Camas Davis cares deeply about the integrity of animals’ lives. She is also a butcher. In her beautifully written memoir, Killing It, Davis makes it clear that these two aspects of her life can peacefully coexist. Davis’ lucid, striking prose recounts a life-altering journey that began when, directionless and brokenhearted, she booked a flight to France with the last of her funds to spend seven weeks learning how to be a butcher in Gascony.
I met up with Davis at an airy coffee shop in Portland, Oregon, where she now runs the Portland Meat Collective, a school where Davis and various chefs and butchers teach classes about responsible meat consumption. Using animals sourced from local and trustworthy farmers dedicated to raising animals humanely, the collective instructs the curious on slaughter, butchery and cooking practices.
But the road to the Portland Meat Collective was a crooked one for Davis. Growing up in rural Oregon, Davis regularly went hunting and fishing with her father and grandfather, both avid outdoorsmen. “I wasn’t squeamish about dead fish or guts or plucking feathers from ducks,” she says. “It was just a part of how I thought about the world.” In her teens, however, the hunting and fishing fell by the wayside, and she eventually became a magazine editor and entered a long-term relationship with the man she thought she would marry.
“In my late 20s, early 30s, I was very orthodox. I worked for magazines, that was what I did, that was my career. I was going to do it forever.” And then it all fell apart. After leaving her relationship, she lost her job as a magazine editor in Portland. Davis was despondent, but she also realized that she was now free to do whatever she wanted, and what she truly longed for was authenticity—not to just write about the genuine article, but to live it.
It was then that she decided to return to her childhood connection to land, life and death by exploring butchery. “I’ve sort of been fascinated with it for years, as a food writer,” she says. “I was always very excited to work on stories about butchers or about chefs who did butchery, or even just a cut of meat. For some reason, that subject matter felt like it had more of a story than a tomato—which is not true. A tomato has as much of an interesting story as anything else. But I guess the story of the tomato is much more accessible, and I’m always the person that’s like, ‘I want the inaccessible story.’”
Staying with Kate Hill—an American living in France who hosts travelers on gastronomic journeys—on her compound in Gascony, Davis ventured out to find the inaccessible. She went to work for the Chapolard family on their farm, and it was with them that she found something she felt was truly authentic. The Chapolards raise their own pigs on grain they grow themselves, and they own a nearby co-op slaughterhouse. The family gathers together to butcher the animals, and they turn every part of the pigs into hams, loins and the more obscure delicacies that Americans balk at: head cheese, blood sausage, trotters. They then sell the products at market. Davis was enamored with their practices, but she doesn’t romanticize it.
“I think, generally, we’re weirdly afraid of food.”
“There’s so much about the disappearance of the agrarian way in modern times. It’s now becoming this myth, this caricature,” she says. “There’s definitely this sort of nostalgic ideal of what a butcher is.” Davis makes it clear that there’s not much about butchery that is charming. “I really struggle with that in the work that I do. I never want to give the impression that any of this is easy—that it’s easy to kill an animal, or that it’s easy to raise good meat, or that it’s easy to sell the whole animal.” But Davis is committed to bringing meat to the table that comes from animals that lived good lives and died as humanely as possible. It’s a serious matter, and Davis is a serious, deeply curious woman who is driven to poke at what others find unappealing.
Like pig brains, for example. In Killing It, Davis reflects upon the brain from a pig’s skull that she’s just cleaved open: “So much of what we do is in the service of keeping opposing ideas at bay inside ourselves. Isn’t this what we’re doing when we eat meat without taking part in the process that brings it to our tables, without ever being required to stare back at the animal that made that meat possible?”
To take part in this process is to grapple with a uniquely American wariness of food, in particular raw meat. “I think, generally, we’re weirdly afraid of food [in America]. We’re afraid of what it will do to us, we’re afraid of how to use it in the kitchen, we’re afraid of where it comes from. And yet, we don’t really do anything about that fear.”
Davis doesn’t shy away from that fear; she seeks it out and confronts it. She begins her memoir by recounting a pig slaughter, watching the life drain out of a 700-pound sow. “There’s a lot of assumptions we make about what that moment [of death] is like,” Davis explains, “and some of those assumptions are correct. It can be gruesome. It can be like horribly haphazard. It can be mechanized and scary. But it doesn’t have to be.”
Davis surmises that a large part of Americans’ unease toward meat is ultimately wrapped up in the big fear: death. Davis wants to inspect that fear, handle it and understand the whole bloody mess of it. “Everything I’m writing about in this book about [the] death of animals for food is really just a larger metaphor for how we think about death in general, and the ways in which we hide all of that.”
When asked about her favorite cut of meat, Davis’ answer comes as no surprise. “I tend to like the cuts that no one else likes. . . . They tend to be cuts that you have to cook for a long time or smoke or grill on indirect heat. The complex cuts.” In that same spirit, Killing It puts uncomfortable, complex truths out on the table, no matter what they are, and digs in.
Author photo by Cheryl Juetten.