Looking Your Food in the Eye

The following blog is not suitable for Vegans, Vegetarians, or Pescatarians. It’s also not suitable for anyone still under the delusion that they live in a magical world, where meat doesn’t come from animals that once lived and breathed. Reader discretion is advised.

I wasn’t even paying attention on Thursday when it happened. I had made the decision weeks earlier, with a man I’ve dealt with before. My instructions were passed on from person to person, until my orders were officially carried out, by someone I will never meet. By the time I noticed the clock, I knew that it was complete. I had ordered the death of another living being. Tomorrow I would pick up my pig, and a day later I’ll be grilling bratwursts.

All Godfather-esque joking aside, on a scale of 1 to 10, how troubling was that for you? Have you put much thought into the process? Even locally and sustainably and organically raised meat was once “raised”, from a little baby animal into a bigger animal, then killed and cut into smaller pieces for us to eat. There’s absolutely no getting around that. I believe that part of Slow Food is being reflective about food, thinking through my food choices, and how my meat is raised. I like to have fun with it all though, and maybe take it to extremes. So about once a year, I buy a locally raised pig from a nearby farm, and then spend 3 days turning it into bacon and sausage and more. I call it “Pig Weekend”.

We held our first Pig Weekend not long after we moved to Connecticut. Some of my favorite cooking skills that I acquired over the years were for charcuterie: bacon, sausage, pates and terrines. After culinary school, I tried to keep my skills up with a batch of each, here and there. But once we moved to CT and I began meeting farmers, it looked like time to up my game.
My pig was not a heritage breed. No pedigree, no royal bloodline, just a regular pink piggy. He was sure raised differently than your average factory farmed animal though, and believe me that shows in the taste. I first met the farmer, Nunzio Corsino of Four Mile River Farms, at the Wooster Farmer’s Market in New Haven. On my first trip to the farm, he took me around to see some of his fields. I saw his cattle grazing on pasture, with plenty of space, with clean and healthy looking places to sleep indoors. When I left that day with my first pig, I felt great about the knowledge of where my food came from.

That’s not how most animals are raised for food in this country; I probably don’t have to tell you that. If you’re interested in learning more, I’d recommend The River Cottage Meat Book, by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. He’ll explain better than I can, what’s in the McRib sandwich that your coworker is eating next to you right now.

Each time I bring home my pig for Pig Weekend, I’m immediately confronted by just how big it is. This year’s topped the scales at 225 lbs, the first year that it weighed more than me. Cut into essentially two pieces, step 1 is to break it down into the “primals”, the sections your typical butcher shop or large restaurant might buy. Once I have it in 7 pieces, I can just barely pack it into my extra fridge, and work on one piece at a time.

And over the next 2 days, that’s exactly what I do. The belly is separated from the ribs, and goes into flavored salt and sugar cures, to be smoked and become bacon a week later. Steaks and chops and ribs are separated and packaged. The shoulder becomes roasts, the leg becomes boneless hams. The cheeks from the head go into a salt cure to make guanciale, and the rest of the head might become head cheese, depending on my mood. All along the way, every extra bit of meat goes into the sausage bowl, to become chorizo, bratwurst, and kielbasa.

The phrase “nose-to-tail” eating might be a bit too familiar these days, to the point where someone reads it without really pondering its meaning. Seeing a whole animal, with both a nose and a tail, on your kitchen counter, is a good remedy for that complacency. At this point I’ve seen where this pig lived, and frankly I’ve paid for it by the pound. So nothing goes to waste. We use “everything but the squeal”. Bones and trotters go into the stock pot. Any extra fat is rendered for lard. Ears are grilled and given to my two dogs, who at this point have been staring at me for 8 straight hours, without blinking, waiting for a treat.

It’s a lot of work, for sure. But like any hobby, it’s fun work. Similar weekends like this are a cultural tradition going back through the ages. Usually in late fall as the season turns, extended families would get together and process their pigs before wintertime. To get into the spirit of it, a fun cookbook to read is Pork and Sons by Stephane Reynaud. His French family owns a butcher shop, and keeps the tradition alive. Just like his family, we tend to drink and eat our way through the weekend, and make a nice party out of it.

If you’ve done a fair amount of cookery with grocery-store level pork, you’ll notice the differences in quality pretty easily. Unlike beef, there’s no such thing as dry-aging for pork. Fresher is better, and it shows in the taste. The visual differences are even stronger, the chops are marbled just like that fine Prime rib-eye steak. It’s a good sign that your pig was raised well, healthy and slowly, the only way to build up that marbling.

And when I reflect on it, that’s why I’m doing this. For the taste of that well-marbled chop? Certainly. But also for the knowledge that my purchase, allowed this particular pig, to live his particular healthy and longer than average life. Buying this pig allows that farmer to buy another, and that’s one more pig that will live a much better life than it could have in a factory farm. We’re going to eat 225 lbs of something over the next year. If I’m going to eat meat, I want my money to support the healthy environment that I believe in.

With that knowledge, I can sleep at night. And dream of bacon for breakfast in the morning.

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