Friday, February 6, 2009

The Whole Hog

Despite my deep appreciation for the gustatory pleasures that meat provides, I do occasionally wrestle with the moral implications of eating it.   My attempt to come to terms with eating chickens was less than successful, which was somewhat mortifying, so I was determined to make a go of it with pigs, pork being one of the great meats of the world after all.  

Although I don't have much interest in actually slaughtering animals (that's a little too much reality for me) I do think there is a lot of value in seeing the animals that you eat in their whole form, to understand what various cuts of meat are and where they come from.  It gives you a little more of a connection to what you're eating, and consequently you hopefully appreciate it more.

OK, I will step off my soapbox now.

I heard about a celebrity butcher (who even knew there was such a person?) in Brooklyn who gives pig butchering classes at the Brooklyn Kitchen, a locally owned kitchen supply store in Williamsburg, so I immediately got on the horn and signed up for a late January class (these classes are apparently in quite high demand so I guess it's a good thing I was so on top of it).  

So one cold Monday evening I left work and made my way out to Lorimer Street, full of anticipatory delight.  I came upon the shop, which was utterly charming, and wandered around a bit, looking for the butchering area.  Turns out I was standing in it.  

The next thing I knew a pig foot was sweeping past me, snapping me out of my octopus cake pan reverie.  Tom Mylan, the butcher extraordinaire (and head butcher at Marlow & Daughters), was hauling the pig (or in this case, the half pig) in over his shoulder.  He flopped it onto the table, unwrapped the head (thankfully this pig was pre-decapitated) and class began.  

Tom the Butcher gave a mini-spiel about knowing where your meat comes from ("if you don't know where it's from, you probably don't want to know"), the benefits of heritage meats and the evils of the big meat plants.  It was more informative than annoying, since he steered pretty clear of Alice Waters-like fanatic territory.  Am I the only one who is totally annoyed with her these days by the way?  I mean really, a vegetable garden on the White House lawn?  I'm all about local food and farmers markets, but I don't really think our first family needs to start farming.

The head of our pig:

I'll admit that the ever-increasing pool of blood that collected by the chin over the course of the class was a little disconcerting.

Anyway, our pig came from upstate New York, and after seeing the color of the meat, I'm totally on board with free range heritage animals.  The meat was a deep, beautiful almost looked like beef in some places.  Nothing like that nearly white pork you come across in the grocery store.

So Tom started by removing the tenderloin (just inside the ribs towards the rear)...

...and then proceeded to break down the rest of the hog.  So we ended up with a couple of trotters, some jowls, cheeks, pork chops, shoulder chops, roasts, a ham (or I guess the cut that could be cured to make a ham?), a picnic ham (from the front leg), belly, and, among other things, the head, for that one nut job that wants to take it home to make head cheese.

Overall, I found the class pretty fascinating.  First of all, you forget just how many things that you eat come from a pig.  Bacon, pork chops, ham, prosciutto, jamon, loin roasts...I could go on.  But my point is, you can use pretty much the whole animal without too much effort (other than the head of course...and the organs), which for some reason I'm not sure I can say about a cow (not that I actually know, it's just a hunch).

I don't want to imply that I had some massive revelation during my night in Williamsburg, but I will say that the class really did hit it home for me that when I eat pork (or any meat, really) I am eating an animal.  So I want to avoid eating mediocre pork (if the meat isn't good I take that to mean that the animal didn't have a great life, and I'm not in favor of encouraging practices that make animals unhappy) and to avoid dishes involving pork that are only OK (if I'm not enjoying a dish then that really is just a waste of an animal's life).

So anyway, in honor of this "use it all and use it well" ethos that we all seemed to be on board with, we each took about 6 pounds of pig parts home with us.  I ended up with exactly what I wanted...a jowl, some belly and some shoulder.  And I will add that the head went home with a very lovely couple, not, in fact, a nut job.

Luckily, I had just bought Michael Ruhlman's wonderful book Charcuterie, so I had trusted recipes for guanciale (cured pork jowl) and pancetta (for the belly) on hand.

I proceeded to cure both pieces of meat in various salt and spice mixtures in the refrigerator, and promptly invited a couple of willing friends over (Marissa and Laia are quite dependable when it comes to food that needs to be eaten) for some slow roasted pork shoulder.  

After curing, the guanciale needed to be hung for a couple of weeks in a dry, cool place:

And the pancetta needed to be hung in a cool, humid place:

Paul was not so thrilled about me hanging it on his very fancy new bike, but our bedroom is more humid than the living room, so he simply had to come to terms with his bike's second function as a meat rack.

I ended up using David Chang's Bo Ssam recipe for the pork, which was fantastic:

I sadly only have this picture of the pork halfway through cooking.  When it is done cooking, it is just beautiful...burnished and shiny and decadent.  But we tucked in pretty immediately upon its exit from the oven, so no picture was possible.  You'll just have to take my word for it.  

Incidentally, I am sure that it would not have been nearly as good had it not been procured and butchered by Monsieur Mylan.


Rob M said...

Nice. I'm jealous - my uncle in Spain always used to have cured ham hanging on the wall in his kitchen, and whenever we'd arrive there he'd shave a few pieces off with a small knife and hand them to us. Very delicious. Also, his wife used to feed the local stray cats birth control pills, but that's another story.

Laura said...

Ha!! Having spent some time in cat heavy neighborhoods abroad, I can totally understand the urge. I hope to become that weird relative with hanging meat in my house.

Mothering Mini said...

L - This is really interesting! I wish we lived in NYC b/c I would have liked to have gone with you to this (Brodie forwarded me your blog link, so I will add it to my repetoire of distractions from work). Hope you are well...


Laura said...

Hey, I would have loved it if you had come with me! Anytime you guys want a weekend in NYC you are more than welcome.

Walter Jeffries said...

Excellent post. My wife, our son and I have been taking classes with a butcher for about seven months now as we work our way towards opening our own butcher shop for our farm. Transforming from pig to parts is a fascinating process and I must admit to loving every bit of the pig.

By the way, another thing to do with the head is simply make soup or stew stock. All sorts of great bits of meat come off. The head in your photo still has the jowl so you've got a lot of good meat in that. We often make jowl bacon and jowl & veggie soup.

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