I’m making bacon. From the belly of a pig that I helped butcher yesterday. Before you go any further, be warned that this post contains some graphic images. I thought long and hard about including the photos but finally decided to go ahead. Because, really, that’s kind’ve the point of this post, to witness and appreciate the reality of turning an animal into food. I decided to take this class, to learn how to butcher an animal, because I realized recently that if I could not bear to witness the reality of turning an animal into food, I do not deserve to eat meat.
Even though this post is about meat, I’m starting off with this shot of my breakfast. This is pan roasted potato, apple, and fennel on a bed of blanched Swiss chard, a sort of breakfast hash that I concocted this morning out of random leftovers and produce that needed to be used. It seemingly has nothing in common with bacon. Except, I suppose that hash and bacon are both commonly listed on breakfast menus. In fact, however, they have everything in common, where both this concoction and the bacon that is curing in my refrigerator were created with carefully sourced ingredients that were combined with love, attention, and the intent to nourish body and soul.
Writing this post was hard for me. I didn’t know where to begin. In the end, I started with the vegetable hash for a couple of reasons. In part because I feel guilty about publishing images of dead animals, worried about causing undue suffering in anyone who sees this post. Mostly, though, because this gorgeous dish was absolutely inspired by my meat-centric experience yesterday with Madison, Wisconsin’s Underground Food Collective (http://undergroundfoodcollective.org/) Because it’s all connected. Really.
It would be dishonest to pretend away the differences, of course, most obviously the fact that unlike the bacon, no animal died in order for me to make this meal. In fact, this meal, which consists of nothing except potato, apple, fennel, swiss chard, olive oil, salt, pepper, and water, to blanch the greens, is vegan. But I’m guessing some animals were affected by it, somehow, someway. Because I did not grow or harvest this food. It came from somewhere else.
The reality is that the truck this food came in on could have hit a possum on the road. Or maybe the people who harvested the produce are grossly underpaid. Water, our most valuable resource, was undoubtedly wasted to make this food grow and get to to my table.
I could go on imagining a parade of horrors for days. But I can’t. That path does not lead anywhere good, at least not for me. I need to be able to eat. So I will not allow myself to continue. Instead, I will focus on doing the best that I can. Which, for me, as a selfish creature who derives enormous pleasure from eating delicious food, lacks discipline, and gets shaky without regular doses of animal protein, involves eating meat.
Truly, I don’t eat very much meat, at least compared to many. Indeed, my diet is pretty bean-centric. But I eat more meat than many others. Which is difficult. Because I recognize the ethical issues. And I don’t want to be a hypocrite.
It was this desire to stop being a hypocrite that led me to sign up for the Underground Food Collective’s Whole Hog class. (http://shop.undergroundfoodcollective.org/collections/classes) The Underground Food Collective is a catering company, butcher shop/store, and restaurant, Forequarter, which, by the way, is a semifinalist for the 2013 James Beard Best New Restaurant Award. (http://www.jamesbeard.org/sites/default/files/static/additional/2013-jbf-semifinalists-twitter.pdf)
I haven’t eaten at any of the other semi-finalist restaurants, which is sad given that two are in Chicago. But I can attest that Forequarter’s food is out of this world good. Creative, fresh, lively, and ethical. So I was thrilled when I saw that the Underground Food Collective was offering classes. Especially when I finally got in–they sell out quickly. Which makes sense. Because they’re amazing. If you’re into such things. Speaking of which, note that the graphic photos are starting soon.
As the website explains, “[h]e goal of the classes is to provide a hands-on experience to the process. Whether it’s sausage making, curing whole muscles, or breaking down an animal, the participants have the opportunity to complete the process start-to-finish and ultimately take home their own product. The classes are held in our state certified meat processing facility at 931 E Main St.” (http://shop.undergroundfoodcollective.org/collections/underground-meats)
I signed up for the morning class, from 10 – 1. By the time I arrived, the excitement I felt Friday afternoon had morphed into trepidation. There were not only knives lying on the long butcher block table, but saws. I started trembling, remembering 10th grade biology class, when we were expected to dissect a fetal pig.
Suffice to say that my dreams of becoming a veterinarian died that day. Would I really be able to do this? I wasn’t sure. I wanted to. I was interested. And committed. Yet I also felt terribly, fallibly human. And scared. So I jumped at the chance when the teacher, Charlie, asked if anyone wanted to partner with him. Charlie was my safety net in case I couldn’t do it, if my hands refused to cut into the animal or if I had to leave the room to vomit, both of which happened in that long ago biology class.
So. To begin. Charlie started things off by having us, the 8 men and 3 women who had signed up for the class, introduce ourselves and say what we were hoping to get from the class. A corporate chef and one of his employees wanted to bring the knowledge into their kitchen. Several people had received the class as a gift, for birthdays or anniversaries.
One woman was there because she loves Forequarter, and had made this class one of her New Year’s resolutions. The other woman was there because she processes deer with her family every year, and wanted to take that knowledge to a new level.
I explained that I was there because of my belief that if I can’t bear to break them down, to witness what it means to turn an animal into food, then I don’t deserve to eat animals. I felt ridiculous in a way. But it also felt really good. Authentic. Charlie responded to my concerns by explaining that we would be butchering Berkshire pigs, a smaller heirloom breed sourced from a local farm, where they’d had good lives.
Finally, there was a man who works in the industry and has grown to become passionately opposed to factory farming. In the last few years, he’s begun raising heirloom pigs. This was the next step in his process of becoming.
