Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Stoic Butchery

Last week we sent two more of our Berkshire hogs out the slaughterhouse, and between Friday and Saturday I cut up one into chops, hams, bellies for pancetta and about 90 pounds of meat for salami and breakfast sausage. As you will see in the slideshow the quality of the pork is superb. The fat is thick and white and, most importantly, the meat is well-marbled with fat.

Unless you shop at one of those yuppie-marts that sell heritage pork , you won't see pork like this in the supermarket where pale, insipid low-cal pork reigns pathetic. And you certainly won't have the experience of having known the animal that died so that you might eat him -or in the present case, her.

To have had a personal relationship with the animal that you cook for dinner is galvanizing, and not recommended for the squeamish or those who like the truth about what their food REALLY IS buried under layers of denial. Me, I drink my coffee black, my Scotch neat and I'm not eating meat unless I know I can bear raising an animal, killing it, cutting it up and cooking it. Suffice it to say, I am there. The killing part of the process is pretty damned unpleasant and nowadays the smell of death is always in the air when I cook. But that is as it should be: it is reality.

We only get one chance to confront what we are and to consider the consequences of our appetites. And if you believe, as I do, that every Homo sapien is born with the responsibility of thinking about itself and its realtionship to the universe, then failure to know the animals and plants we eat and the circumstances of their lives and deaths, is a failure of the most basic kind. Because dudes, failure to live up to something that is so basic to to human nature that it is encoded in our species name (sapien= knowing or wise) , is very, very lame.

If you have not figured this out from the title and the tenor of my writing, my thinking about how I should relate to the world around me has been seasoned pretty heavily by stoicism. And, as a big fan of the stoic philosopher, Caesar Marcus Aurelius (I actually named one of my kids after him.) I'm pulling out chunks of his Meditations to help explain, or at least, reiterate what I believe

Observe what thy nature requires, so far as thou art governed by nature only: then do it and accept it [Emphasis mine; Meditations, Book 10]
Our nature demands that we know what we are, what we do, and the consequences that result from our actions. If we refuse to accept this, we cannot be fully human. Again I cite Aurelius

It is satisfaction to a man to do the proper works of a man... to form a just judgment of plausible appearances, and to take a survey of the nature of the universe and of the things which happen in it. [Book 8]
If we ignore the likelihood that Aurelius was referring to males and substitute the word "human" for man, then it follows that we cannot be fully human (satisfied) if we do not make every effort understand the context of our existence. Of course, eating is only one of the behaviors that we engage in as we progress through life. And to keep track of everything we do and its consequences is probably an impossible task. But since eating is something we do nearly all the time and because it has such a profound impact on the things that we eat, I think that it deserves special attention.

So if you cook and eat meat, but have never killed anything directly and watched it while its life bleeds out onto the soil. If you have never smelled the aroma of entrails as they spill from a hoisted carcass, you might consider learning about this part of the cooking cycle. I doubt you will find it especially pleasant, but I am certain you will learn something about the universe and yourself that will help you to realize who you are.

Just in case you have trouble relating what you see in the slideshow to a living thing. Here is a republish of a video of me feeding the hogs at the farm. The carcass on the cutting table comes from one of these fine looking animals.



ChrisC said...

No slideshow, though. Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

Fantastic site! I learn something valuable every time I visit! Please keep it up. I'm interested in the pros and cons of feeding pigs meat scraps. My uninformed notion was that one was supposed to feed them only grains and vegetable slop.
Joe, Santa Rosa, CA

MessyONE said...

Now THAT was a pig. Beautiful. Your slide show reminded me that I have to call the pork guy in Milwaukee and talk to him about an order.

We used to raise a few Long Whites. We kept only one sow (who adored nettles, go figure), and we sold most of the piglets as weaners, keeping a couple of them for ourselves. I never learned to butcher, though, so I'll have to rely on others.

Thanks for the anatomy lecture.

Jennie/Tikka said...

Just a side note - here in California Proposition 2 passed. It is now a requirement that all animals raised for food are raised in such a way so they can fully extend their legs/limbs/wings once each day.

Not the best but hey, it's still progress!

Walt said...


That was awesome. This post is one to bookmark.

I've been doing a good bit of Charcuterie and I'm currently looking for a source for whole organic hogs. (If anyone knows a source in Eastern Ohio or Western Pa. please let me know.)

