When we talk about barbecued ribs, smoked bacon, succulent roasts and braised thighs, we’re talking about hogs and cattle and poultry. Right?

Of course we are. Yet when the French butcher teaching Camas Davis his profession saw that she knew little of his language, he began pointing to his butt, to his thigh, to the muscles along each side of his spine — his loins — to better illustrate his cuts.

This set Davis on her heels. In her 32 years of dining, she’d never “given much thought to the intricacies of a pig’s anatomy in relation to my own.”

She began to understand how hogs, like humans, use their muscles and why we sear a chop, but throw a pork shoulder into a Crock-Pot.

“Killing It: An Education” is about coming to terms with killing and butchering dinner. But it is no pat paean to the carnivorous life, which is both its strength and detriment.

Davis is lost after being laid off from her job in Portland, Ore., as a longtime food writer and editor. She candidly writes that her personality might have played into the magazine’s decision. She’s also broke.

After a career of writing about food, she decides to actually do food and become a butcher. She knows of an American woman running a cooking school in France who will take labor in lieu of tuition.

That it changes her life is a given. Davis went on to found the Portland Meat Collective, a cooking and butchery school that’s become a national resource for creating “a growing community of informed omnivores who support responsible meat production and consumption in America.”

That Davis is a skilled storyteller also is clear. And perhaps her story of becoming a champion of carnivores cannot be told without the personal relationships that influenced her work.

But there is a soap opera-ish air around her attachments: A 10-year relationship with Tom ended along with her job, which led to a rebound fling with Will. Then she met Joelle, a rare kindred female butcher, with whom she balanced a love affair with Andrew for some time before telling each about the other. (While Andrew then pretty much disappears in the book, they apparently remain together, judging from her loving acknowledgments to “A.R.”)

Yet this is — even from someone in their 40s — a memoir. Relationships come with the genre.

That they seem distracting likely is due to the far more fascinating discussions around livestock sustainability, about being raised as a hunter, about being a “girl butcher” in an overwhelmingly male profession, about navigating an complicated culinary landscape of vegetarians, meat-eaters, vegans and groups such as Rabbit Advocates, about being covered by the media complete with cleaver and little black dress.

Davis takes the essential need to eat and compels us to examine how, why and what we consume, without preaching or judging.

“Killing It” could be a provocative choice for book clubs, given how it propels an examination of our relationships with animals as commodities, as companions, and as coq au vin.

 

Kim Ode is a former writer for the Star Tribune. On twitter: @Odewrites

Killing It
By: Camas Davis.
Publisher: Penguin Press, 339 pages, $27.