Tonglen for Thanksgiving. Also, a ham and links to many recipes.

Early this morning, after starting water for coffee, I put a ham in the oven. For Thanksgiving. Which I’m celebrating this year at home, in Chicago, with a small group of dear, long-time friends.

I have so very much to be grateful for. The group of friends who are coming for Thanksgiving, the core of my urban family. My biological family in Florida. Satisfying, interesting work. Exceptional yoga teachers. Robust health. So much that to list it all would take my entire day, which I need to spend in other ways.

So maybe for now I’ll just focus my gratitude on Slagel Farms hamthis ham. It’s from Slagel Farms. I’m hoping it had a pretty good life. And I’m certain it will be delicious both on its own and then later, when I use the bone for some form of bean soup. This sort’ve ethical (I eat meat with qualms) ham was also affordable, because a friend from yoga invited me to join her and another friend in ordering directly from the farm–we all agreed that 15 dozen eggs divided among the three of us was not crazy. At least not right before Thanksgiving, a holiday that for me is almost entirely centered on cooking a traditional feast that calls for large quantities of eggs.

As I’ve said here before, there is little that makes me happier than cooking for people I love. Therefore yesterday, as I made cornbread for dressing, gluten free pie crusts for pecan pie, and cranberry orange relish, and while I rubbed salt and organic coconut sugar and black pepper into the very expensive organic turkey that another friend and I bought through the food co-op that I hope one day will form here in Chicago, I danced in the kitchen. I felt joy.

Side by side with the joy and gratitude, however, upwelling into unexpected spaces, I also felt, still feel, grief and anxiety.

I feel grief because the man I’m in love with is no longer in my life, because one of my sisters died far too young, and because I’m in the process of releasing so many delusions about who I am, what my life is, how I fit into this world. I feel grief about the state of our world, for all of those who are suffering untold horrors. For the contemptuous ways in which we humans too often treat each other and ourselves. And I feel anxiety over who knows what. The state of the world, yes, but also for some nameless unknown. In my life, anxiety comes in tiny waves that roll relentlessly through my small self, constant stories about this and that, him and her, me, them. It is the background music of my life.

Looking back, I think I’ve always been anxious. Indeed, at my sister’s memorial service earlier this month someone who knew Valerie long ago told me that her (this woman’s) babysitting career ended because of me. Apparently I would not stop crying no matter how she tried to comfort me. I was too young to remember that particular episode, but I have countless childhood memories of curling up with various pets, finding solace from the storm of feelings that I did not know how to handle and that no one around me was equipped to understand or resolve. It was the 70s.

As a young adult I found relief from anxiety in marijuana, which I smoked for years and years. It worked in a way. I was able to function in social settings, I was able to relax and feel normal. Have fun. But I believe that smothering my anxiety with drugs also choked off my ability to grow into the person I wanted to become. Because contrary to everything I learned as a child and young adult, anxiety is not something that needs to be pushed away. It is an invitation.

For the past month or so I’ve been doing an online meditation class through Dharma Ocean. Like Forrest Yoga, the form of meditation taught at Dharma Ocean is an embodiment practice. But meditating is for me much more challenging than yoga. There are no poses. There’s just you, on the cushion.

When I practice yoga I know I’m supposed to be feeling my body. And sometimes I do. But usually, despite continual attempts to stay in my body, I live primarily in my head and mostly in the future. Worrying, planning, thinking. I know that the solution is to practice yoga each morning at home, to meditate. And every day I have the best intentions. Then, most days, I make coffee. I write in my journal. Time passes. I have to go.

This is my life.

It’s happening again now. If it were a regular Thursday I wouldn’t mind too much because I would go to Gwen’s 4 pm class at Yoga Now. But today is a holiday. There is no class. I’m on my own. I want to meditate, I want to practice yoga, to have ceremony for and with myself on this day, to show up and do the things I know I should be doing to be fully alive and able to be my best self. Instead I’m here, in my head, trying to work this out in writing, to share my experience with all of you. Which is important to me. I’m not sure why. Lately I think maybe writing is yet another way in which I distance myself from my feelings, another distraction, another defense mechanism. But, at least right now, I think that’s okay.

