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/.

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4 thoughts on “The Pig Harvest

  1. Beautiful pictures. Thanks! I butchered my first hog in 1997, using a book and an old neighbor for guidance. Still have the book, and the butchering pages are still covered with bloody fingerprints. Going to butcher another one this fall, my first in many years. Can’t afford to have someone else do it any more, and I miss being part of the process. Thanks again!

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