the biggest little city in a gold buick.

(this story started here…) Long before the joy of Reno 911 came into my life, I got to experience “The Biggest Little City” sitting in the passenger seat of a big gold Buick. This Buick was driven by a highschool friend who was living there with her mom during one of those “break from life” moments young people have every-once-in-a-while. We were both 19. I had graduated high school a year prior, she had just taken a break from college after two years. She was one of those amazingly smart kids that got the principal’s permission to graduate early and start college. I was awed by her ambition, drive, and fortitude. She picked me up in that big gold Buick, complete with a boombox on the bench seat because the radio didn’t work, and I regaled her with my horror stories of Phoenix.

We were a-flutter with teenage energy, nearly jumping out of our seats while talking. We pulled up to her mom’s house: a fairly new two story concoction, not quite as horrific as the architecture of Phoenix but it still wasn’t the gorgeous 100 year old brick and mortar of home. I was still getting used to what “new construction” looked like. The house was comfy, her mom was gracious (as always), and we quickly went upstairs to her bedroom and found ourselves laying on the bed and joking about everything. Then she pulled out this book and was like, “let me read you this story.”

At the time I thought nothing of it, but in the years past I have thought of it so fondly and repeatedly wished she would read to me all the time. Being read to, especially by someone that is good at it, is amazing. It was normal before the invention of TV, now it is weird and unheard of. The best part, it was David Sedaris’ “Barrel Fever” that she had pulled out. I rolled on the floor laughing as she read the story called “Season’s Greetings to our Friends and Family!!” and almost died when she got to the now famous “SantaLand Diaries.”

It was the perfect catharsis for my failed trip to Arizona. A friend, a comfy house, a million laughs.

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The next day, my friend and I decided to dine at Romano’s Macaroni Grill, mostly because she worked there part-time – as there was a severe lack of cool-hip-independent restaurants in Reno. We sat down and ordered our Spinach Artichoke Dip – this was back when the phenomena was just beginning – and she looked me straight in the eye and asked, “Do you think I’m a failure?” At that moment I could have collapsed. From what? I’m not sure. Surprise, maybe. Or possibly confusion.

This woman that I saw as independent, confidant, interesting, bold, and not afraid to do what she felt was right for her life (i.e. leaving high school early, going to an “alternative” college, moving around the country) was looking at me for approval. I didn’t feel deserving, at all. And I certainly didn’t understand why she didn’t see herself the way I did. It was a definitive “ah ha” moment where I saw the first inkling of what I now know of as perspective shift.

I saw her one way. She saw herself another. We both were looking at the same person, with the same values, making the same choices. One object, two perspectives.

Not clearly remembering what happened next, I can tell you that I told her what I saw. I told her of what those same life choices she saw as failing, were the ones I saw as amazing and awe-inspiring. This was also the beginning of that adult moment when you begin to realize that not everyone is inside your head thinking the same things along with you. I just took my perspective as “the truth” or “reality” – but I was starting to figure out that those things are all very subjective. Don’t worry. It was just the beginning. I have had to (and continue to) learn that lesson many, many times again.

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After the mind shattering conversation at the Grill, we roamed around Reno a bit – checking out a casino, the downtown Riverwalk, going by the “Biggest Little City” sign, the mall. It was all still so new to me, the West. The layout of the cities, the architecture, the flora and fauna. After a few hours of this, we were both pretty bored. My friend suggested we go up to Lake Tahoe and camp for the night.

Camping!! Cool!! I’d seen that in movies (my family wasn’t really a camping family). Oh, I guess I camped once in eighth grade with my “boyfriend.” One of those uncomfortable moments when he tried to kiss me and I ran away and slept in a friend’s tent. I didn’t understand any of that stuff at that age.