Last night, lying in bed, I picked up one of the books on my crowded nightstand.bedside books Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. It is one of the books I have to read and write about in order to reach Level Two certification for yoga teacher training. Like so many of those books, I’ve read it before. And I can’t seem to get it together to do the rather daunting homework. So instead, as with the other books, I pick this one up on occasion, open it at random, and read a few words here and there, usually before bed.

Last night I opened to chapter nineteen: Three Methods for Working with Chaos. The second method is Tonglen, which Pema Chodron describes as follows:

“When anything difficult arises–any kind of conflict, any notion of unworthiness, anything that feels distasteful, embarrassing, or painful–instead of trying to get rid of it, we breathe it in…. When suffering arises, the tonglen instruction is to let the story line go and breathe it in–not just the anger, resentment, or loneliness that we might be feeling, but the identical pain of others who in this very moment are also feeling rage, bitterness, or isolation. We breathe it in for everybody. This poison is not just our personal misfortune, our fault, our blemish, our shame–it’s part of the human condition. It’s our kinship with all living things, the material we need in order to understand what it’s like to stand in another person’s shoes. Instead of pushing it away or running from it, we breathe it in and connect with it fully. We do this with the wish that all of us could be free of suffering. Then we breathe out, sending out a sense of big space, a sense of ventilation or freshness. We do this with the wish that all of us could relax and experience the innermost essence of our mind.”

In reading this I realized that while I might not have made time to meditate or practice yoga, I could easily practice Tonglen throughout the day whenever I felt grief or anxiety. I started right then, in bed. Breathing in the sharp pain of missing people I love who I will not see again in this lifetime. Allowing the feeling to permeate my body. Softening around the feelings, enfolding them with compassion for myself and all the others in the world feeling those same feelings. Exhaling a hope that we might all be free from suffering. That seems a good wish for today, for always.

Today I certainly won’t practice yoga. I doubt I’ll make time for formal meditation. Instead I am going to cook and clean a little in preparation for my guests. Then I’m going to spend time with them. Between now and then, though, I am going to practice Tonglen. I shall be sending out hope that all beings be free from suffering. Including you, whoever and wherever you are. Thank you for reading this. May you be well. May you be at peace. May you be kind to yourself. May you accept yourself as you are. And may you have a Thanksgiving that is happy, whatever happiness means for you. For me, sometimes happiness comes in feeling sadness. It is the happiness that comes from knowing I am alive. I am grateful.

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Boston Baked Beans

Once again, it’s been a very long time since my last post. Dreamsofmyfava is languishing. Yet I am thriving. Living. Slowly learning how to be in the world more fully as I am. Which maybe isn’t the same as being the person I wish I was or could be. It’s all very interesting. At least to me. I’ve also been very busy with big projects at work. Indeed, I think maybe all my energy for writing has been directed there. So that I’m now writing this blog post only because on Friday I finally finished the reply brief in a really big case I’ve spent huge amounts of time and energy on in the past year and won’t start work on a new case until Monday. Mental space is crucial.

view from the gazebo at Pete and Anna's cabinBut this post is meant to be about Boston Baked Beans, which I made yesterday. I was inspired by my recent trip to New England. I was there last weekend to visit a dear friend and her husband, who live in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We spent a little time in Cambridge, but mostly we were in their family’s cabin in New Hampshire.

The cabin has no electricity or running water. Which maybe sounds terrible. But instead it was lovely. I’d been there once before, for their wedding several years ago. This time was different, though, because it was just the three of us and their dog, surrounded by and immersed in nature. And probably because I am so different now from how I was then.

My friend’s parents built the cabin thirty years ago, and have gradually added a million thoughtful details. Like this handletree handle on the screen door to the gazebo. Or the handwashing station next to the outhouse, which I didn’t photograph. So you’ll have to trust my words to convince you that it somehow managed to be more luxurious than any bathroom I’ve ever visited. An outhouse that smelled of wood and air.

I guess it smells of wood and air because there are trees everywhere and not much else. Except a few large stones, because the area was formed by glaciers.

