There’s a saying in my hometown: Don’t fatten the calf then slaughter the pig. How a farming analogy became such a popular phrase there I don’t know. There were (and still are, as far as I know) no farms in my hometown. Mrs Connors, who lived at the end of our street, kept a couple of chickens, but apart from that I never saw any barnyard animals. The steelworks provided the bulk of the town’s employment. No livestock there. In fact, now that I think of it, I’m pretty sure the first time I saw a real-life cow I was fifteen years old. We were on a family holiday.
The phrase always seemed to me like a political preference, or theology, or the rules for playing UNO, in that everyone thought they had it right, and that anybody who disagreed with them had it wrong. I heard the phrase used or explained in at least six different ways. Who knows if any of them were right? Most often, the phrase was used to mean Don’t change your mind. You know, sort of Pick one thing and stick to it. My dad hated that. Whenever he heard someone use the saying that way, you could be sure he would denounce it at the dinner table that night, always with a sneer of disgust, and always followed by a lengthy lesson on the saying’s correct usage. Dad insisted the saying meant you shouldn’t waste money or time or effort on the wrong thing. When I asked if I could take kickboxing lessons, Dad said no. He said kickboxing lessons were fattening the calf and slaughtering the pig. I was so mad. I didn’t talk to him for three days. He was right though. After about a week, I lost all interest in kickboxing. I think I was only into it because I had recently watched the movie Bloodsport, starring Jean-Claude Van Damme.
My favourite use of the saying though belonged exclusively to my grade five teacher, Mr Hill. The way he saw it, the phrase told the story of someone overfeeding their calf to the point it grew too fat to walk, and then taking out their frustrations by slitting a pig’s throat. To Mr Hill, the saying basically meant Don’t blame others for your mistakes. Actually, that would have been a clearer message—Don’t blame others for your mistakes. It lacks the visual element though. And it’s not as fun to say. Anyway, his interpretation helped me learn personal responsibility. I think it is also the reason the sight of bacon makes me feel guilty.
I visited a farm last year. I was photographing a wedding there (lovely couple). The reception took place in a marquee behind the farmhouse. While the speeches were going on I stepped out for a break and ended up chatting with the owner of the farm, Ken, who had come out to take a peek at the festivities. I asked him for a farmer’s perspective on my hometown’s saying. He gave it long thought, to the point I feared he had forgotten my question or was embarrassed to admit he had no answer, but then he cleared his throat loud enough to turn heads and said to me, “Well, when I used to keep pigs, we never slaughtered them on the farm. No, see, the truck would come and collect them to take them to the abattoir.” Ken scratched his stubbly chin, then continued, “You have to stun them first, see. It’s more humane. You can do it with a bolt gun, right here.” He tapped his forehead. “That’ll do it. But with our pigs, they used electricity. The machines do it all. The pig gets carried along, and then these two metal bits clamp down around their neck like a pair of tongs” —he acted it out for me— “and then… POW!” The guests at the tables nearest us turned around to see Ken shuddering like an electrified pig. They were not impressed. “Then they go limp, and they ride along the conveyer belt to have their necks cut.”
I don’t know if I had asked my question poorly, or if Ken had just misunderstood it, but his answer shed no light on the meaning of my hometown’s saying.
I have since given up trying to uncover its true meaning. No point fattening the calf then slaughtering the pig, right Dad?
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