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February 2008

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Home » Archives » February 2008 » From Pig to Plate

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02/21/2008: "From Pig to Plate"

01_PigAlive (40k image)

Yes, we finally butchered the pig in January. The conditions were right: we were running out of pig chow, the pig had reached decent weight (and wasn't gaining further weight), and nights were cold enough to allow us to work over more than one day without fear of spoilage. The process went as well as could be expected, though you should be warned that what follows is essentially a description of violence. Gentle souls may want to skip this posting. There are pictures, but I've put them in as pop-up windows in case you want to just read the text.

I made plans to head down to the farm on a grey, cold Saturday morning to help Nate with butchering the pig. Nate had also lined up a few friends who were willing to help; one fellow had ranch experience with skinning calves, so that helped. But I wasn't feeling particularly confident: the procedure outlined in John Seymour's "The Sustainable Life" for pig butchering was quite long and involved things like pouring water that was not-too-hot-and-not-too-cold over the hide to loosen bristles, or sawing the carcass in half. I stopped in at Safeway on the way out of town to buy some rubber gloves; I had no sooner stepped into the nearly-empty store when I heard "And in our meat department today we have pork chops, only $2.99 per pound..." Funny, the synchronicity of the universe.

I was also a little worried about the fact that I had been unsuccessful in locating a meat saw. I had done some last minute calling around on Friday afternoon to the Portland restaurant supply stores, but had failed to locate this essential implement. I threw a few varieties of wood saws into the truck before heading out. However, I turned it over in my mind as I rolled down I-5, and just north of Lake Oswego I had a "Eureka" moment: the sporting goods store G.I. Joe's must surely have implements like this for hunters, wouldn't they? So five minutes later I was standing at the gun counter of G.I. Joe's explaining what I was looking for. And of course they had everything I needed, and a few things I hadn't even known I needed.

When I arrived at the farm Nate was cooking a last meal for the pig: squash with a tasty-looking dressing filling. None of the five of us had actually butchered anything as large as a pig; the fellow with the calf-skinning experience was used to just transferring calves from one cow to another by means of putting a skin on an orphan. Our big point of discussion was whether one had to scald and scrape the hide. We went back and forth on it, wondering if leaving the bristles on made it difficult to remove the hide, or whether it was primarily necessary if one wanted to the pigskin for leather. Nate had heard that it could be done without the scalding and scraping, and we didn't have the means to dip anything as large as the pig in hot water, so we figured we'd just wing it. As we went over our last minute thoughts, we realized that we lacked some means to wrap the meat. I made a quick trip into town, where I found that Fred Meyer had the freezer paper and freezer tape that we needed. Finally, we went out to the cow shed, where the pig was penned. The pig, as usual, was excited to see us, as visitors usually meant FOOD.

We rehearsed the sequence: feed the pig so that it was focused on food, not on people. Shoot the pig to stun it. Helpers leap into action to flip the stunned pig over. Nate wields the knife to cut the jugular vein; it's a little tricky to do, because the pig is likely to be thrashing, and you have to go in deep just above the breastbone. Bleed the pig out, and then figure out our next move.

There was a moment of silence after we tossed the squash into the pen. All of us were touched by the knowledge that we were about to take the life of a fellow creature, I think. I said a few words of thanks, and prayed that we would would not cause suffering. Then Nate stepped into the pen with the rifle. The pig was a little confused by this, and temporarily slowed down in his feeding; Nate drew a sight on the pig, the pig moved, he drew another sight. Finally the pig bent down to eat again, and Nate pulled the trigger. There was a loud pop of the .22, and the pig knelt down. Nate handed off the rifle, and two helpers jumped into the pen and flipped the pig over. The pig was making some noises, but not loudly, and it was thrashing quite a bit. The two helpers did the best they could to hold the pig steady for Nate to cut the jugular.

Photo: Nate cutting the jugular

Nate's knife went home swiftly and accurately, and the pig's thrashing became a twitching, and then the twitching gave way to stillness. There was some blood on the clean straw we had laid out in the pen, but not a lot. I have to give Nate a lot of credit, he looked like a pro doing the difficult parts.

We looked over our options for stringing the pig up; we needed to get the pig hanging cleanly so that we wouldn't contaminate it working on the ground. I had purchased a hunting gambrel at G.I. Joe's, along with a special skinning knife (two of the things I hadn't known I needed). The idea is that you have to hook the rear hoof tendons over the gambrel, and then pull the pig up vertical using the block and tackle that comes with it. Nate and I cut into the rear ankles of the pig and exposed the tendons, and we got the pig hooked. However, when we tried to raise it using the skinny rope that came with the gambrel, it broke! The falling pig caused me to skin my arm a bit on the cow shed as it went down. We decided to give up on the skinny rope and the block and tackle, and just use our manpower to hold the pig in position while I did a very quick bowline knot around the beam with a thick hank of rope that was hanging in the cow shed (thank goodness for "Knots You Can Use," a book that I've had on my bedside table this past year).

Photo: the pig strung up.

Our next step was to slit the belly to gain access to the internal organs. In the big picture of things, we had to remove the organs and digestive tract cleanly, since we didn't want to contaminate the meat with material from the intestines. The skinning knife from G.I. Joe's worked great for its intended use, and Nate cut the belly cleanly.

Photo: slitting the belly.

About this time we decided to do a little exploratory skinning to see whether we were going to have a problem since we had not scalded the hide. Initial results were promising, and Nate was pleased that the pig seemed to have a decent layer of fat.

Photo: cutting away the hide.