As for the man-made aspects, another standout, which I again failed to document, was the garden, where one could easily get lost in meditation while ostensibly choosing and picking herbs and leaves for sandwiches, salads, eggs.

The cabin itself seems to have arisen organically, as if it was grown rather than built. Because there are so many considerate touches. Like the candleholders that are placed here and there and everywhere, so that they’re just where you want them, including one with a handle, and others that have been mounted to the wall in the back bedroom where I slept. That bedroom also held a basin so I was able to wash up a little inside just before bed and in the morning.

More extensive wash ups come with swimming outside in “The Pond,” which is apparently the New England word for “lake.” Whatever you called it, this pure body of water is deep and cold and still. Diving in you feel completely alive. And somehow extra clean.

Pone in the morningI think it was the lack of electricity that rendered the world of the cabin so special, so healing. My breath was deeper, like the way it is after yoga before I emerge into the clamor of city during days here in my normal life. Such a contrast from the cabin, where I felt like I could hear everything inside and out, uninterrupted by the noise I’ve become so accustomed to in Chicago. It was amazing. At one point, I even imagined I heard the trees speaking, not in words but with unmistakable meaning. Clear, direct communication.

During this moment when I believed I heard the trees speaking to me, my friend and I were in the gazebo. It had just rained, was raining, with alternating bouts of gusty wind and soft, barely audible patters. I was attuning her to Reiki, level one. (Because I’m a Reiki master now. Which is pretty cool.) I felt a deep sense of connectedness, with the trees and the stones and the rain and the gazebo and also with my friend, her husband, their dog, everything as one. And suddenly the trees were sending this message about how much they cared about my friend’s well being, recognizing her goodness, her beauty, the feeling they had of her belonging there, with the family, in that place. The trees were expressing their support for what we were doing. Which is cool. Because the trees are such a big part of everything there. It view from gazebofelt good to know or at least believe that we had their support and what felt like their love.

Now, writing this, I fear that maybe I sound a little crazy. Or, at best, eccentric. Whimsical. Like my imagination has gone overboard. Which very well may be true. But what I realize now too is that it doesn’t matter. What matters is that feeling. Because the feeling, whether objectively true or not, creates an opening. And with that open heart I allow the world to come in. Then, in that opening, I’m able to come out of myself with a deep faith that things are ultimately good.

Which brings me to the recipe. Finally.

Boston Baked BeansFor a long time baked beans were the only kind of beans that I liked, especially the kind that came in a can with heavy, syrupy sweet good sauce and awful chunks of fatty salt pork that I would fish out and cast to the side. As a kid growing up in the South I would doctor cans of Campbells beans by adding dijon mustard, brown sugar, and a little ketchup, then I’d bake them until the sauce was thick and bubbling. I liked to scoop them up with potato chips as a side for burgers.

When I was married my then-husband and I graduated to Bush’s baked beans, which tasted without doctoring similar to those beans of my childhood. I ate them the same way, scooped up with chips. Although he preferred plain Lays to my beloved Ruffles. The consequence of his strong personality and definitive taste combined with my insecurities was that I, too, learned to prefer plain Lays. (Now that I’m divorced I like both. Chips, which are gluten-free, may be my worst vice.)

Nowadays, when I’m trying to avoid anything with refined sugar, I eat almost no processed food. (Except chips. Damn chips.) This means I no longer buy any kind of canned baked beans. But I still love them. So, when we stopped at Calef’s County Store on the way home from the cabin, I was super excited to see these beans.Calef's Beans Then, last Sunday, lying in the guest bed in quiet, quiet Cambridge, I searched my friend’s extensive cookbook collection for baked bean recipes. And I decided on this one, an adaption from Slow Cooker Revolution. It took a really long time and wound up having to finish in the oven. But the flavor is perfect. I recommend.

