My heart (and belly) are so full man. My pantry is full too and my freezer is even fuller. And the maple wood of our island is now well-seasoned after the hog butchering workshop we hosted this week.
I’ve extolled the virtues of raising and then butchering your own meat. (In fact I gave 7 compelling reasons why you should learn how.) I’ve even shared how we butchered a hog on the homestead and the resources we’ve found to be somewhat helpful before. We muddled through the process 8 or 10 times now. We had a system and were able to get the meat into our freezer fairly easily and enjoyed the time together as a family in the process.
But this year we did things a lot differently and had the most amazing experience.
This year we invited 8 folks from all over the country into our home who can now go home and find satisfaction, fulfillment, and thrift in foregoing the processor and working hard to put their meat up for their family. And they’re going to get so much more than we ever have (until now) out of the bargain.
Last year, we sat in on a similar workshop where we expanded our knowledge and learned to butcher more respectfully, less wastefully, and more adventurously from the farmers at Hand Hewn Farm, Andy & Doug, who raise chicken, eggs, rabbit, and pork in central Ohio and spend the winter educating others in the art of traditional hog butchery. We walked out that door and excitedly planned the day when our large kitchen island would have a group of students gathered around it, learning to take complete control of their meat production.
This past weekend our plans came to fruition and we gathered with like-minded folks, hoping to expand their knowledge and skills set, and we butchered the 2 hogs we raised in our backyard this year over the course of a 3-day workshop.
On the first day we gathered the atmosphere was somber, as it should be. Two lives were about to be lost in order to feed 9 others over the next year. These two pigs were a pleasure to raise and it was hard to watch them go, however I can rationalize that they were here for a purpose and their time had come, but because we value the gift they were to give us, we were desirous to see their final moments pass without stress. The two hogs never left their home where they had passed the last 7 months. No chasing them around, no hustling them onto a trailer, no jolting ride to a processor where they would be scared and hungry and thirsty for untold hours.
We entered their pen, scratched their backs and ears, they happily barked, wondering if we were bearing slop. They slurped the fresh raw milk we offered. A reading of Wendell Berry’s For the Hog Killing…
Let them stand still for the bullet, and stare the
shooter in the eye,
let them die while the sound of the shot is in the
air, let them die as they fall,
let the jugular blood spring hot to the knife, let
its freshet be full,
let this day begin again the change of hogs into
people, not the other way around,
for today we celebrate again our lives’ wedding
with the world,
for by our hunger, by this provisioning, we renew
the bond. -Wendell Berry
A shot of rye whiskey to calm the shooter’s nerves, the patient waiting for the perfect moment…
And then she was gone.
The sticking cut was made to drain the blood which we gathered, the limbs and body were massaged to help it to fully drain and she was hoisted onto a pallet and transported to the hanging pole where we learned how to properly scald and scrape the hair from off of the skin. It may seem like extra work and expense to go through that process, but doing so (as opposed to skinning) actually didn’t seem to take any longer to me. It was just something different. In the end, it was totally worth it as the traditional skinning and scraping is the real work that ends up increasing the overall yield and variety of how we can use this meat to feed our family exponentially. Just wait for it. I’ll show you the waste bucket in a bit. It’s going to blow your mind. (That and the amount of lard that we got from off of two pigs.)
After the first pig was scalded, scraped, and eviscerated, Doug began to work on preparing some of the offal. SAMPLING Kidneys, liver, caul fat, spleen,the head, the intestines for use in casings were all saved from going into the trash. The hog was halved and left to hang until the next day. After lunch the second pig was harvested and the process was repeated. We were through with both by dinner.
The second day dawned with a lighter heart and a more joyful frame of mind.
Andy took some time to teach us how to properly sharpen knives and safe handling. His knives are remarkable tools. Do you see him handling that blade? That’s how he tests the sharpness. It’s pure insanity and I don’t trust myself to learn to do it.
Next the heads were brought in and dissected so that everyone present could understand the anatomy and how the shots were made effective. Perhaps the most important part of the entire workshop was this portion of the class. It is crucial to make sure that the moment before their death goes really, really well. The heads were then put in a brine for making headcheese the next day.
We gathered around the table after the first two halves were brought in and Doug and Andy walked everyone through the process of breaking each half down into the primals, step by step. What was an animal was slowly turning into meat. As we broke down the carcass, each cut began to take shape and become something recognizable. Future bacon, roasts, ham, meat cubed for grinding, chops.