The next step was to get serious about removing the digestive tract. The key is to keep manure from coming out anus; Nate had to do some very careful cutting around the anus to isolate the lower intestine and tie it off with string. Meanwhile one of our helpers had to hold up the rest of the digestive tract to keep it from flopping out of the belly.

Photo: Removing the internal organs.

Finally, Nate was able to free the lower intestine, and we were able to proceed. Since Nate was working in the back, it fell to me to do the cutting on the other end of the digestive and cardiopulmonary apparatus. I removed the lungs, heart, liver, and then finally the stomach and upper intestine. This left a relatively cleaned out carcass. As Nate remarked, the pig started to look less like a pig, and more like a large cut of pork.

Photo: cleaned out carcass.

Our skinning expert went to work while the rest of grabbed a bite to eat in the kitchen. At this point it was getting late in the afternoon, and I gathered up my tools and started getting ready to leave as a light rain began to fall. Luckily the forecast was for a cold night, so we weren't under the gun to finish the butchering in a single day. I stopped by the cowshed one last time to find that our skinner had nearly completed his job.

Photo: the hide nearly stripped.

I was not there for the rest of the butchering, but I can relate what Nate told me. Once they had the hide off, they then sawed straight down the carcass, cutting through the spine and head; Nate said that there was a surprising amount of meat on the head, including the jowls. Then they removed the head, and moved the work area to a low platform near the barn. Here, Nate used a book on butchering to separate out the various cuts: hams, loins, ribs, pork chops, etc.

Photo: doing it by the book.

Nate said that at this point it was just a workmanlike task of separating out the different cuts of meat according to the book instructions. Mostly he said that he did his work with the saw to cut through bones, and then used a large knife for meat sections.

Photo: separating the loin from the side.

Photo: Nate cutting bacon.

Photo: one side of bacon.

Photo: hams up close.

Photo: pork chops up close.

Nate reflecting on a long day's work the next day:

admiringcuts (67k image)

I don't know how much total weight of pork the pig yielded, but I do know that Nate was able to share a ham, some bacon, and a number of pork chops with our family, give some to the neighbor Ed, and still have half a pig for his own freezer. We've had a couple dinners from the meat he gave us, and it has been delicious; here is a photo of a pork chop with apple stuffing on a plate:

PorkChop (30k image)

A couple of years back I was reflecting on the fact that while I was mostly eating a vegetarian diet, I still cooked chicken and fish from time to time. I made a conscious decision to stop buying pre-cut meat from the grocer's, and I starting buying whole fish and whole chicken fryers. I taught myself to cut them up properly; it was a bit of an adjustment mentally (and it takes a damn sharp knife), but overall I felt more honest about eating meat occasionally. Butchering our pig was a giant step along that same path. To be absolutely honest, taking the life of an animal that I had helped care for (in a small way) was hard, and in some ways my mind recoils from it. On the other hand, if one is to eat meat (and I do enjoy meat) one should be prepared to carry the act from the inception forward through to the logical end (as Garrison Keillor says, "If you didn't want to go to Minneapolis, why did you get on the train?"). There's also the realization that having a pig on the farm fulfills a useful function: the pig consumes certain types of waste and does useful rooting in its pen, and the flesh of the pig feeds humans. In a low-energy future, knowing how to raise and butcher a pig is likely to be handy, if not essential.


Adria said:

Wow! Thank you for sharing the butchering of the pig. I live in Minneapolis and was doing research on proper methods to freeze meat; specifically about using freezer paper and came across your site. Over the last 2 years, I've been buying more and more of my food at the local coop. It started with lactose free milk since I'm bi-racial and most people of color cannot process lactose. I also found lactose pills at the co-op in quantity versus buying puny foil-wrapped pills at Target. I now buy all my dairy, most of my cheese and some veggies at the coop. I'm still experimenting with the meat.

I would love to learn how to butcher meat so if you have any local contacts, I would be interested. I'm also planning to contact local farmers of eggs, honey and other products I buy on a regular basis at the co-op and request a tour.

From my signature, you can see I've also decided to use organics as a focus for my technology business. I am really just starting to understand how unhealthy mainstream processed foods are and am working to understand and adapt my diet.

Thanks again it looks like you guys did a great job! Also, if you have advice for freezing the meat, I'd be interested in that too.

Best Wishes!
Adria Richards
Organic Technology Consultant

Kurt says: we're not experts in freezing, by any means, but I think that the general idea is that you use butcher paper and freezer tape, wrap securely, and place in freezer so that there is air circulation around the packages initially. This would promote a quick freezing process. Note, however, that part of the butchering process is to let the meat hang for a day; this tenderizes the meat a bit.

Daniel said:

I agree with most of what you say. In particular, it is a more honest way of eating the flesh of animals if one has some connection to them other than opening a plastic wrapped package.

I have hunted on occasion, but the most difficult shot by far was 15 years ago, looking through the scope at a deer (my first non-bird shot). I thought long and hard about what I was going to do. I chose to fire, and killed the deer cleanly. I also appreciated every bite.

The Proprietor said:

I happened on your pig butchering post through and found it interesting.

We find ourselves in similar circumstances, raising more of our own food through or desire to have food security and the ethical dillema of $1.99 plastic wrapped supermarket cuts.

We haven't butchered a pig but I do butcher young goats as part of keeping a small herd of dairy goats (there is the nessecity of freshening the does for continued milk, and buck kids are mainly destined for meat). It was interesting reading about your thought process through slaughter and butchering.

I thought you might be interested in the blog I know the farmer who writes it. We buy whole pigs from him every six to nine months. He writes alot about alternative approaches to managing his pigs, processing meat at home, curing hams and local agriculture.

Thanks for your words

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