Friday, December 24, 2010

A Whole Pig

I didn't kill the pig.

When you tell people you are going to butcher a pig, most people think that includes killing the pig.  But it doesn't.  Slaughtering the pig is the process of killing it, and that's handled by a USDA certified slaughter house.  Butchering the pig is the process of cutting it up.  Slaughtering is an efficient and mechanical process (when done right), but butchering is a creative process.

I'm getting ahead of myself...

Going Full Piggy
This all started because my family has been talking about getting a pig for a long time.  We already get whole chickens and have gotten a quarter of beef.  A pig seemed the next step. 

A few weeks ago my family did seven days 100% local. During that week we did not eat anything that was not sourced locally. The experience was interesting, fun, challenging, and enlightening. Some parts were easier than others and some were harder. One thing that came clear was that eating takes a certain amount of skill. It takes different skills than we normally work on in an everyday home kitchen. Cooking skills and presentation skills are nice--they create and refine the meal. But what we seldom work on are production skills. These production skills are normally left to other people, like butchers, and they add to the price of what we buy. The price of everything can be brought down if you learn to do some of the production yourself. Pound for pound, steaks cost more than a loin.  When price becomes an issue, as it can when eating locally sourced food, learning to buy big can help you spend smaller.

Through Foodbuzz, I found a local vendor, Eat Oregon First, that sells whole pigs.  Normally they sell to local Portland restaurants but they are starting to branch out into consumer direct sales.  So I gave them a call.

Here is the catch.  When you buy a hog from Eat Oregon First, you buy the whole hog.  And it comes whole, which is to say slaughtered but not butchered, because they normally sell to restaurants who employ talented chefs who know how to break down an animal (Eat Oregon First does sell amazing beef by the cut, but not pig). To take care of the butchering, I hired Tracey "Tray" Satterfield of the Portland Meat Collective.  She was my own personal butcher for the day, and she was awesome. (If you ever need of a personal butcher, contact Tray at

The Three C's -- From Country to Corpse to Cuisine
Let me digress for a minute.  When you look at it from the basest perspective, eating animals is all about killing something, cutting up the corpse into manageable pieces, cooking it, and eating it.  Most of us deal only with the last two parts of that sequence, but there is a lot that comes before.  With wild animals we leave the care and feeding to Mother Nature.  Domesticated animals are different.  With domestic animals, how they are raised and what they are fed is directly the responsibility of the farmer. 

Everything starts with how the animal is raised. 

Get A Life, Pig!
It is important to me that the meat I eat is raised "well".  What does "well" mean?  To be completely honest, I'm not sure. It's something I'm still working out.  But I do know that "well" begins with pigs having a life.  I understand that these are domesticated animals raised solely for the purpose of food production, but food is not just about meat in the same way meals are not just about eating.  A home is more than a house.  Family means something different than relatives. There is more to what we eat than what we eat, and how we approach the dinner plate has meaning.  For me, ethical meat eating begins with understanding where your meat comes from and how it lived before it became delicious.  Pastures are an important part of this.  Wind and rain too.  Mud and pigs go together in my book.  Knowing the name of the farmer that raised the animal you are going to eat is very important
This pig came from Payne Family Farm in Carlton, Oregon and was raised by Mark Payne.  I spoke with Mark Payne over the phone about his farm and his pigs (hence no pictures, sorry).

Mark Payne is a fourth generation Oregon farmer, located just outside McMinneville.  In the 60s, it became clear to the Payne family that,due to the changing realities of modern farming and agricultural economics, they had to move away from the diverse family farm and focus on something that could provide the volume.  The Paynes chose Pigs.  Mark believes in taking good care of his pigs--a decent life and decent death--while understanding that the economic realities of modern farming necessitate a certain amount of production volume.

Mark's pigs eat grain that is locally grown in the Tygh Valley in Eastern Oregon.  Through partnerships with Basque Ranch, Eat Oregon First, and Rogue Brewery, Payne Family Farm is able to be the final part of a completely locally sourced cycle of food production.  I'll have more about this in another post. It's really remarkable what these guys have put together.

Back To The Bloody Parts
When I arrived at the Eat Oregon First warehouse, the pig had already been delivered and Tray was just starting work. Half the beast was laid on the table in front of Tray.  The other half lay on a second table along with the head.  Tray was just beginning to make the first cuts.  

Cutting the side into portions was not nearly has hard as I thought it would be.  I'd seen the pig diagrams many time and even have a copy of Basic Butchering of Livestock and Game that describes very clearly how to process a whole animal.  However, looking at pictures and actually cutting an animal are different things.  I knew I didn't want to try to take this on my own.  Tray really made it all simpler.  She walked through the animal, showing me what the lines were, how to find them, where the divisions made sense.  Watching her make the cuts and comparing them to the drawings in the book brought it all together. 

