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I butchered a pig, and now my me is better

August 20, 2010

I’m not often all that big on rites-of-passage and the like, but I honestly think I can now divide my life between the time before I butchered a pig and the new, better and brighter time after I butchered a pig. Note, if you’re squeamish you may not want to see the pics in this post, but if you don’t mind seeing what meat looks like before being deconstructed forge on ahead.

So I was out the other night when the Sunday Dinner masterminds showed up. I’ve cooked with them a couple times (including for the mind-bending cassoulet dinner) and it’s always been an absolute pleasure to pretend like I know what I’m doing and help knock out dynamite meals for real live people who aren’t me or my lovely wife. So when they told me that they’d just scored a 220-pound pig that they would be taking apart the next day, I begged and pleaded and voodooed my way into convincing them that they should let me join in the adventure. They agreed. I got REAL excited.

First off: the reason there was a pig in the first place is because Josh and Christine were invited to display their prowess at the Goose Island 2nd Annual Pig Roast this Sunday, August 22. I can’t make and I am VERY upset about it. If you’re in Chicago, I can think of no finer way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Get thee there.

I showed up to their shared kitchen the next morning practically vibrating. Totally jazzed to get into the action, and I think a little bit of nerves because who knows how’d I’d react to this? Chickens are one thing. Pig bigger then me is a whole other thing. And man, it was BIG (and right now I should explain that my real camera is on vacation in Panama right now, so the fuzzy, crappier pics are from my iPhone, while the nicer ones are from Christine’s newer and infinitely better iPhone).

It took several of us strapping lads just to get the 220-pound beast up off the cart onto the table, and once there there was much discussion about what to do next. Josh decided that we should butcher this pig. We wholeheartedly agreed.

The head came off first. Preeeeeetty intense. Then, a cut through the back to reveal the spine. People like to say something is like cutting through butter. Butter has nothing on cutting through pig.

Then, we sawed directly down the spine from neck to tail. It immediately became apparent why butchers use band saws, and why those who don’t are built like ogres. We had hack saws, which I think made us more badass than letting electricity do all the work, but it was legitimately strenuous to work our way through those vertebrae, both in the actual sawing and in having to hold up various ends of half-pig to keep an angle available for the saw blade. It’s a full-body contact sport, and all the while you have to be careful not to mangle any of the precious precious meat while essentially trying to carve through muscle-caked marble. I can safely say that sawing through spine was the most metal thing I’ve ever done. I felt like MAN. If lost in the wilderness with nary but a nice saw and an already dead, gutted wild boar, I can now cut it in half.

Anyway, here’s where we were now:

It’s one thing to kind of know where all the various cuts of meat come from on an animal, but seeing them all in one piece, and how they all flow together is simply fascinating–moving from jowl to shoulder to blade to ribs to belly to tenderloin to loin to ham to hoofs. Enlightening.

Here’s me with a freshly hewn shoulder. Note that that goofy grin didn’t leave my face all day, and even for quite some time after the four-hour process was finished.

And here we see bacon in its natural habitat.

And me sawing off the ham. And then me being quite pleased about having sawed off the ham.

Breaking down ribs . . .

Without a doubt one of the trickiest parts was cutting the aitch bone (basically the back hip–do pigs have hips?–and thigh bone and that sort of backwardsy knee joint they have) out of the ham without mangling the surrounding meat. It’s like this bone invented its own new dimension to slide in and out of while you try to maneuver the knife around it. Devilishly complex structure. I studied Josh’s technique:

And then pretty much forgot it all in a second when it came to be my turn with the other ham. But with much coaching and “No, that’s not the worst thing you could have done” encouragement, I’m proud to say I managed to do a reasonably good job.

Of course, lest this all be about the taking apart and with no mention of, you know, the food, it was pretty awesome to just cut out the tenderloin right then and there and toss it on the grill. Nummers.

In all, this was simply one of the neatest, most rewarding things I’ve ever done in my entire life. I’m not sure why people use the verb “butcher” when they mean that someone ruined something. I now know that it means to take a beautiful animal and break it down into all its little wonderful pieces. I think it’s an invaluable, respectful thing that anyone who eats the stuff of life should do, if at all possible. I honestly can’t thank Josh and Christine enough for letting me share in this nearly religious experience. Life changing stuff, and can’t wait to do it again. There was talk of a goat . . .

3 Comments leave one →
  1. paul permalink
    August 21, 2010 12:33 am

    I’ve made sausage with gramps once or twice when i was 7 or 8. All I remember is how the guts we used for casings stank and had to be soaked and rinsed of what I assumed at the time to be poo residue.
    This looks altogether more fun. I don’t remember you being this excited about something since, well, ever. Have you perhaps found your calling? Maybe they have an opening at Bornhoff’s…

  2. Lauren permalink
    August 21, 2010 5:45 am

    oy Mr. Chipman, you are certainly more of a man with every passing day. I do sense a calling perhaps. I love you all the more for your unbridled enthusiasm.

  3. August 24, 2010 9:18 am

    Have you read Cleaving by Julie Powell?

    this post reminded me of the time my husband, who owned a restaurant at the time, had a hawaiian luau, and he thought it would be funny to leave the head of the suckling pig in our refrigerator for me to “discover.” I was not amused. Pork rules, but I don’t need pigs heads in my fridge.

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