This article originally appeared in Jason Pierce Mallory’s Scene Missing Magazine.
As an overly sensitive young boy whose natural propensity for interspecies empathy was amplified by a fondness for Disney movies and a long-standing subscription to Ranger Rick magazine, the idea of hunting appalled me. With a kid’s logic, I’d decided that killing animals was unspeakably cruel. Now, please pass the bacon.
These days, I’m of the opinion that if you consume meat, you have to acknowledge the impact of your decision, and you can’t ignore the fact that something died so you could eat it. Very profound, I know.
But, the problem is, I’ve never really held myself up to that standard. While I say that I would now be perfectly willing to hunt, this has never been in the realm of possibility. I do keep hearing a lot lately about something called the “Paleo Diet,” which I can only assume involves bludgeoning your food with a comically oversized Captain Caveman club, but I don’t think I personally know any avid hunters. So, invitations to go on hunting jaunts have not been forthcoming.
Cutting up a pig is not something that really appeals to me. Or especially interests me. It’s certainly not the kind of thing I would pay $100 for the privilege to do. But, as any number of stale leftover cakes in the break-room at work have proven, there’s a lot I’m willing to accept for free. When a local butcher offered me the opportunity to take his hands-on, whole-hog butcher class, I said yes, in violation of some ethical standards, probably, or at least the ones I imagine I have when I’ve been drinking enough to refer to myself as a “journalist.”
I co-produce a food show on the local PBS station. The show is pretty keen on meat. In fact, the most recent episode was subtitled, “Barbeque, Bacon, and Other Adventures in Meat.” This is how I first became acquainted with Pine Street Market, a boutique charcuterie and butcher shop.
Ignoring the fact that most people aren’t dying to see blood and graphic dismemberment in their light-hearted PBS food shows, I shot a segment on Pine Street that included a sequence of pretty shocking extreme close-ups from the butcher class: sawed limbs, a lopped-off head, and oozing, torn joints. I told myself it was a statement: “If you eat meat, this is the reality you are morally obligated to accept.” Also, I thought it would be grimly funny to throw in some bloodcurdling screams, slasher-flick sound effects, and Bernard Hermanesque violin stabs.
When I told the editor of Scene Missing Magazine about the segment, he incredulously asked if I was kidding. “I don’t want to see that,” he protested. “That’s just gruesome.” It should be noted that we had this conversation over hamburgers. (It also should be noted that J. Pierce Mallory is kind of an asshole as an editor, and also, I suspect, more than a little unhinged, always going on loudly about, “Peter Porker! Get me pictures of Spider-Ham! I’m going to run an editorial on the front page about how he’s a menace to our city!” It’s really embarrassing to have lunch with him sometimes.)
But he had a point. In a hypocritical echo of my childhood attitude toward meat, I was actually quite uncomfortable seeing all that stuff myself. Now that I’m done subjecting viewers to it, I’m going to face the reality behind the food I eat, too: blood, bone, muscle, ligament, and all. I see my helping to butcher this hog as a character-building exercise, albeit one where I receive a pork chop and two pounds of premium bacon when I’m done. Plus, I work in kind of a sketchy neighborhood, so it wouldn’t hurt to brush up on my knife-handling skills.
Today, the front door of Pine Street Market is wide open in an attempt to disperse the applewood-scented cloud rapidly filling up the place. Shooting my food show, I always came out of charcuteries and barbeque joints smelling and feeling as if smoke had seeped into every pore. I would return home, leave my clothes outside, and scour myself in the shower with a vigor to rival Silkwood. After some effort, I could get clean, but even now, months after production wrapped, the camera equipment still smells vaguely like beef jerky. This morning the smoke is especially dense, reducing the visibility in the shop and, no doubt, leaving me with deliciously fragrant lungs.
I’ve decided to wear my blue Piggly Wiggly supermarket t-shirt. It has a smiling pig’s face on the front with “Piggly,” and his fat bottom bracketed by cartoon motion lines on the back, accompanied by “Wiggly.” I’m always a little self-conscious about that part, as the prudish side of me has somehow equated it with anatomy-highlighting sweatpants that have words like “PINK” or “JUICY” written on the ass. But today, the shirt seemed appropriate because a) the dark color will hide any stains that one might generally associate with dismemberment and b) there’s a pig on it. I assumed everyone would be wearing some sort of attire that says in a cutesy/ironic sort of manner, “I am way into meat.”
