I’m not a fan of birds. Maybe it’s Hitchcock’s fault. Maybe it had something to do with the time I got cornered in my car on my way to work by a couple of geese nesting in the parking lot, pecking at my door, daring me to get out. So when it came time to do my first chicken slaughter, I was ready.
The pig slaughter on the other hand, I was worried about. I am not opposed to killing animals for food; I definitely believe in that whole ‘meet your meat’ thing we preach at Fleisher’s. But pigs, at least for me, have always been a cute, cuddly animal begging for affection. So, even though I am a bacon fan and work at a butcher shop, I was still nervous about watching the death and evisceration of a pig.
We met at a farm in New Paltz, a group of 15 aspiring butchers and bacon fans, all curious to see how their favorite breakfast side makes it to the table. Our instructor, Hans Sebald (former CIA instructor and a master butcher) was the one responsible for turning the living, snorting animal into our butchery master class that day. Hans was at the scene when we arrived, clad in a flannel shirt, rubber apron, knife scabbard and boots. He introduced himself and said a few words, the kind of thing you’d expect from a man whom you know has grandkids. “We have to remember that this animal was raised for food, and if you think about all the starving people out there, this animal’s life is not being taken for granted.” A gentle reassurance—the accent helped.
The pig had been living a cushy lifestyle for a few days, solo in the back of a trailer (quite roomy, actually) and noshin’ on old winter squash and apples from the farm. It was a happy pig up until its very last second of life. Hans entered the trailer and closed the door shot the pig in the head, killing it instantly. The door was closed and I am okay with that.
The pig was dragged out of the trailer. Hans proceeded to slit the throat so that the still beating heart could do the work of pumping out the blood. And as the last bits of energy shook their way out of the animal, a farmhand helped Hans tie chains around the pig’s legs.
The chains helped transport the pig to the bath, where the idea is to pour boiling water over the flesh so that the pig’s bristles will come off easily. However, on this freezing cold day in January (I think temperatures topped out at about 15 degrees Fahrenheit that day) this was no easy task. They had been having some difficulty bringing the water up to boil in the 50 gallon drum . . .the water was close, but not hot enough. We were freezing and decided to proceed anyways. We dropped the pig into the bath and poured water over the animal. The water was not hot enough though, so the bristles were sticking. Hans had to shave the pig, and without a Schick handy, it wasn’t easy. It took awhile but the pig was clean in about 15 minutes.
They pulled the pig out and hooked its hind legs to a large John Deere tractor that raised the pig to eye-level view. Hans then made a cut below the throat to pull out the tongue, paving the way for removing the head. Next, Hans made a swift incision from the crotch to neck. The organs fell out gracefully. With care, they are removable in one fell swoop. I’m not sure I remember exactly how this happens, but Hans was able to remove the innards completely, efficiently.
The heart was next. Hans took out each organ and placed it on a white table. This is how he teaches, by taking the organs out and arranging them so that we can see how the parts relate to one another. There was food still stuck in the small intestine. We could see remnants of butternut squash, the pig’s last feast.
There was talk of how to prepare the various parts of offal, and participants calling dibs. I am pretty Midwestern, so I let someone else go after the pork kidney. I was holding out for pork chops, or tenderloin, if I was lucky.
Hans sawed his way vertically through the carcass, leaving two sides of pork. It was amazing to see how fast this beast was turned into something we recognize as food. A few incisions and I could already begin to recognize pork chops, ham, bacon, and shoulder. Sights I see every day in the butcher shop.
Considering my anxiousness in regards to taking the life of this animal, I was astounded by how quickly I was able to see it turned to food. In a strange way, the transition from living energy to consumable energy seemed painless. And without my even realizing it, my world was expanded multifold by allowing myself to become part of the intimate process of turning pig into pork.
Part one brought to you by Anna Carnahan- stay tuned for part two!