Boston Baked Beans

2 oz. diced bacon
1 onion, minced
4-1/2 cups water
1 pound (2-1/2 cups) dried navy beans, soaked overnight
1/4 cup molasses (I used blackstrap but recipe calls for mild)
1/4 cup maple syrup (subbed for brown sugar)
2 bay leaves
1 tsp dried mustard
1/4 tsp ground cloves
2 Tb cider vinegar
salt and pepper to taste

If using the oven, preheat to 350. Drain and rinse the beans. Transfer them to the slow cooker insert or a dutch oven. Cook the bacon in a skillet over medium heat for 5-7 minutes, until the fat has rendered. Add the onion and cook another five minutes or so, adding the mustard and cloves for the last minute. Add the onion mixture, molasses, maple syrup, and bay leaves to the beans. If using the slow cooker, cook on low for ten hours, or on high for seven hours. If using the oven, cover and cook for a couple of hours. Check occasionally and add water to cover if necessary. When the beans are soft, add a teaspoon or so of coarse sea or kosher salt. Stir and continue cooking until the sauce is thick and bubbling, and the beans are tender but not mushy. I wound up using the oven to finish because the sauce didn’t thicken in the slow cooker. But I will try again. If you try this out, please let me know how it goes. And good luck!

Slow cooked ragu with pork ribs and white beans

kitchenThis is my next to last day in the condo I’ve lived in for the past ten years. Here’s the partially dismantled kitchen, with my beloved, giant refrigerator/freezer. My soon-to-be-ex-husband and I bought the condo just before we married, which makes the move complicated and fraught with feeling. So many hopes and dreams are bound up in this place. At first I found myself incapable of packing, paralyzed. Thankfully my friends rescued me. Now, the day before my move, I’m still not ready. But I will be.

Last weekend, while we were packing, one of my friends recounted the David Sedaris story about his brief stint working for a small moving company. When they showed up for a job, the movers found the client in the kitchen, cooking pasta, having packed absolutely nothing. Ha! So funny. So not any of us, we laughed. We continued packing, my friends efficiently, me sporadically, safe and secure in the knowledge that I would be ready when the movers arrived. But later that night, after my friends had gone home, I started thinking about that story, this time empathizing with that girl.

Until then, I’m not sure I was capable of empathy in this situation. I’ve always been a person who does what needs doing.  Absolutely not the person who lies around waiting for someone else to take care of her, oblivious. Cooking pasta while your belongings remain strewn about your apartment? That would never be me. Because such behavior would be inconsiderate, rude, wasteful. Crazy. I definitely have my crazy side, but historically it has never manifested as an inability to act. At least not in my adult life.

No. My crazy has always been too much action. When in doubt, do, that’s my motto.

Until now.

Now, suddenly, when faced with this huge change, one that I’ve known about for months, I’ve somehow emerged into this new form in which I’m incapable of acting on my own, without help. It’s absolutely terrifying. Yet, in some strange way, also liberating. Because, somehow, I’ve learned to ask for and accept help from people other than my family. Which is kind’ve amazing. It is a gift of intimacy and friendship that before now I’ve mostly seen only from the giving side. Yet receiving is just as important. It allows for others to express their generosity, their love.

On my way to recognizing this gift of receiving, I started to see that maybe the girl in David Sedaris’s story refused to pack her belongings not because she was lazy, or selfish, or inconsiderate, but because she was simply incapable of doing what she was supposed to do. I saw that because I could see it in myself. I didn’t know where to start with packing. And then I felt guilty. So I used avoidance techniques like television. Or sleep. Until my friends came over and saved me. Then, after they left, I felt capable of taking on surmountable tasks. Familiar, known tasks that I can control, things that I know how to start and finish them, by yourself. I understand this now because that morning, once I decided to cook, I lost the lethargy, felt like myself, relatively calm and in control. The contrast was illuminating.

I started by looking in the freezer. Most of what was left–various flours and other dried goods–can be moved. But I still had the ribs from my hog butchering adventure in February, as well as pork stock that I made from the rib roast. (https://dreamsofmyfava.com/2013/02/24/inspiration-and-bacon-from-the-underground-food-collective/) I had initially planned to do something with just the ribs. But, while I’ve never made ribs and white beans before, I had seen recipes. And it seemed like the most practical option: and easy, nutritious (if not exactly healthy), one-pot meal that I could eat all week.