Now, I see that I was incorrect. In fact, I am almost the only person in a meat-themed garment. I realize that this is kind of like going to see a band and wearing one of their t-shirts to the show. I’ve become the guy at the Rush concert who really needs to demonstrate that he’s into Rush.
Actually, that was probably a bad example. I kind of imagine that every guy at a Rush show is that guy. But, you know what I mean.
Conducting today’s class is Rusty, the shop owner. With his boyish good looks, friendly smile, and auburn hair, objectively and non-hyperbolically speaking, he’s probably the world’s cutest butcher. If you’re into guys, especially guys who make bacon, you’d probably find him dreamy. As the class is made up largely of men who seem to really like food, most of them probably just envy his job. Rusty says that Pine Street Market makes and sells 900 pounds of bacon per week, and hundreds of additional pounds of hand-made sausage and fresh meat.
But, the really artisanal, intricately crafted stuff is in the curing room, or “cave.” There are reddish brown salami, each with a dusting of snowy white on their casings. Coppa, a particular cut of pork shoulder, maintains a marbled look, still visible through the cow intestine in which it’s tied. Proscuito ages over a year and a half to a golden tan from hoof to ham. Everything is oddly beautiful; everything is moldy. This is the same culture that forms on brie cheese, and with careful regulation of humidity and temperature, it cures the meats.
“Do you sell the mold?” a man in a baseball hat asks eagerly. Rusty tells him he can buy the starter culture online. When Pine Street began production, the mold had to be introduced into the curing cave. Now, it just circulates through the air in the chamber, infecting all the meats.
There is probably a more appetizing word than “infecting” that I don’t know.
Rusty also shows us the culprit behind the surfeit of ambient smoke: a refrigerator retrofitted into an industrial grade smoker. Today, its venting system isn’t working properly. As we watch, a local chef removes smoked trout he’s prepared for a collaborative dinner hosted by Pine Street and several farm-to-table restaurants. The burly man has a very detailed tattoo of a hog and a carrot on his forearm, but given significant license taken with perspective and scale, it appears that it is a tattoo of a pig impaled on a giant carrot.
Speaking of such things, there is a 195-pound pig split lengthwise on tables in the middle of the room. I probably should have mentioned that earlier, as it’s hard to miss. I’m not sure if the total weight reflects the removal of the head, which is nowhere to be seen. On my previous visit, it sat at the juncture of the two tables, a ghoulish smile on its face, sole remaining eye seemingly frozen mid-wink.
The skin of each hemiswine is stamped with USDA markings, but otherwise, it is an unblemished pinkish-white. “What do you use to get the hair off?” one of the few women in the class asks.
Today’s special guest is Tommy, the farmer who raised the pig at Gum Creek Farms. “It’s a device called a de-hairer,” he replies. I guess that makes sense.
While the pig is pale on the outside, under the skin, the meat ranges from a salmon pink at the shoulder to nearly red at the hams (the ass, not to be confused with the “butt” which, on a pig, is the shoulder). Someone asks why pork in the grocery store usually appears lighter. Tommy says many large-scale operations gas their meat with a preservative that helps it ship and pack better but that also tends to diminish the color.
The pigs used here are not gassed, and they’re not packed. Tommy delivers whole hogs, minus the organs (with the exception of the kidneys, which are left in as a gauge of freshness), and they are butchered to parts on the premises.
There is a small, fatty flap protruding limply from each shoulder. As if reading my mind, Rusty says, “This is jowl.” With a quick swipe of the knife, it’s the first thing to go. Cured in the cave, it will become guanciale.
Rusty and another butcher prepare to separate the shoulders from the body halves. The eager guy asks, “Can we do it?”
Before filming the class for the show, I’d envisioned several rows of students, each hacking away at their own pig. It was something like dissecting frogs in biology class, but without the formaldehyde. Everyone would even wear white lab coats. The reality was quite different, of course. You can’t turn sixteen people with no training loose on sixteen hogs. Butchery isn’t like writing for Scene Missing; it requires skill.