Every one took a turn learning to work with the sharp knives, learning to recognize the natural breaks and seams that make it easy to find the right cuts, learning where each of the cuts we are familiar with come from on the animal, and new ways to use each piece that we’ve never known before. Pens were flying furiously and cameras were used to document the process. We were excited to know that the information that 2 of the couples in attendance were gathering would be taken home and put to use the very next weekend when they harvest their own hogs they’ve been raising on their homestead’s for months! It was thrilling to be a tangible part of their empowerment, to realize that they will move around their carcass with more confidence and know-how than we did for the first one, two, even three years that we butchered our own hogs. There won’t be the uncertainty that we experienced not knowing if we were making the right cuts or if the meat could be best used in another way.
Having attended workshops with Hand Hewn in the past year where the farmer/student had them come to their farm to teach them the skills of traditional hog butchering, it impressed me during this workshop that one of the great benefits of attending a class off your farm is that you don’t need to worry about all of the little details. Gathering equipment, serving meals, finding spices, and buckets, and quart bags, and packaging, and putting the meat into the freezer. What do you want to do with this cut? You can really “sit back” and process all of the new information you’re learning a little more easily.
When we were filling out our cut sheet, we really tried to be as diverse as we could be with our choices so that everyone could get a good sense of the variety of the possibilities. We went so far beyond bacon and ham and sausage!
As a homesteader who has many homestead hog butcherings under her belt, the real value for the workshop for those of us with experience comes on the third day. On that day we really dove into all of the different things that we could have been doing over the years. And we couldn’t help but be impressed with how much waste we had been creating by under-utilizing the meat.
I tried so many new foods that day. Ones that I really, really didn’t want to try and would have avoided at all costs in years past, but I guess I was feeling adventurous and I’m thankful that I opened up my mind.
Kidney diced and tossed in flour, seasoned with salt and pepper, and fried in butter
Cinnamon-Sugar Pork Rinds
Tongue (which was like the most tender and delicious pulled pork you’ve ever had)
And there is more to try in the future because we are waiting for the bacon, pancetta, prosciutto, guanciale, and capocollo to cure.
We swallowed hard, took a deep breath and gave everyone a chunk of pork belly to experiment with creating their own custom cure recipes. Some sound more promising than others, but the lesson that we all took away was to be adventurous and try new flavors.
When it was all said and done, it was this sight that sells me (that and the fatback cap on the pork chops, and the headcheese I’ve been eating for lunch on buttered toast, and ok. It all sells me.) But when it’s all said and done and I looked down at the bucket of waste and I was looking into a barely used 5 gallon bucket and a tote of bones and not a 33 gallon trash can full of scraps, I realized that it would be foolish to butcher any other way. And then even the bones could be be saved and cooked down to get the bits of meat off and then turned into delicious stock. So we could have had even less waste. And then technically even the white bucket was used for dog food.
Because we harvested our hogs this way instead of how we normally do with skinning, and because we learned to be creative and adventurous and try something new, a few days after the harvest I was able to enjoy the sight of a counter filled with over 4 gallons of rich, gelatinous stock and over 7 gallons of rendered snow-white lard! I’ll be honest, I think this might just be more lard than we’ve gotten from every other year combined! (We didn’t render lard the first couple years and after than I get probably 4-6 quarts of lard a year.) I’m overwhelmed with satisfaction and gratitude for the provision.
The passion for this work from the farmers at Hand Hewn Farm shined throughout all three days. It’s infectious. In fact, in the past year there hasn’t been a time when I ever felt like hog butchering was just one of the things they do as farmers. It’s not just another hat they wear. Any time the conversation turns to traditional hog butchering, they are eager to spread their ever expanding knowledge to help educate others about the value of humane, thrifty hog butchery, and the adventurous sundry uses for the cuts of meat and offal. Working with them to introduce these valuable skills and fostering the sense of community into the lives of 8 other people has been one of the most gratifying things that I have done through my own work on this website.
Many of you have already asked whether we will be offering another workshop next year and our answer is, “Absolutely!” Of course, we don’t have any details to offer just yet. If you are interested in joining us for the 2017 Pig to Plate Homestead Hog Butchering Workshop, please enter your email in the form below to be the first to get exclusive details as soon as they are released.