It's a chilly morning in December as smoke drifts from underneath a 55-gallon trough of water that has been heating since 4 a.m. Sherry Johnson stands nearby, keeping warm with her older brother, Jimmy, and cousin, Lenee.
Johnson is the youngest of nine who grew up on a farm near Chester, S.C. Every year, when the weather turned cold, her family would call on neighbors to gather and help with the hog killing, a harvest that would provide cured meat far into the next year.
"My father would never let me see it," said Johnson, who was five when the family moved to the city in 1964.
She, her brother and her cousin were invited to Mebane by Justin Robinson, a member of their extended family who is 20 years their junior, to take part in a modern version of an old farm tradition.
Robinson is in the hog pen with Tahz Walker, preparing to slit the throat of a hog they've raised together for the last nine months at The Stone House near Mebane, a center for spiritual activism and social justice where Walker, 34, lives and works as a land steward.
Robinson and Walker have built a strong friendship seeking out the sources of their food and forming an identity with the land around them. Today will fulfill a big part of their vision to bring a community together to share and preserve skills of responsible food production.
In the time since Johnson's family left the farm, the rise of industrial food production has fostered an intentionally marketed disconnect between living animal and uncooked meat. For many consumers, it seems like a cut of meat begins its life at the supermarket, neatly wrapped in individual cellophane packages.
Consider this: In the next 24 hours, approximately 32,000 hogs—a number equalling the human population of Apex—will be killed and processed at one Smithfield plant in Bladen County.
As the production methods of food become more centralized and invisible, we are losing the skills that make it possible to sustain ourselves.
Operating on this principle, Robinson and Walker sought out 85-year-old Elwood Whitmore to teach them how to render cuts of meat from a large, squealing animal.
About 20 people watch closely as Whitmore maneuvers his blade, dissecting the hog and answering questions along the way. It is messy work, but dealing with the death of an animal for consumption on such an intimate level instills a degree of humanity that is missing from the experience of the majority who chose to eat meat.
Reflecting on the experience, Walker said, "That's how we honor our animals, to have a deeper connection to our food."