Saturday, October 20, 2012

Primal Cuts

This past Friday I traveled to the far reaches of Whidbey Island, located in the Puget Sound, to take part in an instructional class of a unique kind.  A small number of participants gathered for several days of shared work, taking two pigs from the host farm through the entire process of harvest.  Our own pigs are fast nearing their harvest date, so this was a timely opportunity to gain critical experience.

WARNING: WHAT FOLLOWS IS A POST THAT DESCRIBES THE DIVIDING OF A PIG CARCASS INTO USEFUL PORTIONS OF MEAT MEANT FOR CONSUMPTION.  THERE WILL BE PICTURES.  IF THIS TOPIC OR THESE PICTURES PROMISE TO BE OFFENSIVE TO YOU, PLEASE DO NOT READ THEM.  INSTEAD, ENJOY THIS PICTURE OF THE MUKILTEO-CLINTON FERRY IN THE RAIN.  TO CONTINUE READING THE POST, SIMPLY SCROLL ON DOWN.

The class was hosted by the crew at Farmstead Meatsmith.  I have been lurking on their website for the better part of this past year, trying to glean from the excellent and beautiful instructional videos some of the techniques we would need to put to use as we eventually come to the task with our own animals.  Apart from the very practical discussion, you also end up getting a look at some recipes and food treatments that make it clear that those folks are foodies as well as butchers and abattoirs.  And they weave in some of their philosophical commitments that undergird their choice to get this personal with their food experience.  It is no small vision; more than an economic argument and bigger than a nostalgic look back to days past, there is a commitment to community life, to hospitality, to stewardship and to generosity.  The commitment to these values goes beyond a claim on them as the niceties of society - they are seen as vital, necessary, needful....I would say even strategic.  By that, I mean that members of a community practice these values as a way to pursue their ability to survive and thrive - and so the whole interdependent community around them does as well.

That may all sound a bit high-minded for a class on butchering a pig.  But our connections to one another, our connections to food and to the animals that we take it from, to the land that we take it from - these connections have all been weakened in our contemporary culture of commoditization.  The plastic wrapped packages of meat we buy in the store, or the neatly arranged piles of fruits or vegetables soaking under the misters in the produce aisle, these are far removed from their places and processes of origin.  Regaining a connection to our food is a way to not only regain control over the quality and economics of our food, but also a way to explore the reforging of those connective paths between our food and each other.

And now, here is a picture of a philosophical butcher in training - my brother Alex.

Alex is a shareholder in our little herd of pigs and so is also preparing for the big day.  He participated in all three days of the class, which covered topics like slaughter and evisceration, butchery and meat curing.  He also managed to harvest a deer while on the Island, a timely accomplishment considering the number of cutting boards, knives and other processing tools located at the farm site.

Our instructor was Brandon Sheard, who led us through the steps to take full sides of pork and transform them into usable cuts of meat.  The pigs had been processed the day before, so when I arrived on Friday they were already cleaned, divided, and chilled - what was left were four sides of pork.  Alex and I had one side to work with between us, and we first divided it into quarters (two shoulders, loin and side).

All of the traditional pork cuts that you might find in the grocery store can be found in these quarters, and there are some non-traditional cuts hiding in there as well.  What becomes abundantly evident early on is just how much food one pig can produce for a family or community.  Brandon made a comparison to "loaves and fishes"....with each cut, the food seems to multiply.  This abundance is part of what invites and encourages hospitality surrounding the harvest.

That hospitality was well-modeled by our host site - a picturesque farm property hidden in the deep forests of Whidbey Island, the host family provided a beautiful locale for the class.  It is hard to express just how warm the reception was - not only did we accomplish the butchering in the comfort of a large kitchen setting, we were treated to food and drink at every turn.  Homemade cheese, pickled beets and beans, spicy garden salsa, even some very local spirit distilled from apples and aged in oak.

Our quarters turned slowly, cut by cut, into pork chops, tenderloin, boston butt, picnic roasts, leaf fat, back fat and, of course, bacon.  Or at least, belly, which would eventually turn into bacon.  Or cured into pancetta.  Or roasted into delicious.  That's the thing, there are so many possibilities, one side is 150 lbs of potential - a foodie's mother lode.

The instruction was very useful, the best kind of hands-on work that I needed to feel more confident as we approach our big harvest day.  The experience gained will help insure that our own pigs' life ends in as humane and respectful way as they have lived, and that we are able to maximize the ways in which our family...and our community....will be able to benefit by that gift.










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