What I Learned from Butchering a Pig

What happens when a menswear blogger has to confront the source of his beloved bacon? Four Pins' Jake Woolf finds out during a whole-hog butchery class at Dickson's Farmstand Meats.

Photo: Liz Barclay

Photo: Liz Barclay

I love eating meat. But like most Americans, I don’t know how or where or in what ways that meat goes from being a living, eating, and shitting thing to being forcefully shoved into my impatient face—then, 10 minutes later, lamented as a mistake.

As far as being the type of person who sees human beings as “above” or “out of” the food chain, I’m as bad as anyone else. Besides a vague sense of Food, Inc.-inspired first-world guilt and mild curiosity, there’s not much else that made me want to know more about how pig becomes bacon, and eventually my ill-advised breakfast Still, I recently found myself in a “Whole Hog Butchery for Charcuterie” class at Dickson’s Farmstead Meats in Chelsea Market. And, yes, I had a good time. And, no, they didn’t pay me to say that. (In fact, I paid them!)

One of the first things I noticed about the class was how absurdly cold it was in the back of the butcher’s shop. It makes sense, considering meat goes bad when left in warm temperatures, and the good people at Dickson’s are not in the business of poisoning customers. But shit, it was still cold as a witch’s tit. The hypochondriac in me couldn’t help but think that the chances of getting sick via hypothermia were equal, if not greater than, the chances of getting sick from raw pig meat. Thankfully, this fear quickly dissipated—not because I decided to ignore it, but because they serve as much beer and wine as you can drink during the class. About 10 minutes in, I had already added the additional, crucial layer of a beer coat.

I was asked to saw a portion of the animal, and it was genuinely fun once I got the image of Babe out of my head.

Once the actual learning portion began, the class was casual and light-hearted. It was clear that this wasn’t some advanced seminar in butchery, and we certainly weren’t going to walk back out into the world as experts on the subject. Both of the teachers were employees of the shop—white men who looked to be in their early ‘30s. One was a rotund and entertaining fellow, while the other was soft-spoken, tall, and lanky, outfitted with a beard and beanie. He was the type of guy I would typically indict for looking the way he did, especially if I were to discover his profession. But he was truly masterful with a blade, skillfully detaching meat from bone and avoiding cartilage when necessary. His artistry was not a hipster affectation, nor was this class some sort of sermon on the benefits of farm-to-table style eating.

The lessons were served up plainly and without pretension; prepared meats were served up cured. Probably the best part of the whole experience was when we were allowed to sample the work of a class six months prior, enjoying the fruits of their amateur labor in the form of delicious, salty prosciutto and a maple-glazed pork chop that may have been the single most delicious piece of food I’ve ever eaten. Or maybe that’s just the beer talking, plus the fact that it was the only thing served warm during the session.

butchering jakes What I Learned from Butchering a Pig

The author wields a meat saw for the first time in his life.

What did I even learn in 90 minutes slicing and consuming pig parts? I learned that in some alternate universe, I could actually see myself being a butcher. I admit that I like the idea on a purely romantic level. At one point, I was asked to saw a portion of the animal, and it was genuinely fun once I got the image of Babe out of my head.

Even if it sounds clichéd, there is something genuinely humbling about seeing a dead animal, in all its lifeless glory, laid out on a table. There was no styrofoam or Saran Wrap in sight—no “SPECIAL DEAL!” tag hanging over it trying to entice me to buy buy buy consume consume consume eat more food you greedy fuck. This thing was once alive, and now it isn’t, more directly because of me than ever before. Acknowledging this reality sometimes has the power to turn people into vegans and vegetarians, but, really, it just made me want to make something delicious out of this son of a bitch.

butchery dicksons charcuterie What I Learned from Butchering a Pig

Photo: Dickson’s Farmstand Meats

I also learned a few of the things I had hoped to learn from the class going into it, like which part of the pig bacon comes from, and which parts of it are totally inedible (not many, it turns out, though there is not a huge demand for pig hearts or livers). But the real takeaway was that while this was no “come to organic meat Jesus” moment, it was the perfect way to shock my totally-detached-from-the-realities-of-how-food-is-actually-made system—to wake me up from the industrial meat matrix, if only momentarily.

The class’s final act consisted of us taking a cut of meat I can’t recall at this time (I ended up switching from beer to red wine at one point), grinding it up, seasoning it, and making our own sausages using a web-like natural casing known as caul fat. We each were allowed to take home our own work, which I idiotically put in the refrigerator—not the much more sanitary freezer—a day before going on vacation.

While this was no “come to organic meat Jesus” moment, it was the perfect way to wake up from the industrial meat matrix—if only momentarily.

Upon my return, I stared at my week-old patties and wondered if they had gone bad, analyzing the pros and cons of cooking and then eating meat I had actually butchered. I found myself thinking about everyone else’s hands in the class who may have gotten their nasty germs on my meat, all of them riding the subway and sneezing into their hands en route to Chelsea Market. Could I even be trusted? Where was the FDA now to inspect this and make sure I was okay?

This time around my hypochondria got the better of me, and I ended up throwing sausages away and ordering some sort of meat-based thing on Seamless that I don’t even remember.

Jake Woolf is a writer who mostly writes about clothes but wishes he wrote about food more often because that shit is delicious. Follow him on Twitter: @JakeWoolf.

Interested in taking a butchery class at Dickson’s Farmstand Meats? Check out the schedule and sign up here.

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