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Raising Chorizo: A Chef's Journey to Local Food

Seattle chef Tamara Murphy has been cooking for 30 years. Like many chefs, Murphy tries to get as close to the origins of the food she serves as possible.

With vegetables it was easy -- she could simply visit a farm and walk through the fields. But what about the cuts of pork, beef and chicken she sautéed, baked and grilled? That question led Murphy to get to know those ingredients on a far more intimate level, as well.

Murphy's deep laugh and playful smile make her an instantly comfortable person to be around. It's a good thing, because at the moment, she's holding the carcass of a 100-pound lamb.

It's delivery day at her restaurant, Brasa. Unlike other kitchens where protein arrives in neat little packages, Brasa's meat arrives whole, as in the entire animal -- the only thing missing is the skin or hair. Murphy says that using whole animals answers several important questions.

"I wanted to know where my food was coming from," Murphy says. "Again, it's easy to know where your potatoes are coming from, but that's such a small part of what we eat as omnivores."

Murphy has gone far beyond just having the entire slaughtered animal delivered to her kitchen. She's gotten to know the living, breathing animal as well. The biggest seller at Brasa is pork -- so now Murphy raises her own pigs.

The animals live at Whistling Train Farm in nearby Kent, Wash. The property is filled with long rows of green crops, wooden pens filled with chickens and ducks, and over in the corner of the farm, pigs.

Walking up to one, Murphy asks its resident, "Hey, Miss Fig, how are you?" The 400-pound pig snorts its response.

Miss Fig is one of six sows the farm owns. She's also the mother of Murphy's current litter of six piglets. Holding out a treat, Murphy lures Miss Fig.

"Come on, you know you want this sweet potato, yes indeed. There you go."

Murphy throws out handfuls of potatoes and apples to her pigs too. Their plump, 50-pound bodies scurry to catch up with them. Each litter lives in fenced, quarter acre pens, which gives them a lot of room to play. They roll around in the mud, take long naps in the sun and Murphy says she loves watching them run around.

She's affectionate with them -- but Murphy is also careful about getting attached. Unlike the sow the farm owns, Miss Fig, Murphy doesn't name her pigs. She says she doesn't think of them as pets. That's because when these pigs grow big enough -- which usually takes 12 weeks -- they will be slaughtered and served at Murphy's restaurant.

It's an uncomfortable truth that many meat eaters don't want to see. But not Murphy. When her first litter was ready, she went with them to the local slaughterhouse. It's a relatively small facility. There, each pig was herded into a stall where it was stunned, hoisted up by its back legs and cut along a major artery so that it bled to death.

"It was so quick because there wasn't anything else going on at the slaughter house," Murphy says. "So it happened within 10 minutes of us having unloaded the pigs. It was fascinating and difficult at times because it was all very new."

Back in her kitchen, Murphy and her sous-chef are hard at work, breaking down one of her pigs. It's a job that requires two people: one person holds the carcass in place while the other separates the animal into different cuts. Murphy says that butchering an animal she's hand fed apples and sweet potatoes took some time to get used to.

"When you break down a whole animal you have to remove its head its feet," Murphy explains. "You dismember it and it just made me think, 'Which pig is this?' That was very new."

But preparing meat is part of her job -- and Murphy says that knowing how these pigs were raised helps her better respect the animals she cooks. She says it's also given her a spiritual connection with these animals, which is something she's never felt in the kitchen before.

Does this mean that Murphy thinks that every omnivore should visit a slaughterhouse?

"I'm not suggesting that people do that," she says. "I'm just suggesting that people think about how their food is raised and the more aware they are and the conscious they are, I think we make better choices."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Welch
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