Monday, November 12, 2012

The End is the Beginning

Autumn arrived in a hurry.  In a matter of days the temperature, which had been unseasonably temperate, plunged into refrigeration range.  Leaves began to fall with frantic intention, and the sky became gray and troubled.  It was time for the harvest.


If you are not interested in the rest of the post, enjoy this picture of our beautiful pigs enjoying a perfect fall day in the Yakima valley (along with their chicken friends).  For the rest of the post, continue scrolling down.

If you are still reading, I will assume that you are along for the whole ride.  The harvest day was so long anticipated, fretted over, planned and plotted that it seemed strange to see it finally arrive.  Our hogs had grown a great deal.  From their small andbutton-cute beginnings back in May, they ballooned to great size and even greater appetite.  We fed them hundreds of pounds of apples and pumpkins over the last several weeks (even getting them a little sloshed on occasion on account of fermented apples).  
Our plan was to do the whole harvest ourselves, from start to finish, slaughter to freezer.  In preparation of this my brother and I did some training at a seminar of sorts put on by the good folks at Farmstead Meatsmith.  My partner in crime, Keith, sketched and salvaged and sparked together steel structures necessary for the tasks ahead.  Knives were sharpened, equipment gathered, volunteers recruited - until in the end there was nothing left but the task itself. 

Harvesting hogs in a traditional manner takes several steps: 1) the kill; 2) scald & scrape; 3) evisceration; 4) butchering (portioning).  Each step has some special tools and set-up to accomplish, and all steps benefit from a lot of helping hands.  In this way the process has built into it the potential for a community that gathers around the shared labor.

After spending the last five months caring for these beautiful creatures, Keith and I spent a great deal of time thinking about this moment.  We were greatly invested in making sure the kill happened in the most humane manner possible.  As with so much of traditional harvesting, pursuing excellence in this arena is not only an ethical consideration but is also a practical one, as stressed animals can potentially taint the meat.  

The ethical and the practical are inextricably intertwined, a connection that becomes immediately apparent when the caretaker is also the executioner.  Our contemporary food systems sever this connection, and we become detached consumers, not invested in the care of the animals nor confronted with their death.  For some, the moment of the kill is the hardest to imagine participating in - for us, we could not imagine handing the task over to anyone else.

The pigs were killed in the paddock that they called home.  They were given a meal of cracked corn and apples which they attended to with great enthusiasm.  Keith then lined up a shot with a .22 rifle at point blank range.  The target is a specific spot on the front of the head, taking advantage of a thin spot in the otherwise impenetrable skull plate.  The shot renders the pig senseless - immediately after the shot a small team rushes in to accomplish two important tasks.  The first is to "stick" the pig, a knife is inserted at the base of the neck, angled up to nick the main arteries and create an impressive flow of blood.  

This blood is collected as it flows, possessing unique culinary potential.  It must be whisked continuously while it cools to avoid turning to one large clot as it hits oxygen.  After cooling it is filtered into jars and refrigerated, so it can be used for blood sausage. Collecting the blood is a part of the commitment to make the most efficient and total use of the animal, an ethos that flows naturally from investment of time, energy and emotion required to raise them.  It is one of the most fetching qualities of the pig - it is almost totally useful as food.  Fergus Henderson's "The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating" is a marvelous introduction to the odd bits that your local butcher may have neglected to tell you about.

After the kill and blood collection the pig is scrubbed relatively clean and then cuts are made at all four feet to open up access to some amazingly strong tendons that will be used to hang the carcass during many of the processes that follow.  What follows next is sort of a watershed event in the harvest process.  There are two schools of thought on preparing the carcass for butchering - to skin or to scald, that is the question.  We opted for the more traditional and certainly more labor intensive scald and scrape, which entails dipping the entire carcass into 145 degree water for 5 minutes and then scraping the hair and top layer of skin off of the entire carcass, nose to tail.  The result is a clean tough surface which is very easy to handle during transfer and butchering, since the skin remains intact.  But the process requires a tank large enough to handle a 380lb hog (that was the size of our largest) and a means of raising and lowering the animal.

