Saturday, May 19, 2012

Breaking News: Meat Comes From Dead Animals

Have you ever sat eating one of those frozen single-serving dinners and thought to yourself, "Wow I'm glad I didn't have to deal with this meat when it was raw.  That would have been gross?"

I've done that.

For all the preaching I do about the importance of understanding where your food comes from...well...I don't really understand where my food comes from.  At least not the meat.  I could draw a pretty decent pictures of, say, an apple tree and point out where the fruit is, but I couldn't really show you on a pig which part is the ham or the bacon or whatever.  And really, I don't have a whole lot of desire to know these things.  The less the meat I eat looks like something that was once alive, the happier I am.  It's why I don't eat lobster.

That's a bit of a hypocritical stance for a sustainable food blogger though, so when Slow Food hosted a butchering class less than a mile from my apartment, I figured I didn't really have a choice.  It was too blatant a personal challenge to ignore.

Along with a dozen others, I showed up on a Sunday afternoon earlier in May to a shared kitchen space where local butcher Vadim Akimenko taught us where various cuts of meat can be found on a dead pig, and how to separate them.

The pig had come from the farm where it was killed (stunned so that it felt no pain before having its throat cut in order to properly bleed out, we were assured) in two halves, the long way.  Weighing in at 173 pounds(!), the pig had to be carried in over Vadim’s shoulder one half at a time.  He hoisted each half off his shoulder onto the stainless steel table, where it fell with a wet thump.  

Each half of the pig lay skin side down so that, as the students gathered around, we were peering into an empty rib cage, from which the organs had already been removed. After the initial strangeness, it wasn’t so bad.

Vadim then made a few cuts in one half of the pig, and chose a member of the class to do the same to the other half, and the reason for slicing the corpse in half became clear.  This was excellent presentation.  Something learned in a communication or education or maybe even performance class.  Not at a slaughterhouse or processing plant.  He might as well have been writing math problems on a chalkboard and calling on pupils to come up and solve them.

And then he flipped his half over.  And suddenly we weren’t in class anymore.  Suddenly we were just a bunch of people looking at a dead body.

With one graceful, fluid motion, Vadim had rolled the pig so that it was skin-side-up and, with his knife, flipped the ear over to cover the open eye.

Too late, of course.  In the fraction of a second in which I met the dead, staring gaze of that one black eye, I heard the cartoon voice of Wilbur clear as day, crying “I don’t want to die,” and it was almost over right there.  My glance swung to the hook where I’d hung my jacket, and then to the door, and then to the street, where my car was shining in the glare of the sunlight.  Ninety seconds and I could be speeding away from this place forever.

But if I walked away, I’d feel like a phony every time I ate bacon for the rest of my life.

Plus, I’d be out 80 bucks.

So I stayed and watched as the butcher and his students- usually with a modest six-inch boning knife, but sometimes with an enormous jigsaw that made me think about that movie where Carey Elwes doesn't rescue the princess- slowly broke down the animal until the head and feet were gone, and what I was looking at began to look more like a grocery store meat case than an operating table.

I listened as our teacher gave instructions such as “hold the knife like Norman Bates” and “be careful not to stab yourself in the leg, because you’ll definitely die.”

When it was my turn, I had the job of peeling the fat off the pig’s back.

“See that line there?  It just tells you where to cut it!  It’s easy!” said Vadim with the excitement of someone who truly loves his job.  And he was right. There was a clear line separating the fat from the muscle, and I set to work with the boning knife, cutting and peeling until the fat came off and went into the “usable trim” bucket along with…well, never mind.

The next thing I had to do was crack the spine in order to separate the rib cage into two sets.  Vadim had made it look easy a few minutes before on his half.  Just stick the knife between the two bones you want to separate, slide the body so it’s half off the table, then WHOMP! Bring your weight down on the dangling half so that it snaps over the edge and separates from the upper part.

But…this thing was so heavy…and slippery…there was nothing to really grip.  What if I broke it and it fell on the floor?  My hesitation made for a not-so-clean break, and in the end I had to go back in with the boning knife and make the final separation, but the job was done.  The pig eventually deconstructed into portion-sized, recognizable pieces, and we each went home with several pounds worth of the spoils of war.

This was two week ago and it's all still sitting in my freezer.  The truth is I'm putting off cooking it.  There's too much pressure to make the perfect meal.  To let not even a bite go to waste.  Anything less and he'll know.  He'll be watching me with that one black eye.

1 comment:


    "the butcher and the pig"