Anyway. Back to Reno and Lake Tahoe…so we loaded up the car, that big Gold Buick, with food and water and sleeping bags and hit the road. The hour long drive started in the parched countryside and wound up through the wooded foothills surrounding the lake. I had never been so close to such grandeur before. I had flown over the Rockies once, but to be driving up the windy cliff face at 40 mph was a totally different experience. And did I mention we were in a HUGE gold Buick. This thing took up about a lane and a half on this tiny two lane road that was cliff face on one side and a steep drop on the other. I can’t say I wasn’t totally scared out of my mind as we whipped around turns and passed cars. I began to understand those old cartoons where Wile E. Coyote drives himself off a cliff.

Safely making it to our destination *phew* we found a flat rock to set up camp. We gathered kindling for a fire and laid our things out before it got dark. But there seemed to be something missing – a tent. We didn’t have a tent. My friend seemed like this was normal, so I just put on my straight face and played along.

All the while I was freaking out!!! What if a bear bites my head off, what if a giant spider crawls in my ear, what if it rains?!! So as we drifted off to sleep, with the huge trees and star lined sky above, my fear melted into awe. It was too beautiful to be scared of.

For a minute at least – then I shoved my head into my sleeping bag, as far down as I could go – so no bears would eat it. I awoke to a dewy morning, surrounded by the birds and the trickling stream and the sun peaking through and I knew I had survived the night. Thank goodness.

 

 

a nosebleed in phoenix.

(this story started here…)

 

So I woke in my little metal frame bed in Flagstaff to the sounds of a hostel: mummering, zippers zipping, showers turning on, half-asleep bodies moving slowly around. I had done it, I had survived my first night in a hostel. Pretty much boring. For being as personable as I am, there is something about hostels that have always turned me off. I retreat in my shell, I don’t talk to anyone, I put up the wall – at that point I thought it was just because I didn’t understand how it all worked, but this has pretty much remained true throughout my life so far.

I packed my big ass green canvas pack – you know, the kind with a big metal frame and about 100 hanging straps and 35 different pockets. Like this – big, square, made in the early 70s:

green pack

I can still hear the jangle of those metal tipped straps hitting the frame and each other. And I can still feel the intense pain from walking around with it packed full of clothes, shoes, and my discman. I only thought about space, not about weight, when packing for the trip – but that lesson would be learned very soon.

With my green pack and Deltron 3030 on my headphones, I boarded a small bus (more like a large van) slated to take us to Phoenix as the morning dew was drying up. For the next two hours I watched the long pines and lush green change to short brush and dusty brown, and the temperature in the bus went up about 25 degrees. It was my first time in a desert, my first time watching a terrain change so drastically, and my first time in the place my father was born.

My dad was born in a small hospital in Phoenix while my Grandpa was working a saleman job there – a few years later his father, mother, and four siblings all moved up to the temperate and more hospitable suburbs of St. Louis. He doesn’t remember his time living there at all, but it lives on in the legacy of our family.  “Phoenix. That’s the place dad was born.”

My only contact in Phoenix was the biological sister of a friend who had grown up with an adopted family. They had recently reconnected, just before the birth of her second child. I don’t know how or why I thought it would be the best idea to stay with them, these complete strangers and their brand new baby – only that my friend was (and is) one of the most open-hearted and generous people I had ever met, and I assumed I would find them the same.

I called their house from a payphone at the bus station and the boyfriend gave me explicit walking directions, “Go north one block, our street is about eleven blocks down on the left. We are the fourth house from the corner, the door on the right.” Twelve blocks!!! What luck! In a few short minutes I would be delivered from the Phoenix heat to the open arms of some complete strangers, Huzzah!

What I didn’t know were two things: (a) Phoenix heat was in no way like St. Louis heat and (b) 12 Phoenix blocks was a whole lot bigger than 12 St. Louis blocks.

St. Louis’s thermostat generally tops off around 95 on really bad days, and though there is no escape from the humidity, you would almost always find your path crossed by the shade of a few of the 1000’s of trees in the Greater Metropolitan Area. Phoenix was hotter, dryer, and sunnier. I don’t think they even have trees there.

