained. Something simple, I said. Something low-key.
I decided on pasta, hot and garlicky, with the pork sausage that had been cased the previous day. As the dinner hour approached, more guests began to arrive. This was Homer, so everyone had an offering: thin rounds of spicy, pickled squash; tofu dip; fresh peas; collards; a container of homemade red sauce; a hunk of Danish blue cheese; a bottle of prosecco; a growler of Homer Brewing Company Bitter. I started out expecting six at the table, but my phone kept buzzing with additions. Soon we were twelve. Then sixteen.
"Is it all right?" our friends would ask, before heading over. "Sure, sure," I'd reply. "We have plenty of room at the table."