I'm not big on rituals. Though I certainly grew up on them, from going to church on Sundays to having tuna casserole on Fridays to going out in the woods in December and cutting our own Christmas trees—the plural because there was the formal tree in the living room and a second, smaller tree in the family room that my brothers and I would decorate with our own homemade ornaments.
Chillaxing in the garage.
But to get back to the point, it looks like I'm launching into a ritual of my own these days. You may remember the series of posts from 2011, "Thinking of Eating: Roger and Me," where I committed to buying half a pig from Big Table Farm and following it from piglet to plate, including attending the slaughter, doing the butchering myself and then recording the meals that were made from the various cuts.
I did less of that last step than planned, but the meat fed my family (and many friends) well for a year or so. It was always referred to as "Roger" as in "We're throwing some Roger on the grill, want to come over?" (I remember some giggling but never being turned down.)
Butchering head to head.
When Clare announced she'd brought two more piglets onto her farm last spring, my friend Linda and I immediately signed on for one of them. Named Rose and Petunia, the piglets fed on the lush grass of the farm supplemented with organic corn, no-soy organic grain and spent chestnuts from a gluten-free brewery. They were switched to chestnuts for the last two months. By late November, just after Thanksgiving, they'd reached their finish weight of more than 300 pounds.
Working the ribs.
Rose and Petunia's last day was spent in the pasture where they'd lived their entire lives, basking in a rare blast of winter sunshine on a bed of fresh hay. The pasture kill that evening was swift and painless, delivered by Richard with his rifle. His knife worked in long, skilled strokes to remove the skin, then he expertly gutted and halved them, saving the head, trotters, kidneys, heart and liver for us to process later.
We transported our halves to Ayers Creek Farm, hanging them in the garage overnight to cool. In the morning, armed with knives and a saw, we began the process of breaking down each half into three large sections called primals, which were in turn cut into roasts, chops and the smaller bits that would be made into bacon, sausages and stew meat.
The head ready to make into scrapple.
As we women butchered, the menfolk worked in the kitchen grinding the scraps of meat and fat to make into sausage. The head went into the oven to roast very slowly until it was fall-apart tender, with the brilliant idea of combining it with Ayers Creek polenta to make scrapple.
Since this was the second time I'd stood in front of half a carcass with a knife in my hand, I found it was a little easier to know where to start. It helped that Linda had done this several times and could guide me back if I lost my way. The first task after cutting the primals was to get the shoulder meat to the kitchen for the sausage, and after that was separating the belly from the ribs and divining the perfect ratio of rib roasts to chops.
Fresh belly, left; bacon-to-be, right.
While we butchered, a cut-and-wrap operation was set up in the garage. Keeping the meat cool during this process wasn't an issue, since the temperature in the Wapato Valley that day hovered in the high 40s to low 50s. Fortunately some bourbon was poured to keep the blood flowing to our fingers. Once we'd worked our way through the leg roasts and Petunia was all wrapped and stowed in our coolers, we went inside to warm up, have dinner and recount our labors over several glasses of Big Table Farm wine.
Petunia, or at least my half of her, is now resting comfortably in the freezer. Dave has smoked the nine pounds of bacon we got from some of the belly meat. The thicker end of the belly we're saving to use for braising and big pots of beans, the jowl will be cured and made into guanciale and there's much discussion over what to do with the rest of the meat in the coming months. And, as with Roger last year, this year we'll be talking about having Petunia for dinner.
To watch an expert butcher break down half a pig and narrate the process, watch this series of short videos from Food Farmer Earth. To take a hands-on class that teaches how to butcher a pig, check the schedule at Portland's Culinary Workshop or Portland Meat Collective. To buy a pasture-raised pig for your freezer, contact Kendra at Goat Mountain Pastured Meats.