I trudged my first block with the 55 pound (oh, I weighed it later that night) pack on my back and many many curse words in my mouth, realizing it was the longest block I had ever experienced. By block four I was sweating profusely, getting a little dizzy, and sort of freaking out. Well, this must have shown on my face because moms in SUV’s started pulling up and asking if I wanted a ride.

I refused them, out of my “don’t get in a car with a stranger” policy. But for cripes sake!! What was wrong with me!?! They were nice soccer moms with big hearts. Many of them couldn’t believe I said no and stared at me shaking their heads as I walked away. I guess they knew just how dangerous that heat could be – I had no idea.

Finally I reached the house, parched but still conscious.

+++++

Their little apartment was littered with toys, rightfully so – a thing I didn’t mind and was actually quite used to from having younger siblings. Their place boasted an outdoor pool and beautiful citrus trees growing all around – these trees and this pool provided the only good memories of my short time in Phoenix.

So I had a plan for my first full day in Phoenix:

-repack my pack and send home what I didn’t need, because I HAD to lighten the load

-go up to see a culinary school in Scottsdale (…I think it was the Arizona Culinary Institute)

I marked the first thing off my list fairly quickly, then on to the second – without the aid of GPS, the internet, or even a cell phone. How did I do it?!? I’m pretty sure I purchased a map and got a bus schedule. Weird huh? Armed with my guidance tools and a bottle of water, I hit the road.

It was another sweltering, insanely hot and sunny day in Lovely Arizona. No, really, Phoenix is a dusty bowl in the desert:

phoenix

I thought the phrase “fry and egg on the side walk” was funny and appropriate in St. Louis – oh no! it was meant for this little piece of hell.

While waiting for the bus I discovered the trick of spitting water on the ground and watching it IMMEDIATELY evaporate. It was cool! It was scary.

I boarded the bus with a few dusty people – no, really, they had dust on them – and found a seat near a Latino grandma. The foreign architecture rolled past the big bus windows. It was like Phoenix was made up of crappy apartment buildings from the 70’s. Ugly siding and nothing higher than four stories. Growing up in St. Louis and spending most of my time in the middle states, I had never seen a city that was so young before, one that wasn’t built around grand turn-of-the-century stone buildings with broad walkways, giant iron gates, and majestic spires.

Then the bus stopped. And wouldn’t start again. So we all sat in the sweltering oven of a bus until another one showed up. Then, a few blocks later, that bus stopped. And wouldn’t start again. As I exited the second broken-down bus my nose began to bleed, bright red blood trickled down my chin onto my shirt and hands. I am assuming this was from the intense arid climate and dust. Either way, it was the awful icing on a shit cake.

At this point I was officially freaked out and very hungry, so I walked to a nearby Chinese Restaurant with tissue in my nostrils and tried to drown my sorrows in some fried rice. BUT no one warns you that Chinese food tastes different in other parts of the country – I mean it all comes from China, right?! I choked down my weird “Chinese” food and defeated, deflated, tired, and very hot I got on a bus going back to that little apartment with the pool.

I never made it to that culinary school in Scottsdale.

I have never gone back to Phoenix either.

from the beginning.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how I got here, (whatever “here” is: in Washington, in this small town, cooking in someone else’s kitchen, an author, a blogger, a chef) and been feeling like I want to explore the stories that brought me to this point.

It’s hard from me to do this chronologically – because I don’t think the human mind really works that way – but I will start back in the day.

A few weeks ago, I rode the Amtrak from Seattle to Portland and many memories were jostled inside my head. Mostly regarding the trip I took, when I was young and wide-eyed 19, around the country via the train in search of the right cooking school. Now, this sounds MUCH more poetic than it really was. I was actually just an anxious kid looking for a way to get out of the small town I grew up in. It should be noted that I never actually visited any schools during my month long trip.