In normal circumstances, this is the point where I would spend some time with my cookbook collection. I’m old-fashioned like that. I love nothing better than to lie in bed, reading about food, and then fall asleep daydreaming about individual recipes, food combinations, and menus. This time, though,  I had no cookbooks, because they were the first things to get packed. And I didn’t really have a lot of time, because I’ve been weirdly exhausted. So, after a quick online search to get a general idea, I decided to wing it.

ragu with pork ribs and white beansWhat I wound up with is not at all what I planned. It far too much tomato for a one-pot meal. But what I wound up with is a terrific ragu sauce over pasta, hearty and satisfying. I will definitely make it again. Here’s what I did.

1 lb. pork ribs, cut into 3-rib sections
1 c. dried white beans (I’m using navy beans, but any white beans will be fine), soaked overnight
1 sm. onion, diced
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 rib celery, diced
6 cloves garlic, diced
3 c. chicken or pork broth
1/2 c. red wine (optional–I had some in the freezer)
2 T. tomato paste
1 28-oz can crushed (or diced) tomatoes
1-3 T. olive oil
1 thumb-sized piece of kombu (sea vegetable, for digestion)
pasta

1. Drain and rinse the beans. Transfer to the slow cooker.

2. Rinse and dry the ribs. Season with salt and pepper. Heat 1 T. olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Sear the ribs until brown, 3-5 minutes on each side. Transfer to the slow cooker, on top of the beans.

3. Add additional olive oil to the skillet if necessary. Saute the onions for 2-3 minutes, then add the carrots, celery, and garlic. Saute for another3-5 minutes. Add the tomato paste. Saute for another minute or two, stirring. Then add 1/2 cup of red wine or broth, scraping the bottom of the pan to get any browned bits, and turn the heat to a boil. Cook for 1 minute and then transfer the mixture to the slow cooker. Add the tomatoes and remaining broth, cover, and cook on low for 8 to 10 hours, or until the beans are tender. Fish out the bones and the kombu, and salt to taste.

4. Boil pasta, drain, and top with freshly ground pepper and grated Parmesan cheese.

Pork and beans

One of the first things I learned to cook was “Beanies and Weanies,” a delightful (if, to my adult sensibilities, somewhat revolting) combination of hot dogs and canned pork and beans. I got fancy with it and added brown sugar, mustard, sometimes minced garlic, freshly ground pepper. I probably experimented with dried thyme, which for a while I added to everything (it’s really good in scrambled eggs). Also, once I became an expert in this dish, my specialty, I insisted on baking in the oven rather than cooking on the stove top. The baked version resulted in a thicker, slightly carmelized sauce that even my 9-year-old self recognized as being far superior to the glorpy goo that came off the stove.

Now, all these years later, I cannot even imagine eating canned pork and beans. And, while I appreciate hot dogs, I’m not sure I could actually eat one. Yet the combination, pork and beans, is a classic pairing.

Here’s the part where I’m supposed to start writing about the grown-up pork and bean pairing that I came up with last night, when I made dinner for a couple of friends. I had pork, from the pig I helped to butcher last weekend. (https://dreamsofmyfava.com/2013/02/24/inspiration-and-bacon-from-the-underground-food-collective/) And, while I’ve been making steady progress, I still have a whole lotta heirloom beans waiting to be transformed into something wonderful. But one of the people who came over for dinner last night, someone I love and respect as much as I love and respect anyone, simply abhors beans. All beans. It’s the texture, he says, the gritty beaniness of the beans that he cannot abide.

So. What was I to do with this problem? Surely I could find a way to make him like beans. Because they’re delicious. Especially with pork, which this friend loves. Another friend posted this recipe  on my Facebook wall. (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/20/dining/beans-and-red-wine-party-hearty.html?_r=0) Inspired, I came up with a menu that surely even a bean hater would eat with gusto:

Pork rib roast
White beans braised in red wine
Slow cooked kale with bacon
Pan-fried potato, apple and fennel.

