We’ve spent the past four days up to our elbows in either pig or pork. Literally. Part of me thought that the process of slaughtering and butchering a pig was going to be sad and disgusting. But it just wasn’t. It was intense and it was challenging and there absolutely was one sad part and one disgusting part. But that is nothing compared to the rest of the process, which was absolutely invaluable. This is the story of how it went. Note: I feel that pictures are absolutely necessary to this post, but some images are quite graphic.
Around 2pm, Lyndal and Steve’s friends came over to shoot the pig. After discussing whether to use a .22 or a shotgun, and how to kill the first pig while keeping the second calm, the six of us headed out to the pig pen. Lyndal gave Squeak a pile of acorns to munch on while their friend quickly and calmly loaded the gun and BANG! Bubble let out a short squeal and fell to the ground.
GATE! EVERYBODY GRAB A LEG! NO CHRISTINA, LET THE BOYS! DRAG HER OUT, QUICK! SOMEONE MAKE THE GUN SAFE! BUCKETS, GET THE BUCKETS!
Bubble was dead within seconds of being shot, but the muscles in her legs continued to thrash violently, making it tricky to grab on. Squeak barely noticed that anything had happened. She was eating acorns while we were outside the pig pen, holding Bubble still and collecting the blood from Bubble’s jugular, both to drain from the carcass and to use for blood sausage later. The four guys loaded the pig on to the back of the trailer and drove her around to the front of the barn to hang in the gallows. “You alright?” Lyndal asked as we walked across the warm, sunny field, back toward the barn. “Yup. Just a little adrenaline-y” I said, as that was the only way I could describe it. Watching Bubble get shot and collecting the blood was uncomfortable. But after that, the pig stopped being a pig and became a carcass.
After the pig is killed and before it’s butchered, it has to be either skinned or scalded to remove the hair and then gutted. Otherwise we would have hairy bacon and our tenderloins might smell like poo. If a farmer is going to sell the meat, slaughtering, scalding and gutting must be done at an abattoir. Since this meat is for personal consumption, it can be done at the farm.
The boys took Squeak to be scalded in a bathtub full of hot water while us girls skinned Bubble, who was too big to fit in a tub. Using a skinning knife and starting at her ankles, Lyndal and I carefully cut the skin away from the fat and meat. This took about an hour and required intricate knife work since we didn’t want to damage the meat or puncture the belly, where the organs were held. When we got to the head we stopped, cut a circle around the head, and removed the head and the skin from the rest of the animal. This went into a wheelbarrow to bury in a hole.
Next, a line was cut down the center of the body to expose the organs. Not going to lie, this was the disgusting part. It smelled like hot poop. Because it was hot poop. Most of what is inside the pig is a gigantic large intestine that looks like a very full balloon, about to explode. Lyndal asked me to press against said warm, gigantic poo balloon to keep it from falling out. This way, she could remove the organs that she wanted to use for pate and terrines. I stepped to the side and gingerly put one hand on the large intestine.
“No, I mean really hold it,” she said.
So I lifted the other hand and leaned into the sack. Am I going to barf? No, you’re not. We’re cool. You got this. FUUUUCK that smells bad. Oh my god. Stop being a baby. But my finger is sliding in. And if it explodes… A few minutes later we were done. It didn’t explode. The mass of intestines slid into the wheelbarrow. It was bad, but the impending shit storm never came.
Shortly thereafter the boys returned with Squeak. We compared pigs, shared about what each technique required, cleaned up and collapsed with a glass of wine and a plate full of cassoulet, made from last year’s sausages.
To get ourselves warmed up for the Day 2, day of marathon butchering, Zach and I had watched Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Pig in a Day, a DVD about butchering and preparing cuts of meat. The DVD was an hour an a half. While both instructional and exciting, it turns out they skipped some parts.
The first step to turning our two pigs into pork was to saw the pigs in half down the middle and then in to quarters so that they could be carried into the house where they would be butchered into cuts of meat. They skipped this part in the DVD. This first step took two hours. I was pretty bad at sawing. The handle got slippery with pig fat and it was a very awkward task, moving in and out of the gutted body cavity, but I tried. Zach picked up where I fell short. (Thanks, Zach!) I do think that we will raise and butcher our own pigs, but I am also keen on getting a fancy electric saw to make the job a little more bearable.
Once inside, we were set up so that Zach and I each had a half a pig and Lyndal had two halves. She would demonstrate on one half and we would watch, then we would each make the cuts on our pig. After staring at my pig for a few seconds, I had a Eureka! moment, “OOH! I think I found the tenderloin!” I did a little dance and pointed at it, nestled next to the ribs. I was very proud of myself for recognizing it from the DVD. “Cool, cut it out!” Lyndal told me. What? Stop. These pigs are their livelihood. They will provide meat for the next year, and here she is telling me, a totally inexperienced non-butcher, to go cut out one of the most prized cuts of meat. Just go do it. You’ll be fine. If you need help, just ask. That is kind of how they run things around here. They trust us to do a good job and to ask for help when necessary. It is wonderful to be trusted, but I often feel like, Who? Me? Do that? Okayyyy…. Which is exactly how I felt as I carefully cut away the connective tissue that held the tenderloin in place.
We cut tons of bacon sliced noisettes, deboned hams and removed ham hocks. We trimmed cuts from the belly and back and rolled them up for roasts, butterflied loins that would later but stuffed with pate, and cut up bits for stir fries, stews, and sausages. They butcher for the cuts of meat that they like to eat, which meant no chops and no ribs. Because they had not had good ribs. Okay, fair enough. But I make good ribs. So I took on making convincingly good ribs and Lyndal let us butcher them out.
This went on until both carcasses were gone, which was about 7pm. The sun had gone down and the foot and a half tall piles of bacon were threatening to fall over. Cutting boards and piles of fat littered every imaginable surface and each of us just stared at each other, knives dangling beside us, totally exhausted. Time to call it a day.
I by saying that this experience was intense and challenging. Carrying a quarter of a pig, or sawing through bone requires strength and the tiny knife work it takes to debone a piece of meat requires focus. It is no wonder that I was wiped out at the end of each day. I just had no idea how much work went into making something as commonplace as bacon. Just throw it in the pan, right?
We feasted on plates of huge ribs, mashed potatoes and Caeser salad. After a few bites, Lyndal pointed at her bone and said. “I like these.” Simple as that, and yet it meant loads to me. I represented Amer’ca well and won the approval of a farmer, our teacher, and fabulous chef.