Somewhere in my young life I heard about the Amtrak Rail Pass (still in existence, but a little different now) where you could ride as many trains as you wanted in a 30 day period for about $600. Seemed pretty damn epic at the time, actually it still seems pretty epic. Unlike the Euro Rail Pass, I couldn’t just hop on any ole train any ole time – I had to plan out my trip ahead of time and then get all the tickets printed out. But….I could change the tickets at any time during my trip. So really, effectively, I could get on any ole train any ole time.

+++++

The first leg of my journey began through the Southwest – on the Southwest Chief. I got a sleeping car for this 27 hour trip (thank god) because of a slip up from gentleman that printed my tickets. It was the longest, and most comfortable, hours in a row that I would be on a train for the whole trip. After that I would master the art of taking up two seats to sleep across or finding a comfortable corner of the sightseeing car.

The sleeping car was more like a closet with two seats and a tiny table – flanked by a sliding door, and a huge window. Not a spacious and beautiful room you saw in old movies.

northbynorthwest2

At night an attendant came and pulled down a bed from the ceiling, making my sleeping spot, basically, a little metal train coffin that rocked back and forth all night. Truly one of the weirdest nights of sleep I’ve ever had.

+++++

The first major stop on the line was Albuquerque. It was a “stretch-your-legs-and-have-a-cigarette” kinda stop. So I wandered off the train and around the rosy pink Spanish colonial style building, where native people were selling jewelry and wares as they must have been doing for quite sometime.

FHAlbuquerque

This was my first time being in the Southwest and I had momentary culture shock, I certainly felt like I was in another country. The people, the buildings, the air – everything was so different. A little loopy, I hopped back on the train and we headed towards my stop: Flagstaff.

Flagstaff was actually just a way-station to my first real destination, Phoenix – but the train didn’t go that far south, so it required a short trip on a bus. I stayed a night in Flagstaff.

This little college town afforded me my first hostel experience, my first time in the mountains, and my first night on a long and mostly solo journey through the States and Canada.

As I laid extremely stiff in my tiny hard bunk bed, sore from a far too heavy pack and long walk, I thought, “Well, I guess this is it.”

 

 (the story continues here…)

Spring Events.

claramoore:

My events coming up in St. Louis and Grand Rapids.
Come buy my book, Take a class, and Shake my hand!!! I would love to see you.

Originally posted on Shop Like a Chef - A Food Lover's Guide to St. Louis Neighborhoods:

Spring has officially Sprung and we will be making our rounds with the book, cooking class, and lots of other fun events!!

Please join in St. Louis and Grand Rapids for all the food and fun.

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ST. LOUIS

May 18, 2014 – 10:30am-3pm Book and Mustard Sales at The Kitchen Speakeasy

My Orange House (3100 Potomac, 63118)

May 20, 20142pm Presentation and Book Signing

Grand Glaize Branch Library (1010 Meramec Station Rd, 63021)

May 22, 201411am-2pmCheese Making Class

My Orange House (3100 Potomac, 63118)

GRAND RAPIDS

May 27, 2014 – Radio Interview

May 28, 20147pm Fundraiser “Iron Chef” for Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra

The Ambassador Ballroom at the Amway Grand (187 Monroe NW, 49503)

May 29, 20146pmVegetarian Comfort Foods Class

Downtown Market (435 Ionia Ave SW, 49503)

May 30, 20146pmVegMex Class

Downtown Market (435…

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Holy Granoly.

Most of my life I’ve been like, “What’s the big deal about granola!?” Even when we made it at Local Harvest, I thought “this is good, but….I don’t get it.”

Until recently when I couldn’t afford $4 boxes of cereal (and frankly didn’t want to eat that sugar laden, preservative filled, GMO’d stuff) and needed another option. Once I made my own granola, I was blown away by how delicious it was. Maybe because I made it myself, or maybe because I took care in choosing the ingredients – but whatever it was, I hadn’t eaten granola so satisfying before.