It sounded perfect. But, as the day approached, my conscience spoke louder and louder, reminding me: he does not like beans. I can’t make him like something he doesn’t like. It doesn’t matter what I think. Respect his reality, as it is. Have a dinner party without beans. The blog doesn’t matter. What’s important is that you get to cook for, spend time with, people you love, in your home. That’s what matters. Screw the blog. I would make the menu I came up with without the beans. And it would be great. Because I’ve grown, I’ve evolved. Yes.

Except no. It doesn’t matter how many hours I spend on the mat, practicing yoga, or generally trying to become a better person. I remain hopelessly human. My ego was so sure that I could change his mind, make him like beans. Plus I had Vallarta beans in the freezer. I would serve the Vallarta bean puree that I made a few weeks ago with short ribs. (https://dreamsofmyfava.com/2013/02/13/vallarta-bean-puree-with-short-ribs-and-bitter-greens/) I knew it was delicious. When I proposed the plan, trying to sell the beans by name-dropping Thomas Keller, of French Laundry, he agreed to try a bite. But I also agreed to make polenta. To be safe. Compromise is beautiful.

In the end, I didn’t change anyone’s mind. The puree was still gritty, said the bean hater. I don’t get that still, but honestly, the Vallarta beans weren’t a perfect match for the pork. I should have made the white beans. For me and my other friend. But everything else was terrific. And it was super fun. So much so that I completely neglected to take photos. Sorry! Oh well. Here are the recipes. Note that the potatoes in the hash recipe are pre-baked, so you’ll need to think ahead.

Pork Roast
4-rib pork roast
1 carrot, coarsely chopped
1/2 onion, coarsely chopped
1 rib celery, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup water
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

1. The day before you’re planning to serve, wash and dry the roast. Slice between each rib, stopping about 1″ before the bone. Rub all over with salt and pepper, cover, and refrigerate for at least 8 hours.

2. Preheat the oven to 365. Remove the roast from the refrigerator, tie with kitchen string, and let it sit out for about an hour. Place on a roasting rack in a pan. Toss the vegetables on the bottom of the pan and add the water. Roast until the internal temperature comes up to 130, about 1 hour and 15 minutes. Remove from the oven, cover with foil, and let rest for 20 minutes. Carve the meat off the bone and serve, either plated, as pork chops, or on a platter, with the bones, family style.

Pan fried potatoes, apples, and fennelpan roasted potatoes, apples, and fennel on a bed of blanched Swiss chard
4 medium to large Yukon Gold potatoes, baked
1-2 Gala (or other firm) apples
1/2 small fennel bulb, sliced
3 T. olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Chop the potatoes into 1/2 or 3/4″ chunks. Heat the oil in a large, heavy skillet, preferably cast iron, over medium-high heat. Add the potatoes in a single layer. Salt liberally, 1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon. While the potatoes are cooking, chop the apples into 3/4″ chunks. Turn the potatoes and add the apples and fennel. Cook for another 5 minutes or so, until the potatoes are crispy and the apples are browning but not soft. (This photo is from last weekend, when I made this for the first time.)

Slow cooked kale with bacon
2 bunches of Lacinato (dinosaur) kale, leaves stripped from the stems
1 Vidalia or other sweet onion
4 cloves of garlic, sliced
1/4 c. diced bacon

Add the bacon to a dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot, and cook on medium-low until the fat renders and the bacon starts to crisp. (NOTE: I used the bacon I cured at home, which I foolishly finished in the slow cooker. While it sort’ve worked, the end result isn’t really bacon, as the fat rendered away. So I had to add olive oil. But it tastes delicious.) Add the onions and garlic. Cook for about 5 minutes, until the onion turns translucent. Add the kale, cover, and cook for 10 minutes. Uncover and add 1/2 cup of water or, if you happen to have some, white wine. Cook for another 10-15 minutes, until the liquid has reduced. Serve. Eat. Enjoy.

Inspiration, and bacon, from the Underground Food Collective

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. pan roasted potatoes, apples, and fennel on a bed of blanched Swiss chardThis 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. dead pigAs 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. cutting in halfOnce 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. mid section2

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.

pork bellyNext, 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.
lunch

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.

Cured bacon
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.

bacon 2I’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. bacon 3Which 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.