Sunday, August 29, 2010

"The Pig Dies At Noon"

That's what the email said, just to ensure that the more squeamish guests would be arriving around 5.

The invitation landed in my inbox because Eve had emailed me, asking "do you know where a friend can get a pig?" and I directed her to Richard at Northwind farm, where they raise a variety of first-rate pastured meat. I get my belly from them (in more ways than one). In exchange for the pig hookup, I got to attend a special sort of barbecue. The kind that begins with a live pig, and ends with dinner. Tate, the host, thought it would be a good idea if all of his hipster Brooklyn foodie pals connected with their meat in an intimate and direct way, seeing exactly what it is that goes into bringing an animal to the plate. It was an interesting idea, and I was by myself that week, so the prospect of meeting some nice people while soaked in pig's blood seemed like a no-brainer. I charged both camera batteries (I have two now, because Claudia sent me one).

Richard and the pig arrived (a little after noon, actually) and he described how the pig would meet its end. He slipped a couple of ropes around the animal. Tate loaded the .22, and they worked out who would stand where. The picture below shows the moment where the pig figured out that the day was not going to go very well at all.

The was a bit of tumult as the animal came off the back of the truck, and I remember thinking for a moment as Richard yelled "Shoot it now! SHOOT IT NOW!" that there was a real chance that this whole operation could go off the rails, and end up with us chasing the pig through the woods while she became more feral by the minute. But Tate shot her twice in the head in quick succession, and that was the end of the pig.

She twitched a few times as they dragged her body into the woods, to a plywood platform Tate had built for butchering where children or the aforementioned squeamish wouldn't see it. There was a lot of blood.

That small burst of orange on the right is actually a giant colony of mushrooms, and I almost drove into a tree when I first arrived because they were chanterelle-like in color. Sad to say, they were not chanterelles.

We lifted the pig up onto the platform, and Richard cut its throat to bleed it out into a bucket. It's surprising how deeply and easily a knife will cut into a dead animal.

Cutting both back legs between tendon and bone, he threaded rope into those holes and we hoisted it up in the air for gutting.

These pictures and the light remind me of numerous Baroque paintings of the deposition from the cross that I studied and copied when I lived in Italy.

It's hard to pinpoint exactly the moment at which the pig transformed from an animal into meat, but by this time it had fully undergone the change.

Richard guided Tate through the gutting, beginning with making deep cuts all around the anus to separate it completely so that the intestines could drop out through the opening in the belly, and avoid any rupturing and unpleasantness.

He did a surgically gentle job, and the guts spilled forth efficiently.

The lack of blood made for an oddly clinical process; for the first time I understand what it is that surgeons do, and how they tell things apart.

We had a bucket waiting, though the sun went behind a cloud so the dramatic lighting disappeared.

Richard got deep into the cavity with the knife to liberate the heart and lungs, which meant the end of the viscera. Lungs are firmer than you think.

The heart was warm.

The empty gutted pig was food, no doubt.

We all put on ponchos, kindly provided by our host, to protect our clothes from gory spatter, and skinned it, per Richard's instructions. He left, since he had better things to do, and because from this point on we had some inkling of what we were doing.

This was due in unreasonable proportion to the anatomy classes I took back in art school, the many times I've taken various animals and parts thereof apart into smaller pieces, and my fervently held belief that confidence and momentum can substitute for actual skill and knowledge in a pinch. Here I am explaining the finer points of suine anatomy to my cohorts, based on no particular knowledge at all beyond a familiarity with things I've bought out of refrigerated glass cases. The pictures that follow–through the one of me holding the ear–were obligingly shot by Elias, who takes pictures professionally.

Here's Tate, about to separate the ribs from the spine so Sue and I can take them up the hill and cook them. I got the hams and shoulders off really easily, though they looked a bit ragged.

