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Knives over pencils: Bethany Christian boys carve meat in class

Peter Shetler asked 14 junior high boys to bring knives to school.

They followed his orders, right down to making sure they were dull knives.

Shetler taught the boys how to sharpen the knives and use them. They were more important than the computers or notebooks in the Farm to Table class at Bethany Christian School over the last two weeks.

“We sharpened knives. We butchered animals,” said seventh-grader Nathan Oostland.

Butchering isn’t usually on the syllabus at any junior high or high school, but during the J-Term at Bethany, the curriculum changes. Students were learning how to make ukeleles or bird suet. Shetler’s group learned how to butcher and prepare meat, as well as how to think about local meat and its production.

Shetler, technology director at the school, grew up cooking a night a week for his family. On a family farm in Colorado in the 1990s, he butchered animals.

He brought those skills to the classroom, and 14 junior high boys ended up in the two-week session.

“I thought it’d be cool, a good experience, to learn about parts of an animal,” said Sam Ostergren, a seventh-grader.

Tyson Miller wanted to learn how to butcher. Oostland wanted to learn more about where food comes from.

They did. On Friday, they chatted easily about the challenges of cutting through bone to make a pork chop or all the parts of a pig that can go into sausage.

Jacob Wallace, who signed up for the class by accident, said he learned butchering and how large-scale farming works, but now he wants to raise more animals for food on his family’s farm.

Shetler focused on how animals are raised around the world and the ethics of meat production, how to butcher and how to prepare the meat.

He brought in chicken, sheep and pork carcasses for the boys to cut up. When they toured Maple Leaf Farms in Milford, they learned about duck production and even cut duck meat there and pointed out that the knives were dull.

They brined and smoked hams and bacon. They seasoned and stuffed sausage. They cooked and they ate.

Shetler is one of those guys who can remodel a kitchen and then produce fabulous food in it. “We want them to understand anything you can buy, you can make better,” he said.

He’s not haughty. He just trusts his cooking and ability to make food good. While there are chefs who can do things to food he couldn’t, his philosophy ensures that he works at preparing good food and therefore almost always eats well.

Our wives are cousins and he’s a neighbor. We share a lawnmower and a love of food. The smoker he used for the class is one I used to own but which then went to live at his house.

When he told me over dinner what he was going to teach, I got excited.

Teaching young people to think about their food and how it’s made? Teaching them skills that may serve them later in life, or at least help them cook for a date? I would have signed up for that in a heartbeat.

The students told their friends they were having fun in the class and eating well. In eight days of class (there were two snow days) they ate pork chops, bacon, four kinds of sausage, duck and ham.

When I talked to the class, we discussed how much meat we should eat. They’d watched “Food Inc.,” a documentary critical of the way meat is produced industrially. “That changed my perspective on hamburger,” Ostergren said, but added that it wouldn’t make him stop eating fast food or non-local hamburger.

That day may come. Shetler’s philosophy and discussion about buying local and knowing where something originates had already prompted the boys to think a bit differently. Sometimes those are the seeds needed to change a diet.

My personal goal is to eat less meat, but eat better meat and know the story of what I’m eating. Is it the pig a friend raised in his woods? Great. Is the chicken from Miller Poultry, where I know it was raised humanely in northern Indiana? Superb.

The new One Ten Craft Meatery in Warsaw is an example of someone buying local meat and preparing it as well as possible. Owner Jason Brown is doing something very cool and delicious. I visited last week and can’t wait to go back.

Shetler was a brave man to teach junior high boys how to butcher, but I’d call it a success. Oostland said he’d try to buy and eat local meat now when he can.

One step they didn’t learn in the class was slaughter. Shetler mulled whether to do that, but opted against it. “I didn’t want to be responsible for their little psyches,” he said.

I’m hungry. Let’s eat.

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