Inside of a side of pork, head removed, before cutting.
Slowly, methodically, the pig carcass was turned into stacks of the most wonderful cuts of meat.  1.5 inch thick bone-in chops started piling up.  A Boston Butt was magically pulled from the animal along with its twin, the picnic ham.  We found bacon tucked in under a sheet of spare ribs.  Hams sat in a clustered huddle, hiding inside the legs.  Tray's cutting was so well placed, that we wasted almost nothing.  I was pressed to figure out what to use for sausage meat!

Cutting out the spare ribs.
Sirloin Chop

Wrapping was like a carnivore's Christmas. I was a ghoulish Santa, I driving home with a load of meaty presents.

Home Is Where The Heart Is, and the rib chops, and the...
Honestly, a whole pig is a lot of meat.  221 lbs. of meat in my case.  I filled both freezers and still had the head left over, sitting in the refrigerator, in a plastic bag.  This did not make my wife happy, and I was a little unsure what to do.  Everything was fresh so I knew it would hold in the refrigerator for a couple days.  But I needed to make a decision quick before I ended up with a rotten pig head in my refrigerator.

The answer came from Jane Grigson's book, Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery.  She has a simple pate recipe specifically for pig head.  Exactly what I was looking for!  Here is my modification to the recipe based on what I had on hand:

1.5 lbs. meat cut from the head (jowls)
0.5 lbs ground pork (I ground the trimmings and the heart together)
1 large egg
2 oz. Madeira
1 large onion
1 Tbs. flour
Salt and pepper and dried herbs

It was toward the end of the day that I took this recipe on.  I'd already ground up several pounds of trimmings and the heart for sausage meat.  I'd started a slab of bacon curing in the refrigerator (based on the instructions in Charcuterie).  My last task for the day was to deal with the head.  It couldn't wait.  The next day was garbage day and I didn't want to miss my chance to get rid of whatever was left over. 

I cut the ears off and gave them to my dogs. Then I got out my boning knife and started with the fatty cheeks because that seemed easiest.  Keeping the thin knife as close to the bones as possible, I peeled the meat away from the face, exposing the jawline and teeth and moving upward toward the cheek bones and the open eyes.  The tongue was in there; I could see left over food (or blackened blood) in the pig's teeth.  It had a distinct odor--not like rot or sour.  It had a strange smell like blood, fat, fresh meat, and bad breath all together.  It smelled in a way that was different than any of the other parts of the body.  Maybe it was the amount of glands that are in the head.  Maybe it was the tongue.  Either way, it made me take a step back and gather myself.  At this point I thought about skipping the head.  It seemed an unnecessary trouble--it was difficult cutting.  And the smell was getting stronger and making me sick.

Jonah was in his bouncy chair by the kitchen doorway watching the whole thing.  Kim and Hazel had gone Christmas shopping, so he stayed home with me.  He was smiling and bouncing and having a good time chewing on his hands and his toys and watching me trying to cut up a pig's head.  He was unaffected by the smell.  It didn't bother him at all.  He was having a great time doing his baby stuff right where he was.  I was the only one feeling sick.  I was making myself feel sick.   It was all mental.  Jonah wasn't sick, so why should I be?  After all, I choose to do this.  I requested this pig be killed for me.  He's not chomping on acorns and checking out the sows.  He's sitting in my freezers and in my refrigerator.  And his head is sitting, open eyed, on my cutting board, because this is what I wanted.  I had to finish what I'd started.  Throwing out a whole pig's head just because I didn't have the stomach to finish the job would have been...disrespectful.  Disrespectful to what I was learning.  Disrespectful to what I was trying to do.  And disrespectful to the pig.  That is not what I wanted this to be.

Pate. (colors adjusted a bit for poor lighting)
I gathered myself, stepped back up, and then the job became easier.  I had not use for the brains, so I didn't crack open the skull.  I've never liked head cheese either, so I didn't make that.  I got as much from the jowls as I could, took out the tongue, and went on to make my pate.

If you want to see pictures of the pig's head here are the links.  Warning: you might get grossed out.

Pig's head before.
Pig's head after. 

Over the next week, we had a dinner party for the solstice and the pate was well liked by everyone.  For that same party I did an 8-bone loin roast with a salt, garlic, and pepper rub that turned out great.  The bacon finished also.  The day was clear so I smoked it with hardwood outside, then cut it by hand and vacuum sealed half pound packages.

I'm working on a brown sugar glazed ham for Christmas dinner--it's brining in the refrigerator right now.  The Christmas ham--I guess I really was wrapping presents.