Since I started making granola in my own kitchen, I can’t stop eating the stuff. And I can change the flavor as much as I like and I control the ingredients completely. After about five months of eating it, I’m not sick of it yet.

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Granola is simple. Generally it is just oats (old fashioned rolled oats – not instant or steel cut) and nuts, covered in a mixture of sweet (sugar, molasses, honey) and fat (oil, butter) then baked for a short time. I recently made three different granolas, to show you the range of fats and sugars you can use – as well as the different things you can throw in, from nuts to dried fruit. These recipes yield a very small amount of granola, I usually make about 3 or 4 times this much and it lasts for at least a month in an airtight container.

The basics of granola making are: heat sugar and oil mixture (with other flavors if you desire), stir into oats and nuts, spread on cookie sheet(s) and bake at 250 – 300 degrees for about an hour, mixing and rotating often. Once it has cooled, mix in dried fruits, chocolate, or anything else you want to use raw.

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Honey Butter Granola

This is a light granola with a subtle flavor, the honey gives it just a slight sweetness.

1/2 c honey

4 Tbl butter

1/2 tsp vanilla

pinch of salt

2 c oats

1/2 c pecans (raw and chopped)

1/4 c sunflower seeds (I used roasted, but you can use raw)

1. Place honey, butter, vanilla, and salt in a small pot – heat until butter is melted and everything is combined.

2. Place oats, pecans, and sunflower seeds into a bowl – stir in honey butter mixture.

3. Once well mixed, spread onto cookie sheets in a thin layer and place into a 250 degree oven.

4. Turn pans stir granola every 20 minutes for an hour. The granola will still seem soft, but once it dries it will harden into perfectly crunchy granola.

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Molasses Hazelnut Granola

This is a darker granola, with a richer flavor. I love using unsulphured molasses for it’s complicated flavor and it nutrients. Reminds me of gingerbread a little bit. 

1/4 c brown sugar

2 Tbl unsulphured blackstrap molasses

2 Tbl grapeseed oil

1/2 tsp cinnamon

pinch of salt

2 c oats

1/2 c hazelnuts (chopped)

1/4 c flax seeds

 

1. Place brown sugar, molasses, oil, cinnamon, and salt in a small pot – heat until everything is combined.

2. Place oats, hazelnuts, and flax seeds into a bowl – stir in sugar oil mixture.

3. Once well mixed, spread onto cookie sheets in a thin layer and place into a 300 degree oven.

4. Turn pans stir granola every 20 minutes for an hour. The granola will still seem soft, but once it dries it will harden into perfectly crunchy granola.

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Super Seed Granola

This is called Super Seed, not only because I used a couple different kinds of seeds, but I also used a Garden of Life product called Super Seed to add flavor and fiber to this granola. This granola uses coconut oil and agave, giving it an interesting flavor.

*Note: you can replace the 1/4 c brown sugar with 1/4 c agave.

1/4 c brown sugar

2 Tbl coconut oil

2 Tbl agave

pinch of salt

2 c oats

1/4 c Super Seed

1/4 c sesame seeds

2 Tbl pinenuts

1/4 c pepitas

1. Place brown sugar, agave, coconut oil, and salt in a small pot – heat until everything is combined.

2. Place oats, Super Seed,sesame seeds, pine nuts, and pepitas into a bowl – stir in agave oil mixture.

3. Once well mixed, spread onto cookie sheets in a thin layer and place into a 250 degree oven.

4. Turn pans stir granola every 20 minutes for an hour. The granola will still seem soft, but once it dries it will harden into perfectly crunchy granola.

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Go crazy! Try anything! Let me know how it works out.

And if you don’t want to make your own, Sarah Kate makes amazing granola for sale various times of the year – I suggest getting yourself a bag (she evens ships it).

make your own crackers.

For the love of trying to do everything myself (and the necessity of not having very much money) I ventured into cracker territory about a month ago. What resulted was delicious, pretty easy, and lasted for a long time (like three weeks in an airtight container).