It was work, but remarkably easy and calm. We talked and cut and the pig came apart into recognizable pieces quite quickly. The heat of life lingered in the muscles. It was very matter-of-fact: neither overly jocular nor traumatic. Just real.

I'm not going to say that we did a great job–both definitions of "butchered" were appropriate–but there was precious little left on the spine when we were done. And all the rest was in a cooler with ice, ready to take up the hill to the kitchen and grill.

We strategized as we disassembled the carcass, thinking ahead to what should get cooked when and how, so that we could actually turn a pig into dinner in a timely manner. One of the things about pigs is that they do best with time-intensive preparations, ranging from two-day pulled pork to one-year prosciutto. So we thought a bit about how to make the most of a highly foreshortened window. Sue brought a miso glaze for ribs, and was pretty excited to get at them.

I was thinking about Fergus Henderson's crispy pig's ears. I cut the cheeks off as well, but it's worth mentioning here that as a young animal, this sow did not have a ton of fat on her; the belly was barely an inch thick and we ended up grinding it for sausage. Her cheeks were not so fat either, so my plans for guanciale were dashed.

We lugged the big blue plastic tub full of rough meat and ice up the hill, along with all the knives, beer bottles, and buckets of skin and guts, and got to work making dinner. First up, Matt and I ground various random boneless bits into sausage, using copious garlic, thyme, lemon juice, and fennel. It's what there was, and the result was tasty enough, if not emphatic. Since cleaning out the intestines was a job too ambitious for the occasion, we simply made patties and Matt grilled them.

While he did this I put the braised cabbage and baked beans I made earlier into bowls and scrounged up serving utensils for them. Corn bread, cole slaw, and other goodies appeared on the table.

I took the shoulders, rubbed them with a spice blend I had brought, and got a decent char on them while he ground sausage. Then I cut the meat off the bones and put it in our pressure cooker along with smoked chicken stock (which I also brought) and some various spices and condiments from their fridge. After an hour, I strained the liquid, pulled the meat apart, thickened the liquid with by reducing it with ketchup, mustard, some decent store-bought barbecue sauce, and then mixed it all together.

We had taken took both slabs of ribs–one with more of my rub, one without–and put them in a 200˚ oven, wrapped in foil. After a couple of hours, we took them out and finished them on the grill.

Sue garnished hers with her glaze and chopped scallions, I finished mine with the reduced cooking liquid mixed with leftover pulled pork sauce and scallions that I stole from her bowl.

It was all quite good. The pressure cooker and oven allowed us to enjoy persuasive versions of slow-cooked classics, and the seasonings worked. The sausage could have used more fat and more flavor, but we were in a bit of a rush.

The majority of the group stayed in or behind the house during the slaughter and butchery, splashing in the pool and tending to the many children at hand, so when things resembling food showed up, they all got very attentive all of a sudden. What was most interesting was the clear division between those of us who wanted to be present for the entire process and those who just wanted to eat; there were four or five of us who did all of the messy work of turning an animal into dinner, and around 20 who ate.

Now I understand that watching their dinner get two in the head, mafia style–with all of the attendant blood and twitching and guts–might be off-putting to some, but I was surprised that more people didn't want to see a bit more of the butchering, or at least talk about what went in to bringing the meal to fruition. As it was, nobody at all in the house seemed to have any interest at all in what we were doing, let alone a desire to learn or hear about what we did.

Having said that, the large number of small children in attendance may have had more than a little to do with the lack of greater audience participation.

There was no praise or thanks for the animal, though, or any public acknowledgment that this dinner was any different from an ordinary barbecue, which I thought was strange.

It looks like an idyllic summer garden party, right? It was lovely. And we few (we happy few, we band of butchers) all agreed that it was way less horrible than we imagined; it was interesting work and the we bonded over it. But the stated desire–to connect people directly with the nature of meat, and how animals become food–didn't really reach beyond those of us who were already sold on the concept. It clearly takes more pushing to get non-geeks over that experiential hurdle, but I feel that it's important to try. Meat is food that comes at a particular cost, and though is is extremely good to eat, people should be fully cognizant of the cost/benefit ratio when they eat it. Most meat eaters should eat less meat anyway, and those who really can't deal with watching the death and dismemberment of an animal should reconsider their carnivorous status.