Rusty assures the would-be volunteer a turn later. He counts three ribs in from the shoulder. “We call these ‘first ribs,’” Rusty says. “Probably because ‘neck ribs’ sounds too human.”
He cuts through most of the hog with a knife in about five seconds. The last bit requires a saw, which does not make a pleasant sound against bone. There is a window in Pine Street’s storefront that allows customers to look down on the butcher operation. A lady peers through, her face reflecting both fascination and disgust.
Someone told me once that she stopped eating pork when she heard that a pig was as smart as a three-year old human child. This person I regarded as only marginally smarter than a three year old, so I wasn’t sure whether I should believe her. But, Tommy says that his pigs are smart enough to divert their water supplies into holes they’ve purposefully dug nearby to make mud wallows. That absolutely sounds like something my kid would do. I feel a pang of guilt.
I’ve been a vegetarian. Kind of. I mean, I ate meat on occasion, but I still threw around the V-word a lot. It was because of a girl, and even after that high school romance ended in all the outsized emotional turmoil expected of a teenaged heart broken for the first time, the whole kind-of-a-vegetarian thing stuck for a while. My reasoning included some vague acknowledgment of meat consumption being bad for the environment, probably bad for my body, and definitely bad for animals. But, vegetarian options in restaurants are often lousy and meat is, indeed, pretty delicious, so I didn’t really stick to this.
Now, in addition to not really being a vegetarian, I’m only a half-assed carnivore, and my standards are almost comically inconsistent. I don’t cook meat at home. This is due, in large part, to laziness, but also to a hypochondriac’s fear of e. coli, trichinosis, mad cow disease, swine flu, salmonella, poultry AIDS, veal malaria, baconemia or some other food-borne pathogen. Yet, I am perfectly okay with a possibly disgruntled food service worker making me a burger when I go out, because he’s got to know what he’s doing, right? I stopped eating Frosted Mini Wheats at breakfast because they’re made with gelatin, which comes from the hides and bones of animals. It seemed weird that something had to die for me to have a bowl of cereal. It does not seem so weird that something has to die for me to have a pork chop. Implied death is kind of in the name, there. I would like to say I insist on meat raised organically, naturally, and humanely on small family farms, but “insist” is a pretty strong word.
Tommy says that many large operations raise hogs in facilities frequently arrayed like parking decks, with several floors of pigs on top of each other. They’re pretty much in their own shit a lot of the time. By contrast, Tommy’s pigs are allowed to forage in the woods for acorns to supplement their locally milled feed. “We treat ‘em kind,” says Tommy.
Well, up until a critical moment they do, I guess. Rusty saws the shoulder and front leg apart at the ball and socket joint. I reflexively cringe a little at this. I’m still recovering from a partially torn rotator cuff. I’m not sure how I injured it, but I always envisioned my wife planting her feet against my ribcage and attempting to heave my arm out of its socket as I slept. At least that’s how it used to feel every morning. The bloody, rounded bone parting from its mate that I see right now is much how I imagined the interior view of this would look.
I eventually went to a physical therapist who began our first session by leaning forward with his hands against the wall. “Put your hands like mine,” he said. I looked closely. He was doing something weird with them, and I tried to mimic him, keeping some fingers straight, and tucking others under. Eventually, I realized that he wasn’t doing something strange with his fingers so much as he was missing a few of them at the knuckle.
Apparently, this is a real danger for me today. I have agreed to hold Pine Street blameless in any number of scenarios in which I envision myself, ranging from merely slipping on the wet floor to cutting off a finger with a knife or saw blade to the combination maneuver of slipping and then landing on a knife while possibly losing some fingers as I frantically reach out for help but find only saw blades.
Before we cut into the ribs, Rusty strips away some of the fat by hand. It makes a discomfiting sound – something like pulling away the pith in a bell pepper or a pumpkin, but fuller, louder, and wetter. The fat will later be cured as lardo or used in making salami. Pine Street will save the tail and feet, too. With some tiny exceptions, they use everything. “The little pieces we keep throwing away are the glands,” says Rusty. “They’re not good for you.”