My favorite part is: the resulting cracker was just a blank slate for whatever I wanted to sprinkle on top – like sesame seeds, flax seeds, poppy seeds, cracked pepper, cracked mustard, parmesan, rosemary, garlic, and on and on.

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The dough is easy enough to make:

(for a fairly big batch, feel free to cut it in half)

3 c flour

2 Tbl sugar

2 Tbl salt

4 Tbl oil (any kind really)

1 c warm water

Just mix in sugar and salt with flour, throw in oil and warm water and mix!!! Once all incorporated, knead for a few minutes. Then you will have this:

Your ball of dough. If you use the entire recipe, you should separate your dough into 4 balls.

Your ball of dough. If you use the entire recipe, you should separate your dough into 4 balls.

Cut each ball into 6 pieces.

Cut each ball into 6 pieces.

Put pieces on a lightly floured surface and roll.

Put pieces on a lightly floured surface and roll.

Roll until it is paper thin. No, really....paper thin - it's not that hard and it's the difference between crisp and chewy crackers.

Roll until it is paper thin. No, really….paper thin – it’s not that hard and it’s the difference between crisp and chewy crackers.

Slide rolled dough onto a pan.

Slide rolled dough onto a pan. (Not pictured: Be sure to prick the dough with a fork all over (docking), you’ll see why later.)

Cut into strips (a pizza roller works best).

Cut into strips (a pizza roller works best).

Cut the other direction.

Cut the other direction.

Bake at 450 for just 5-10 minutes, or until the crackers are nice and golden.

Bake at 450 for just 5-10 minutes, or until the crackers are nice and golden.

Below are the difference between the dough that has been docked (pricked with a fork) and the dough that wasn’t:

Crackers without docking (being pricked with a fork). They are all puffy and uneven.

Crackers without docking (being pricked with a fork). They are all puffy and uneven.

Crackers that were docked. Nice and flat and much crisper with an even brown.

Crackers that were docked. Nice and flat and much crisper with an even brown.

 

Crackers for Everyone

makes about 100 small crackers

3 c flour

2 Tbl sugar

2 Tbl salt

4 Tbl oil (any kind really)

1 c warm water

1.Preheat oven to 450.

2. Mix dry ingredients (flour, salt, and sugar) in a large bowl.

3. Pour in oil and warm water, mix with a fork until the liquid is incorporated.

4. Mix with your hands until the dough is uniform, and then knead for at least 2 minutes.

5. Separate dough into 4 balls, and let dough rest for about 10 minutes (if it is dry, you might want to place a damp towel over the dough).

6. Cut each dough ball into 6 pieces.

7. Roll out each piece on a lightly floured surface until paper thin.

8. Slide the rolled dough onto a tray, dock the dough with a fork, and cut into the size crackers you want.

9. Place into oven for 5 minutes, rotate the tray and cook for another 5 minutes. Check and keep cooking until the crackers are golden brown. They may be a little soft when they come out, but as they cool – they will crisp nicely.

(Note: if you want to add toppings, I usually wet the dough with egg or water (using a pastry brush or small spoon) after step 8. Then I sprinkle whatever I want on top (sesame seeds, salt, poppy seeds, flax seeds, etc).

 

Crackers!!!

Crackers!!!

 

The Pig Harvest

(Warning: This post has graphic descriptions and photos.)

Last Tuesday April 15th, as a birthday present to myself, I participated in the slaughter, scalding, scraping, and eviscerating of two seven month old female Tamworth pigs.

The poet in me pondered the fragility of life. The chef in me thought about the delicious possibilities. The writer in me wanted to suck up any lost knowledge from this old world practice. The home cook in me wanted to use every little piece as to not waste even the bristles of this beautiful creature.