Moving the life and death of most food animals far out of sight of most peoples' lives has robbed us of this much-needed perspective, and also removed certain rituals from our meals. Being mindful of the beings that we eat when we eat them has been one such casualty. This event was a welcome attempt to redefine nose-to-tail eating upward, towards owning the whole animal and its dispatch and consumption. This kind of meal should be more common, since it's the way humans have eaten from since we became human until very recently.

And, if we're all really really lucky, this can be the new benchmark for such gatherings moving forward, allowing the sort of people who can say the word "foodie" without gagging to sneer condescendingly at others who did not kill their dinner at their barbecue. Can't you see Martha and Ray-Ray getting in on it, selling special dainty yet easy-to-clean butchering aprons, and cheerfully demonstrating how to rip a chicken's head off with one twist? How about Emeril's "Bam!" brand Bunny Bludgeon™? It'll be awesome.


michael, claudia and sierra said...

very, but very cool
good for you

Eve Fox said...

Great post, Peter. Fascinating to see what took place before we arrived. I was surprised by how smoothly everything seemed to go.

Had I been there, I'd have been very interested in the butchering aspect though much less desirous of seeing the young sow lose her life to the .22. But in my defense, I will state that I did not actually eat any of the pig - somehow could not bring myself to do it.

You're right -- someone should have given some thanks for the pig that gave its life for all those burgers, sausages and ribs.

Regardless, I thought it was a very interesting exercise and appreciate your thorough write up and all the photos.

Julia said...

This is a really amazing post, Peter! Thanks for not holding back on the pictures (though I don't think holding back is your style!) You portrayed a small bit of what is involved when we have those ribs or pulled pork. I agree that if people had to be more involved in this heavy, strenuous task, we'd take our meat eating a little more seriously.
Good work.

cookiecrumb said...

Le Weekend, eh?
I'm impressed.

Heather said...

wtf, why does this only have four comments?

Fucking epic, Peter. It's true, too, that confidence and momentum go WAY further than actual knowledge, particularly when it comes to butchering animals en carcasse.

I really admire your tostones for going through with this (I have decided this is funnier than cojones or testicles). I am not surprised that you did it, but I am a little surprised that this post hasn't incited any limp-wrist blogger backlash or PETA rage.

I always want to butcher our pig prior to cooking so that everything doesn't just taste like the same smoke, but the crowd always wants to gasp a little at a whole pig, and well, you know how I am the crowd's bitch.

Anonymous said...

Bravo, Peter, bravo! (it's Jonny from WANF) A visceral experience worthy of a great post! Two things really struck me about it in particular: firstly, just how crimson the pig's blood was, and secondly, how much I despise hipsters. (Isn't it bad enough that they ruin large swathes of Brooklyn, must they get invited to a pig slaughter and have the audacity to skip the main event too?!)
Seriously, I'm glad you mentioned the apparent lack of thanks for the pig's life. I remember being on holiday in Scotland once and seeing some lambs being loaded into a truck and sent off to the slaughter house, and wondering (even then as a zitty teenager) whether I might end up eating one of them that Sunday. It's a peculiarity of meat-eating that most people can barely conceive of what they're eating having ever been alive, and to have witnessed it in both states, as well as the transition, is all too rare. I also appreciate the "graphic nature" of the photos. By the way, did you purposely leave out the, um, shot of the pig being dispatched, or did you not snap that action? Either way, it may have been a smart editorial decision.

rich (them apples) said...

That's fascinating.

I think posts about experiences like this are important, in an age where too many people don't realise that the shrink wrapped meat from the supermarket really came from an animal.

Kay said...

linked this to my post today on being "ready"