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.

IMG_5548 IMG_5549 IMG_5554 IMG_5556 IMG_5557 IMG_5558 IMG_5560 IMG_5561 IMG_5562 IMG_5563 IMG_5564 IMG_5565 IMG_5566 IMG_5568 IMG_5569 IMG_5570 IMG_5574 IMG_5575 IMG_5577 IMG_5578 IMG_5579 IMG_5580 IMG_5581 IMG_5582 IMG_5583 IMG_5584 IMG_5585 IMG_5586 IMG_5587 IMG_5589 IMG_5592 IMG_5594 IMG_5596

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

Advertisements

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

 

IMG_1936

coconut oil

 

IMG_1929

bacon grease

 

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

low fat is destroying us.

Sorry for the dramatic title. Not sorry for this PSA.

Low fat, no fat, and skim is not good for anyone, ever. Fat never hurt anyone. Fat, especially animal fats – like those found in full fat dairy, butter, and lard, is essential to the bodies development and functioning. Your body uses the fat you consume to make and transport the extremely important hormones that tell your body how to work. Your brain, your muscles, and your mood are all controlled by these little hormones, without them moving freely you become tired, lethargic, and moody.

Low fat products are finally becoming a proven link to obesity – read about it here and here. And organic full fat dairy is getting even more praise, finding it has much more omega-3s than conventional dairy.

In low/no fat products, the flavor is supplemented by all kinds of nasty stuff (usually sugar) because FAT IS FLAVOR.

I will now get off of my soapbox. Thank you for listening.