I showed up for the Pig Harvest at 9:30 am, to a little farm on Vashon Island (for those that don’t know, it’s a small and quaint island right off of Seattle – known for its slow pace and organic farms). I really had absolutely no idea what it would entail, sometimes I like things that way, with a little mystery. I was greeted by the owner of Farmstead Meatsmith, Brandon, and his apprentice, Joshua.

We, all six students, were led to a penned area in a wooded corner of the farm where two pigs ran around happily. They rooted in the earth and ran back and forth in hopes of getting food from us.

With a simple 22 mag rifle at his side, Brandon stepped over the fence and began to explain the first step in slaughtering a pig – which begins the day before. “I am sure to deny the pigs water for up to 24 hours before harvest and we deny them dinner the night before. This way they are hungry and thirsty, which serves two purposes: (1) you can lead them wherever you want with food and (2) once you get drinking water, they will be completely still.  While drinking is the only time a pig’s head is still for more than a second or two. This is imperative to be able to take the kill shot.”

One precise shot 2 inches above the space right between their eyes. “You only get one chance before it gets real messy.” After many minutes of tense yet serene waiting, we all hear a pop and the pig looks up stunned and begins to quiver. Brandon, without a moment of hesitation, goes to one side of her, tips her towards him, and deftly sticks her with a long thin bladed knife into her throat. “This would be the time you would catch blood for blood sausage,” he explained as we watched an thick arch of blood spill from the neck of the pig onto the ground.

And it kept coming. The pig kicked with postmortem convulsions, and it kept coming. Brandon kneeled on her neck and massaged her throat, and it kept coming. “I have severed the two main arteries and the heart is still pumping the blood out – this is good, this is what we want. Blood spoils the meat.”

This lean and athletic pig, a Tamworth, can be traced back to Eurasian boars and is one of the oldest breeds from Europe. These pigs, identified by their ginger coats, are great for bacon and raised as foragers – so they are great for small scale farms that can turn them lose on their blackberry brambles and other pesky weeds.

Once she stopped kicking, we took turns cutting a few slits near her feet for hanging hooks and drug her to the butcher site. This area was equipped with a small table, a 50 gallon drum filled with water sitting on top of a high-pressure turkey burner, some knives and a sharpening stone, and a cable hanging from a little crane arm with a winch (though sturdy tree branch would work just the same.)

The water sat at exactly 145degrees and we dunked the pig, one half at a time, for about 5 minutes. “This is the magic formula,” Brandon said and went on to explain that through much trial and error he came up with the 145degrees for 5 minutes equation. As she was raised out of drum for the first time, we were handed scrapers (a concave disk on a wooden handle, pictured below) and told to just start scraping wildly – which we did. With vigor. This red-haired pig quickly became the pink skinned beast we are all so familiar with seeing. The scraper was pulling the hairs out at the root while the skin was still malleable. The stubborn bristles got a close shave from a sharp knife. If you wait too long the skin begins to shrink and dry, making hair removal close to impossible.

As the second side was being dunked, Brandon explained to us what the next steps would be: once she is fully scraped and shaved, we would take the head off, take the guts out, and finally, saw the body into two halves. Simple.

The head, much like the ones I have seen laying on tables in Mexican markets, has always drawn me in. The incredible flavor and diversity of its uses are astounding. I asked Brandon’s assistant, Joshua, to show me how to remove the jowls (made into the prized guanciale) and I got a chance at removing the inner ears. Brandon gave us a run down of making head cheese (as a chef, I love a run down – recipes take too long to read) for both a boiling and roasting method.

As the harvest of the second pig began I had much more time to think and observe. The thing I found most striking about the process, for me at least, was working with something that is body temperature. I have cut up much flesh in my day, but all of it cold. There was a life and warmth to holding the just recently working entrails, or scoring the not-yet-cold flesh with a sharp knife. I felt a sense of connection to this living thing, instead of modern detachment.

