Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The soul of a pig, day 3.

Today is about breaking up the pig carcass into recognizable parts. This is the fun part. Also the scariest, as I realize that we are casually sticking knives into thousands of dollars worth of pork. That belong to a restaurant that has invested a great deal of time and care, not to mention money, in these pigs. While we are in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Later I look through the hundreds of pictures I took over the past three days, and there are several shots of K., the executive chef, hovering nervously near the edge of the frame as various people hack away at the precious halves of pork.

But first C. has to demonstrate, and it is like watching a sculptor create a head out of a shapeless block of marble as mountains of fat and muscle and bone fall into loins and ribs and layered sheets of belly. This kind of pork is almost equal amounts meat and fat (or perhaps rather more fat than meat), and the meat is richly marbled and a deeper red than ordinary pink-white pork. Definitely not "the other white meat." He moves quickly and assuredly with his knives and a weird plastic contraption that uses a loop at one end to remove the rib bones, instead of slicing off the rib section as you would with a regular pig. My photographs are blurs of movement as he trims away errant flaps of meat, separates muscles along the seams where they join together. Very little is wasted, which is important when you have such an expensive animal lying on your counter.

Unwilling to individually be held responsible for half a pig, D. and I work together. I am nervous, until I stick the knife between the ribs and pull it towards me, and I have to sink or swim. We follow the natural lines of the meat, trimming away as little as possible, tidying up as we go, stripping away ribs, turning the belly into a neat rectangle. I feel braver than I did a few days ago. I also feel like I will never scrub this layer of pork fat off my hands. I don't know if I will ever have a whole side of a pig to myself, and certainly it is doubtful I will remember everything I learned here, but as a life skill it might turn out to be a useful one.

Later, we have a simple dinner together. More roast pork - I have probably eaten at least ten pounds of roast pork in the last four days (including all that roast pork belly on Chinese New Year's eve) - more salad, some of the headcheese and blood sausage we made yesterday. M. whips what I believe is rendered and chilled fat into a smooth, airy paste, serving some plain and some infused with herbs, spread on toasts. It gleams like rich frosting, or very expensive face cream, and it is incredible. Everyone is excited about everything they have learned, excited to be part of this group. They talk about doing it again next year, in New Jersey and in Michigan, looking ahead. But this is the first workshop of its kind, and it has been such a privilege to be a part of it. We exchange email addresses and phone numbers, and I promise various people the photographs of these three days, having already downloaded them to my laptop and shown them to anyone who would sit down and take a look.

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