The 289 lb pig carcass laid on the chef’s counter, cut in half from torso to tail, bagged, and headless. The head, I heard, sat in the walking refrigerator outside the restaurant, where the delivery person from the farm left it a few minutes before I arrived.
Part of the curriculum of the class I taught during spring semester included meats and fish, and the art of butchering, a knowledge not associated with those of us who spend our time with flour and sugar, and building cakes and tarts, and I had a few weeks to learn a lifetime of skills.
For weeks, I had recurring nightmares of butchering the animals into inadequate and unrecognizable pieces, or having the slippery fish coming back to life to chew my fingers off as I tried to skin it in a classroom full of students.
At that point my choices were:
- Call in sick the day before each protein class and risk loosing my job,
- Take sleeping pills so at least the nightmares would go away, even if my skills didn’t improve,
- Spend hundreds of dollars buying entire hogs and countless fish, plus the refrigeration system to store them
- Or, Find experts who could instruct me in the art of butchering
So, I kept my job, sanity and dollars, avoided developing a drug addition, and secured an appointment with Peter, the sous chef at Beast and Bottle, a chef-owned restaurant located in Denver, to learn how to butcher pigs and lambs, as he does every Monday as part of their nose-to-tail program.
I had never seen a whole pig carcass, and the idea of chopping a whole animal, piece by piece, toe by toe, rib by rib, was troubling. The cut pieces of meat I get at the store sit alone, detached from the rest of the body, and they aren’t call pig or cow, they are called pork and beef, in an effort, I assume, to detach ourselves from its origins.
A light breakfast was all I could handle before my appointment with a murder scene. I was sure the horrific situation would have me gaging all morning, unable to stand up straight and concentrate on learning. I walked into the 10-square foot kitchen with my gaze to the walls, away from the animals.
“Good morning Paula,” chef Peter said with a bright smile, “Are you ready?”
Ready? If you mean ready to drop dead and have you call the paramedics, then yes, I’m.
Peter started by explaining that the hog and lamb had been killed a couple of days earlier and let to “age” so that the flesh was easier to butcher without blood flying everywhere.
“We get a whole hog and a lamb every Monday,” he said, as he chopped the pig’s trotters with his cleaver.
“The entire animals are used,” he said, “From the filet, to the skin and fat. We make our own salumi, chicharron, and use the feet and bones to flavor stocks, nothing goes to waste.”
He counted the ribs and began sawing in between to divide the shoulder area from the rest of the rib cage. We discussed meat uses and cooking techniques as he worked through bone and meat to divide the animal into smaller pieces.
“We smoke some tougher pieces of meat, after a 24 hour brine, to make porchetta,” he told me when I asked about a small round of crunchy outside, supple, almost creamy and salty inside, component of their pork platter.
He cut, chopped, sawed, breaking the once enormous animal into recognizable pieces. Chops, baby back ribs, spare ribs, back fat, tenderloin, all neatly laid out on the table, and the trash cans still crispy clean.
“I thought this was going to be a gruesome experience,” I told him,
“I’ve heard that before,” he said as he peeled the skin from the back fat like a surgeon,
“It feels very natural,” I said, “Oddly.”
After the hog, we moved on to the lamb as the kitchen got busy with cooks working on the prep for the night’s dinner service. I left the restaurant in awe, and admittedly worried, “You can’t do that,” I told myself, “you’ll get fired and waste a whole pig’s life in the process.”
Later my boss told me, “Oh no, you won’t get a whole animal, just a couple of big meat cuts per lesson,” he said, “plus a whole salmon, but you got that”
Can I butcher a whole hog now? No, absolutely not! And thankfully, that wasn’t the class lesson. Do I understand the importance of a good butcher and the respect for the entire animal we are butchering? Yes, Absolutely! And that was exactly what my students learned: The economics tied with whole-animal-utilization, the zero waste policy of an artisan chef, and the wonders that can come from going out of your comfort zone.