Monday, November 17, 2008

How To Cut Up A Pig

Yesterday, I saw a half a pig cut up before my very eyes.

At a Slow Food event at the Institute for Culinary Education (ICE), master butcher Rudi Weid broke down a small Berkshire pig that had lived a good life up at Tamarack Hollow Farm in Vermont. Proceeds from the event benefitted Slow Food Harvest Time education programs in East Harlem and Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Butcher Weid not only wielded the knife masterfully (as well as a handsaw and cleaver, both passed down to him from his father, from whom he learned his craft), but also proffered a unique perspective.

Although the somewhat self-selected crowd - those eager to watch pig butchery on a sunny Sunday afternoon - was probably already passionate about sustainable food production, Weid talked a lot about the differences between industrial pork and the heritage, happy pork we were about to enjoy. He mostly talked in concrete butcher's terms about the difference in the color and feel of different qualities of meat, though, which kept it interesting. He recalled butchering a pig for a North Carolina demonstration, for example, where the pork was flecked with little exploded red synapses (correct terminology?) as it had been severely stressed when it was butchered. He noted that the beef of cows who had suffered in death was typically extremely dark.

He didn't dwell on the injustice of cruelty to animals, as one might have expected, but simply got on with it. When someone from the audience asked him how one becomes a butcher today, and how long one typically apprenticed, he paused and, ever stoic, held up a box cutter. "This is what you need to become a butcher today," he said. "It's all pre-cut. Just open the box." He seemed highly dubious that the art of butchery would be revived by the legions of slow food enthusiasts any time soon.

But Weid seemed very happy with the quality of our pig's meat. It was a good deal darker and firmer than supermarket "meat," he noted. He pulled out the kidney and the internal fat (leaf lard) then cut off the head, indicating that it would make a mighty fine head cheese. He then cut off the hind leg (ham) and delicately deboned it. He moved up to the front quarters, where he removed the shoulder (aka Boston butt) and front leg (picnic ham). He proceeded in a most sculptor-like fashion to the center cut, which is apparently the only section of the pig typically sold in supermarkets these days. Weid gracefully pulled off the spare ribs, carved off thick strips of back and belly fat, and finally extracted the loin with babyback ribs still attached. This large rib roast is where you find the - you guessed it - pork chops, should you choose to cut it into pieces.

After the lengthly demonstration, we were served lovely bits of the other half of the pig that had already been prepared: the ham (which bore no resemblance to the ham of my childhood Chistmas dinners, rosy and smooth but was rather turkey-like, white and somewhat dry.) Also, the shoulder, and super fatty belly, and the insane crackling, which was like chicken skin squared. At the same time, Rogue Ales conducted a little tasting. We tried the Juniper Pale Ale, which was my favorite - refreshing and herbal, the American Amber Ale, which was sort of round and coffee-like, and the Satin Rogue Red, which I thought tasted like horses (and not necessarily in a good way) and the which Rogue lady described as resin-y. Dry hops are added to it after it been brewed, so it has this extremely hoppy thing going on. Finally, we tried the Chocolate Stout, which was so chocolately and kind of creamy. I liked it a lot but thought it would have paired better with chocolate cake than with pork.