After the introductions, we brought the first pig out from the cooler. As you might imagine from this photo, it was shocking. Yet, unlike the traumatic 10th grade biology class, there was no smell of formaldehyde. There was a smell of blood, but it was faint, clean. There was no revulsion. I stared leaning toward sorrow. Then I noticed a different feeling. Gratitude. I was grateful for the opportunity to meet this challenge on this beautiful, visibly healthy animal. I focused while Charlie walked us through. We would be breaking the pig into primal cuts, starting with the head.
Before making the first cut, you move the head around to find the space between the head and the forequarter, which is what the pigs shoulders are called when the animal has been broken down into meat. Charlie made these first cuts, using a knife to slice through layers of skin, fat, and muscle. Thankfully, there was no blood. This reality was still only the Disney version, as these pigs had already been slaughtered, bled, and gutted. I suppose my next obligation will be to witness the slaughter. But this was plenty real, especially the part that required a saw. The saw was necessary to get through the bone. Once we had detached the pig’s head, the next step was separating its (her?) midsection and forequarter. Unfortunately I did not get a shot of this part, which may have been the most interesting bit. What you see here is the final cut, through the spine. But first you put your hand inside the pig’s chest cavity to count the ribs. You then use a knife to cut, from the inside, between the 4th and 5th ribs.
I didn’t do it myself, because I was still trembling. But I watched, avidly, until I noticed that my nervousness had switched into fascination. I realized that I was going to be okay. I could do this. Because yes, this animal lived and died for human consumption. Which is an ethical minefield. But I was honoring this animal. I can do no more, at least not where I’m at right now in my life. And with that realization it became fun. It became food.
What you see here is the center cut, before and after being split open. Once it’s open, you take out the tenderloins, which lie on either side of the spine. You then cut the entire piece in half, which is what you see at the bottom of the photo. We first cut out the rib tips, that triangular piece along the top left.
Next, you separate the ribs by slicing under them horizontally. Here’s a shot of me, demonstrating. Because by this point I totally felt like a pro. Next, we took off the roast, which I think could become pork chops. But we left it whole. Starting at the top, you cut down until you meet bone, then, after scoring a line along the top of the ribs, you saw through the ribs. Then you cut down and remove the roast. Which leaves you with pork belly. At this point, I was so engaged at that I completely forgot to document the pork belly with a photo. But you can probably imagine what it looks like. We then squared the pork belly off into slabs of bacon. Which we got to take home along with ribs, pork roast, and tenderloin.
At some point during the day, although I don’t remember exactly when, we stopped for lunch, which consisted of polish sausages, rolls, sauerkraut, roasted fingerling potatoes, bean salad, pickled beans, and a salad of shaved carrot, celery, and pickled cauliflower. This is a poor photo. But I think it’s adequate to give you the idea. Charlie also brought in pastries, which of course I tried but failed to resist. Almond croissant. So. Good. I heard the scone was equally great. (http://madisonsourdough.com/bakery/) Yeah. Madison’s definitely got something special going on, as evidenced by the Underground Food Collective’s butcher shop, which I stopped into after class, before heading home. I won’t go on about it because this post is already crazy long, and I haven’t even gotten to the bacon yet. But if you’re in Madison, you should go. In addition to the pork that I took from the class, I came home with house-made pickled cherries, three kinds of dried beans, which I will post about in the weeks ahead, sausage, and smoked bacon. Because, while bacon was among the cuts that I took from the class, I don’t have a smoker. So I’m curing it with salt, in my refrigerator.
At the very end of class, after we’d divvied up our portions of the meat and the rest had been put into the cooler, Charlie gave each of us a recipe for cured bacon, as well as instructions and ideas for what to do with the other cuts. I didn’t take notes. But, as I said at the start, I came away filled with inspiration. So, when I came home, I made up my own cure, which is a hybrid of the Underground Food Collective’s recipe, Charlie’s instructions/advice, and a recipe for beef bacon in Paul Virant’s The Preservation Kitchen, which I happen to have from the library. (http://www.powells.com/biblio/62-9781607741008-0) Okay. Here’s the recipe, with proportions based on a standard sized pork belly. Mine was only 3 pounds, so I adjusted accordingly, but I think this will be easier to follow.
1 5 lb. piece of pork belly
3-1/2 oz. Kosher salt
1-1/4 oz. honey or maple syrup
1/2 tsp. dried thyme
freshly ground black pepper to taste — I used a lot
Wash and dry the pork belly. Combine the ingredients into a paste. Rub the paste into the pork belly. Transfer to a ziplock bag and seal. I had to use a paper towel to clear the zipper, so you may want think ahead and have one handy. I also double bagged, because the pork belly will exude water as it cures. I then put the whole thing on a platter.
I’m sorry to say that I didn’t photograph the process, because I completely forgot. I was tired. But here are a couple of shots from this morning. In the first image, you can see the pig’s nipples along the top. The skin is on now because it’s really hard to take off. According to Charlie, it will come right off at the end of the process.
This second image is more recognizeable as food, closer to what we see in the store. Which brings me to a full stop. It is remarkable to me that this bacon, which is now curing in my refrigerator, came from a pig that was killed this past Thursday. It’s sad that this should be so, that we, as a society, are so disconnected from our food that the reality is hard to believe. But I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to participate in the process. I believe this pig had a good life. I trust, because I have to, that it was killed humanely. And I know it is going to be delicious.
The curing process will take a few days. I’m supposed to turn the bacon every day, poking it after a few days to see if it’s gotten firm. Once it’s firm, I will remove it from the brine, rise, dry, and bake in the oven at a low temperature until the temperature reaches 140 and it smells done.
Typically, you would set the oven as low as it could go. But I didn’t have any #1 curing salt. Charlie said it would be fine but to make sure it’s cooked. So I’ll most likely set the oven at 225. And cross my fingers.