Keith scavenged an old water tank that we estimate had a total volume of about 110 gallons.  Being handy with a plasma torch and welder, he was able to create a truly deluxe scalding tank, complete with removable lid and a ball-valve for draining the tank at the end of the day.  A little bit of paint to cover up the rust and our tank was ready for action.  Keith is also handy with a fork lift, which had more than enough capacity to handle the big job we were throwing at it.  The lift allowed us to easily transfer the pigs, hung on gambrels, to the tank for scalding and to the large metal frame that Keith constructed to hold the completed sides.  Did I mention Keith was handy?

The water temp is extremely important to achieve the best scald.  A precise 145 degrees for exactly 5 minutes - there are undoubtedly many other opinions and practices related to scalding, we found that the formula above achieved the very best results.  Mistakes made here create difficulties later, so taking time to get it right is important.  One half of the carcass is scalded at a time, and when it comes out of the tank after it's soak the work must be completed at a brisk pace.  The scurf (the layer of skin that gets removed) gets scraped off, a task made easier by a unique tool called a bell scraper.  Three or four people working quickly can scrape the half down in about 25 minutes, then the pig is flipped and the other half is done.  Final touch-ups can be done with razor-sharp knives, leaving the skin as smooth as possible.

After this the head is removed and taken away to be cleaned up properly.  There are a lot of flaps and folds on the head that have to be attended to with razor and knife in order to render the head ready for roasting or carving.  The carcass is then transferred to the evisceration area for the next steps.

Next the carcasses are opened up, using knife and saw, in order to remove the insides and divide the carcass into halves.  This is detail work requiring a steady hand - one nicked intestine can create a micro-biological mess of your meat.  Better to proceed slowly and carefully than deal with clean-up protocols.  We took few pictures of this process - but it was attended to by my brother Alex and friend Charmaine, who carefully divided the carcasses, harvesting all the usable bits from inside, including heart, livers, caul fat, etc..  The rest of the insides where bagged for disposal.  What results are clean "sides" of pork, looking an awful lot like meat - real, honest to goodness meat.  But that meat needs to be chilled before being portioned into more usable cuts suitable for a family to make use of throughout a year.  This is conveniently accomplished by leaving the sides hanging outdoors overnight, when the temperatures will drop into the upper 20's, chilling the meat to the bone and firming up the skin and fat.

The frame that Keith fabricated using scrap metal was a structure of extreme utility, accommodating all eight sides with ease.  A light dusting of snow greeted us the next morning when we arrived to pack up the sides and take them to Keith's shop for butchering.

There is a great deal of mystery surrounding the butchering of meat.  At grocery stores, technicians in white lab coats pass to and fro through opaque doors, bringing out trays of portioned and plastic-wrapped meat marked with a barcode.  What goes on back there?  We usually aren't given much access to that part of our food production, so it is easy to imagine that a great range of technical skills and specialty tools are required to transform sides of beef, pork, or lamb into usable cuts of meat.  This is not the case.  Traditional butchering utilizes a few simple tools, consisting of a small selection of knives, a cleaver, bone saw, bone scraper and cutting boards.  That's it.  By no means do I intend here to denigrate the butcher's craft - far from it.  One thing that you learn when taking on this task for oneself is that there are cuts in the meat that require skill and understanding that are the result of long training and practice.  Yet the harvest of a family hog used to be realistically in the realm of household competencies and a little imagination, optimism, and a couple of sharp knives can fully equip you for the job of side butchery.