I don't have the place to raise the hog and develop the personal relationship Bob mentions. But I've long had the goal of butchering a hog myself thinking this would somehow help me get to know and respect it on a more visceral level. With this post, Bob reinforces the notion that the closer your relationship with the animal (or anything for that matter) the higher the respect.

Good show Bob, and a great lesson we all can learn from. I only wish you weren't preaching to the choir...

ntsc said...


Try the West Side Market in Cleveland. Try Menonite or Amish communities. Dietrich's Meat may not be organic, but they two get a two page citation in the book Slow Food.

They are also just down the road a piece from where Bob works. I don't remember them having pork for sale when I was there, but would assume that if they have it they sell it.

This collection is all from Dietrich

And this, when fresh came from there.

ntsc said...

Dietrich's will have pork, it is Bob's place that didn't have it in stock, or rather I don't remember it. They did have his sausage.

Walt said...


Thanks for the heads up. I know an organic farmer in Ohio in Amish country. Somehow, until your post it never occured to me to ask him for a referal, thanks.

Thanks also for the link to your blog. You have some great stuff over there. That pork belly from Dietrich's may not be organic but it certainly wasn't factory farmed.

As luck would have it I'll be comming home from Northern Jersey after Thanksgiving...It looks like our route takes us about 1 mile from Dietrich's.

Thanks for the links!

Livert said...

Within a simple discussion of hog butchery, I find a elegant exploration of both moral stance and olfactory experience. What a pleasure.

Ed Bruske said...

I will second that emotion, Bob, even as I head off to the market for what I know will be inferior pork products with which to contruct our first choucroute garni with homemade sauerkraut. So I have this question, whether anyone else raising pork in the old manner is taking the extra step of curing it into those wonderful pork products we have come to love. So far, I have not found it at the farmers market and I'm wondering if I'm going to have to set up my own smoke house.

Bob del Grosso said...

I don't know of anyone else who is doing what we are doing. But this in not to suggest that we are alone and indicative only of the narrow focus of my day to day existence. Sorry.

Pigs are omnivores who, like humans, adore meat -they rip it to shreds like lions on a hard won kill. Perhaps vegetables are better for them, I don't know. Actually, our hogs eat mostly plant based food, but when they get meat they go nuts with glee.


Thanks, I'm trying really hard to explain what I see. It's nice to know when people notice. Thanks!


Thanks, your comment is humbling and inspiring -no hyperbole intended.

boberica said...

Hi Bob
Thanx so much for taking us along forget thethe ride on this hogs journey into meatdom.
I applaud your butchery chops as well. In this day of "every penny counts", I find that this is my most important skill in the kitchen.
I've been given about 20 sq feet and a small budget to build a curing room upstairs at the brewpub where I cook.
Any advice on small humidifiers or all-in-1 conditioning units for a space this small?
the beginning of a great adventure!

Christian said...

This may seem like a really basic question, but if I'm looking for pork that tastes like pork (and not pork as "the other white meat"), what do I ask for? Are the two different breeds? Or does it mostly have to do with the breeding?

Peter said...

I will be making sausages soon with parts of a quarter pig I bought from my biodynamic CSA farm.
Any chance of a sausage-making video soon? Or at least a good recipe for breakfast sausage and especially maple sausage (my wife's favourite).

Peter in Montreal

Peter said...

oops - I found your sausage stuffing pics and video. Want to share a recipe or two?

Bob del Grosso said...

The simplest questions are always the most difficult. There are several dozen (perhaps more) breed of pigs and each have unique attributes. Some lay most of their fat on top of their muscle tissue while others (e.g. Berkshires) produce marbled meat while others comine the attributes of the extremes.

But never mind. If you want pork that tastes like pork you should seek out pork that comes from animals that have a varied diet (think of a diet that you would like to have -but with a lot more food) and spend most of their time outdoors running around and being pigs. That should do it.

Write to me at my email address and we will proceed from there.

ntsc said...

Lawrence Block uses a hog pen to dispose of a few bodies in one of his early Matt Scudder novels. Worked well and is mentioned again in one of the later ones. When years later the farm's non-owner (another story) give Scudder's girl-friend, who is a Jewish vegetarian, a ham for Christmas.

CIA still separates garbage into edible non-edible but it is not fed to pigs anymore. Health reasons