On this farm in rural Ecuador, they raise a variety of animals for milk, meat, and work. Once a week, an animal is slaughtered for the table, and that’s all the meat we eat. There is no refrigerator here, or way of preserving and storing food other than dry goods, so food has an immediacy here that’s lacking in places with more modern amenities. What we slaughter, we must consume before it spoils.

Ellen killing chickens for last week's dinner

Ellen killing chickens for last week’s dinner

Usually, Saturday is the day to kill and prepare meat, but this weekend Ingo and his family are spending the weekend in Quito. Instead of killing one of our own animals, on Thursday Ingo returns from town with a three-day-old calf in the back of his jeep. The calf is scared and hungry, trembling and sucking on the fingers of anyone close enough to reach. Ellen prepares a pot of warm milk from powder and gently encourages it to drink from her hands. Many of the volunteers seem upset that such a cute animal will be Friday’s dinner. It’s alright to kill a pig or a chicken, with small beady eyes and no soft fur to cuddle, but cows look adorable, especially three-day-old calves with wobbly legs and big brown eyes.

It's a pretty cute calf to eat for dinner!

It’s a pretty cute calf to eat for dinner!

On Friday morning, half of us watch or participate in the calf’s slaughter, while the others want to be as far away as possible. One girl in particular is horrified that the muscles still move after death, as she’s convinced the calf is still alive. As this is happening, Ingo’s two-year-old daughter is watching, on and off. Her mother explains that the calf has been killed, and that we will eat the meat for dinner. The explanation is simple and matter-of-fact, and I’m impressed at the respect for life present in the cow’s death. The baby walks up to the calf, touches its back, and says solemnly, “goodbye, cow” in Spanish.

After Ingo has cut its throat and the blood has drained out, the calf is hung from a fruit tree to be butchered. I find myself reminded of the song “The Hanging Tree” from the Hunger Games series. The calf is hanging by its feet, and Ingo starts on the job of skinning it. Greg, a lifelong vegetarian, helps. His rationale for participating is that this cow lived a life free of cruelty, free of contaminants from industrial farming, and would be killed by someone anyway. Farmers have little use for male calves. Here, we know the calf lived and died with kindness and respect.

Most of us have blood on our hands, literally, by the time the calf is skinned and butchered. Greg and his girlfriend take the skin and prepare it for tanning. I take the meat to the kitchen to cut into smaller pieces for cooking. The internal organs and meat from the belly we fry up right away for lunch. Many of the volunteers have never tasted liver, heart, or lungs. One volunteer, the girl who was so upset before, refuses to taste the veal, and says she is strongly considering becoming vegetarian. Greg, the vegetarian, tries a little of everything. Organ meat isn’t my favourite, but the veal is good.

Another volunteer helping prepare the skin for tanning. The humidity ruined it before we could finish the job.

Another volunteer helping prepare the skin for tanning. The humidity ruined it before we could finish the job.

As the day wears on, I come to realize just how much meat is on a tiny calf. Ingo wants me to roast the two hind legs for dinner, but I can’t possibly fit that much in the oven. I have to use a saw to remove the lower part of the legs, which go into a pot to make stock for Saturday’s lunch. I prepare two roasts for Friday’s dinner, which take turns in the oven, and leave half the organ meat, one leg, and a side of ribs for Saturday night and Sunday. Ingo sets the other leg and ribs aside to take to Quito.

The roasts are amazingly tender, but too much for all of us to eat, especially after a lunch of nothing but meat and bread. The leftovers go into Saturday’s soup, but by this point many volunteers are unused to so much rich food, so not all of us want any meat in the soup. On Saturday after lunch, the last thing I want is more meat, but I’m not sure how much longer it will last without refrigeration. I put the side of ribs on to braise all afternoon, while the backbone and leg go into the stewpot for Sunday’s lunch. I am tempted to feed the organ meat to the dogs, but another volunteer convinces me to save some to make liver and onions for breakfast.

Gathered around the table, enjoying our food and conversation

Gathered around the table, enjoying our food and conversation

The braised ribs for Saturday’s dinner are amazing, cooked on a bed of pumpkin and potato. They melt in my mouth and fall apart on my fork, and some volunteers pile their plates with second and third helpings. I’m content with one serving – I’ve eaten a lot of veal in the past two days. After dinner I turn off the stock and leave it to cool before I can strain it. An over-eager dish washer pours the stock down the drain. I am not disappointed. On Sunday morning, I pick at the liver and onions and am grateful for the salad and eggs served alongside it. I sneak my last piece of liver back into the pan, where another volunteer eager snags it.

This is the first time I’ve experienced the reality of eating a whole cow over the course of 48 hours. It was good to see the process, participate in it, and consider how best to prepare the meat so none went to waste. I’m grateful for the chance to do it, and for my comfort level in the kitchen, turning visible pieces of calf into cooked meals of veal.