There are great videos at the FarmsteadMeatsmith site on the particulars of side butchery, I encourage you to go check it out if you are considering taking on the task.  We set up the garage with several work stations, a host of bus tubs, vacuum-seal bags, plastic wrap, butcher paper, and enough cutlery to outfit a samurai army.  Over an 8-hour day, all of the sides were slowly transformed into bacon, rib chops, loin roasts, shoulder roasts, hams, hocks, trotters, tenderloins, and oh, so much more.  There is a kind of mysterious multiplication that happens, the amount of meat seems to increase with every cut.  The old-hat, grocery store cuts end up being pretty boring - it is heavily marbled shoulder roasts that fire the imagination, or jowl meat surrounded by silky fat, ready for curing or the grill.

The end result is a freezer full to the brim with meat of a quality that is unmatched by anything available at the local grocer.  Many pounds of pork belly now lie curing in the fridge, on their first steps in a journey that will end in bacon and pancetta.  Hams are suspended serenely in brine buckets, slowly gaining flavor through a mysterious alchemy that will eventually see them transformed into smoked and glazed masterpieces.  Our four pigs have provided enough stores for a small army, and by that provision they have facilitated the function and fellowship of a whole community as we gathered to share in the work and enjoy the fruits of that labor.  There is much, much more benefit incurred in the whole process than simply a harvest of pork...and for that we are so very grateful.  The harvest really is a gift, one to be received with gravitas and grace.

The whole process is a big work, as one might expect.  But it is deeply satisfying work.  We have found that our respect and appreciation for our animals has grown, as has our sense of confidence in our own ability to gain some control over the ways and means of acquiring the food that we feed ourselves, our families, and our community.  The experience of the death/harvest side of the cycle leads one to long for the birth/nurture side of things, and the mind races forward to spring, when young pigs will once again populate their big yard at the farm.  And so the end is the beginning of more plans, more dinners, more food adventures, more farm ambitions, and, of course, more blog posts!

A special thanks to: Keith, Alex, Charmaine, Trent, Nate P., Gabe, Bob, and Nate H. 


  1. This is one of the most thoughtful pieces I have ever read on butchering those lovely creatures that we also enjoy in life. I applaud you for taking full responsibility. Thanks for posting this.

  2. Hank, that feedback means a great deal coming from you - thank you for your comment!

  3. Great work! Wonderful post! Until you've gone through the entire process, you can't understand the sense of satisfaction and gratitude and respect that develops, but you described it beautifully.

    The first time we butchered, I was startled to find myself feeling....wealthier is the only word I can find that works.... with each cut, roast, chop, and pound of rendered lard. And oh, the bacon! The salt pork! Nothing like it can be purchased in any store or shop.

    1. Thanks for the comment! Yes, there is definitely a sense of provision, richness, abundance....wealth...I felt something of the same satisfaction when looking into a pantry with freshly canned stuff from the garden. Makes paper money lose some of its luster. The bacon is curing in the fridge right an investment portfolio, the flavor growing and giving bigger returns ;)

  4. Amazing.What a great "documentary" on the entire process. I applaud you sir... Even tho we raise our own as well, we are not able to "do the deed" because of age and health. I am a bit jealous of missing out on the satisfaction of completing the job. Congrats to you, and thanks again for putting this out here for all of us to learn.

  5. Congrats on a wonderful job from a fellow Scots(wo)man!

    We raised & butchered our own hogs, among other animals, for years but are now in a different place. (It's not set up for hogs but we continue to raise & butcher various poultry, goats, and deer.) I envy you the fresh pork, knowing what went into it from beginning to end.

    Thanks to OhioFarmGirl for linking to your site!

    1. Always glad to hear from a Scot! And yes, OFG outdid herself with the link! It's good to connect with other interested in this stuff....

  6. This was a fascinating series of photos and descriptions. Thanks for posting. I'm brand new to your blog and enjoy it very much. The stuff on bees is very interesting too.

    1. Thanks, Sande - should be more bee stuff in the spring. I was able to capture something like six swarms this past summer, and my little apiary has three hardworking top bar hives going. We'll see what they look like after the winter!

    2. You can actually see one of the hives in the background of the first photo in this post :)

  7. And I too came here via Ohiofarmgirl's site.