I know most would find this process revolting, horrible, and disgusting – but Brandon and Joshua’s respectful attitude towards this animal, an animal that would sustain the small family that owned her, and the natural setting in which it was preformed filled me with sense of wholeness. To participate in an act that we all passively engage in everyday, was a relief – like cooking your own food or gathering your own fruit. Thousands upon thousands of years of humanity were recalled in me in these moments and being a part of transformation of animal to meat – an essential human survival skill up until rather recently – gave me a sense of connection to the world around me.

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There are great videos on their website http://www.farmsteadmeatsmith.com/.

Fat. The building block of cooking and flavor.

You can’t stay away from it – fat is a basic in cooking. Unless you want to spend you life eating steamed vegetables, you have to figure out what kind of fat to use and when.

Questions about cooking oils are probably the most common in my cooking classes. Everyone seems to be mystified by what is healthy, safe, and when to use what where. We are daily bombarded with the newest, greatest, healthiest, most sustainable oil out there. Just as often we are told, “what we told you yesterday was wrong, actually that oil you were using is awful for you.” You can find conflicting scientific information on just about every form of cooking fat, from Olive Oil to Margarine.  How the hell are you supposed to tell which is best for you?

With so much contradictory information my general fall back is two things, (1) do what humans have been doing for a long time and (2) think about the quality of my ingredient.

(1) Humans have been cooking for about 2 million years, using olive oil for about the last 4,000 and cooking with lard since prehistoric times. These are just a few examples, but my point is: if it’s new (i.e. canola, vegetable oil, or crisco) I tend to stay away from it.

(2) Ok, so if people have been cooking with olive oil for a long, long time – it must be great to use. Well, yes, mostly. The problem with modern olive oil, especially after becoming EXTREMELY popular in this country over the last 20 years or so, is that it is ultra refined (using all kinds of gnarly chemicals), illegally cut with other questionable oils, and/or old and rancid. So, yes, the Romans stayed beautiful and smart and thin with the use of olive oil, but, no, it is not the same stuff you can buy in a 14oz green glass bottle on the shelf at your neighborhood Shop ‘n’ Mart. Doesn’t matter how “good” an oil/fat is for you if it is of terrible quality and stripped of it’s nutritional value.

 

The Basics of Cooking Fats

There are a few basic things that I think modern science has been able to pinpoint and this is information you can use wisely: the science of saturation.

Unsaturated fats, like olive, fish, flax, most nut, peanut, and sesame seed oils, are actually good for you and the functionings of your body. In moderation.

Saturated fats, this includes all animal fats, coconut, and palm oil, are being proven not to be “bad” for you, but not as good as the other stuff. Just like all things, in moderation.

Trans fats, the demon child of the scientific community and the fast food industry, includes anything hydrogenated. Hydrogenation is a process in which hydrogen is introduced to the heated fat to make it more stable and less likely to spoil. The most famous trans fat is margarine, but most trans fats are hidden in your processed or fast food – in the form of deep fryer oil or just about any added fat to processed frozen meals, boxed treats, or even your ice cream. (Learn how to spot them here.)

 

What I Use

Grapeseed Oil – this is one of my high heat, unsaturated fats I use for general cooking

Organic Peanut Oil – what I use for frying (mostly chicken)

Todd Geisert’s Lard – truly well sourced good fat, from the happy pigs at Todd’s farm in Washington, Missouri (it is FULL of Vitamin D)

Bacon Grease from Happy Pigs – I buy whatever free-range/pasture raised/no antibiotic/no hormone bacon I can get my hands on and then collect all the oil from the pan after cooking it, bacon grease is a wonderful and stable oil that sits in a jar by my stove and is virtually free

Organic Coconut Oil – generally I use this for my hair (I have dry curly hair) or for oil pulling, but I will find myself using it for a variety of reasons – from baking to searing to granola making

Organic Butter from Pastured Cows – it’s expensive, but butter is a luxury item and should be treated as such

 

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coconut oil

 

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bacon grease

 

I hope this helps shed a little light on this dark and confusing subject.