Half of a pig won’t yield both pork chops and baby-back ribs, because those are the same bones, only butchered a different way. Evidently, it’s easier for a novice to cut pork chops, because that’s what we’re doing. I’m not sure how this is going to go. I’m a little squeamish about feeling the friction of saw against bone.
As it turns out, it’s not that bad. I barely notice the sound anymore. My saw gets stuck, and I become too determinedly preoccupied with getting its teeth back into a groove to take note of any accompanying sensations until afterward; I find my fingers are greasy and slick from keeping a firm grasp on the fat while I sawed.
We break for a snack of salami and cheese before beginning the second part of the class. There are also a couple growlers of beer on the table. I assume that these are to accompany lunch at the conclusion of class, but a hirsute man in ratty jeans seems to have made it his mission to drink as much of the beer as he can before then, despite his vocal displeasure at having to use a Styrofoam cup. Realizing that the window of beer opportunity may be closing, I grab a cup of my own. It is not yet 11:30 am.
After the break, we turn our attention to making bacon. First, there is a discussion of nitrates that kind of loses me. When I hear the words “poison” and “carcinogen,” I realize I probably should have been taking notes.
As this is theoretically the halfway point in a three-hour block, I assume that readying bacon for curing and smoking will be something of an involved process akin to beginner-level basket weaving: not particularly difficult, but still time consuming.
As it turns out, at least for the purposes of this class, it entails throwing two pounds of pre-cut pork belly into a gallon-size Ziploc bag along with a premeasured amount of maple sugar and curing salt and then shaking it up and rubbing it around pretty well. Wanting to feel that I at least have some control in this process, I decide to add Albanian rubbed sage to my bag. Coincidentally, Sage’s Albanian Rubdowns could easily be the name of one of the full-release massage joints in the seedy neighborhood where I work.
The hairy guy has had the same thought (probably not about the happy ending massage place, but about the sage), and I reach the herbs just after him. When he’s done with the sage, he gestures toward my bag with the container. I have misgivings, as this guy doesn’t seem like someone for whom moderation is second nature, but I don’t want to be a dick, so I hold the bag open with a “sure, why not?” shrug. He sprinkles in a surprisingly restrained amount. I mash everything around in the bag the best I can, roll out the excess air, and seal the zip.
And then we’re done. For a short while, we pick at cold roast pork and potato salad and sip the rest of the beer. In chatting with the other attendees, I learn that, with the exception of a woman who is opening a new restaurant, most everyone just has a casual interest in seeing what goes into butchering a pig; “knowing where my food comes from,” is the near-universal sentiment.
Actually, it seems to be the only universal sentiment. About the time we realize that all we really have to talk about is meat, a worker hands each of us a hefty pork chop wrapped in butcher paper (which I will later carry around with me while on a poorly thought-out errand at the mall) and tells us to come back in a week to pick up our cured and smoked bacon. Two pounds seems like a lot, and I imagine I’ll be giving much of it away to friends and neighbors since there’s not much bacon-related experience in my mostly-Jewish, mostly-vegetarian household.
My mom fixed meat when I was growing up, but by the time I was cooking for myself, I didn’t eat it that much. Aside from baking some fish, I have never actually prepared meat before. The only grill I have is a George Foreman. Will that cook the pork chop thoroughly enough for me to avoid trichinosis or pig lupus? (Please say yes.) I don’t know exactly what to do with this thing. But, I know where it came from, which was the goal, I think. Where is it going? Into the freezer while I figure the rest out.
This pork chop is almost assuredly not the one I myself cut. In fact, I’m not absolutely sure it came from the same pig. Even so, I feel a little more like I had a hand in producing my food. I realize this is rather ridiculous. I cut a pork chop. My Paleolithic ancestors risked being trampled or gored by a frightened, enraged mastodon in order to provide food for their tribe. These are not the same things. But, I’ll graciously accept this small victory over, I don’t know, competitors in the food chain or the food-industrial complex or annoyingly smug vegans or something.
I proudly tell a neighbor about my small-scale adventure in the butcher shop, cutting up meat for the first time at age 36. She politely feigns being impressed and then says that when she was in high school, she went on a mission trip to a village in Latin America where it was her job to kill, exsanguinate, eviscerate, and butcher pigs.
I guess you can get your own bacon, then, Megan.