Monday, January 26, 2009

The soul of a pig, day 1.

H. asked me, later in the day, at which point the pigs we were slaughtering ceased being animals and became, in my eyes, food. When I saw them rooting around in their pen this morning, I tell him. He looked slightly alarmed. It worried me that I could be this callous. This is an idea I have been working towards for the better part of a year, the idea that if I was going to continue to eat meat, I would have to accept that it starts with a living, breathing animal that ran around outdoors before it came to its timely demise. And was not merely a clean, plastic wrapped cut of meat in a styrofoam tray in the cold aseptic shelves of the supermarket. It is not something new - one of my earliest memories is of playing with a lively, bright-eyed pigeon that very shortly afterwards became our luncheon soup - but I had never been in at the death, so to speak. When the opportunity to watch (and perhaps participate in) a pig slaughter came along, I leapt at the chance.

So there I was on a freezing Monday morning late in January, wearing fur-lined rubber boots and layers of fleece and long underwear. (To keep us warm there is hot coffee and, at one point, bourbon drunk in a toast to the soul of the first pig). I had gotten lost, and when I finally arrived at the farm the first pig had been killed and cleaned, a small young pig destined to be our dinner that night. (This is the prologue). It went into a pit dug in the ground, wrapped in what appear to be banana leaves, layered with dirt and bricks, and then covered with coals, which K. proceeds to set on fire using a propane torch longer than his arm. I sign a waiver releasing the restaurant hosting the event from any responsibility should I manage to injure myself during the next three days. The group - some fifteen or twenty people, several of whom work at this restaurant, which shall remain nameless - and others who have flown in from places like Michigan and the Bay Area (later someone from New Jersey shows up). These are professionals, serious people - farmers and chefs - and the other lone amateur is the sort of person who cures his own salami at home. I feel like an imposter, and I am way out of my league.

Our instructors in the art of pig-killing are an Austrian couple who own a farm where they raise rare breeds of different animals - pigs, goats, and chickens, I think - and they are here to teach us how to slaughter and butcher a rare breed of pig that has started to make waves on the American food scene. They demonstrate, walking us through every step, and then various members of our group take turns, with their guidance. It all starts with a wicked-looking tool called a captive bolt gun. I pick it up later, and it weighs a ton. I will spare the reader the precise details, but it happens very quickly. In no time of all the pig is stunned, bled, and dragged into an empty tub (basically, a bathtub someone found on Craigslist) and washed with bucketfuls of boiling water. A powder made from powdered pine pitch is sprinkled over the pig's coarse, curly dark hair, and more water is poured over. The powdered-and-dampened hair sticks together in clumps, which you scrape off with a weird metal cone-shaped tool. Any errant hairs that stubbornly refuse to budge are singed off with a fearsome butane torch, the bigger the better.

Finally, the pig is completely bald, now pink-white and smooth all over, except for the black hooves. It gets hoisted up and tied to a backhoe, then raised until the pig's head is several inches off the ground, belly facing outwards. C. begins cutting away, opening up the body, removing the organs, gesturing with his knife to emphasize various points, his wife, I., explaining when his English falters. Soon the carcass is hanging in two halves, and each half is carried some distance away to hang from the roof of a shed, out of the way. Time for the next pig. Wash, rinse, repeat. Soon people (not including me - I spent the day watching the action from a safe distance, taking pictures until my battery dies, and eating cookies) are getting the hang of things, from the initial stunning of the pig to sawing the cleaned carcass in half along the spine. Hours pass. As the sun begins to slip away and the sky darkens, we clean up and get ready to head back to the restaurant, five minutes away.

At dinner we sit down to roast pig(let), finished in a wood-burning oven and served with a tangy tomato-based barbecue sauce infused with herbs. The pork is tender, the skin crisp (but, alas, not crunchy) and slightly smoky-tasting. There is a bean salad and a green salad and all sorts of little snacks, and pig's brains sautéed with caramelized onions, with eggs and without. Alone the brains are like softly scrambled eggs, more extraordinarly, delicately flavored than the ones with eggs.

I take a cookie for the road.

No comments: