Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The beauty of anatomy: A home pig processing

If you are squeamish or sensitive or strongly vegan or vegetarian, then this will not be a good post to read, as it celebrates the beauty of various fresh organs and tissues and the wonderful food value of pigs.

Processing animals takes skill and is hard work. I wanted to share this, not to freak out malnourished-hysterical-vegan-animal-rights people, but rather as an appreciation for the good food on our plate and for everyone who has forgotten this very basic human skill.

Contrary to what I had always thought before, processing animals is not tragic, disgusting or horrible. At least it doesn't have to be. Our pigs live happy outdoor lives with plenty of grass, fresh air, space and sunshine. Processing days, in my mind, are heavy with the sweet, smoky smell of the fire. There is an unusual sense of community and purpose. Something very deeply human comes forth. Here is the story:

(This day that I recorded we managed to do two pigs in a day with three people, which we were quite proud of. )

First we prepare a fire and fill our scalding tub with water and pine needles (our scalding tub is an old 1929 cast iron bathtub salvaged from one of the old chert "Tom Petty houses" in Gainesville that were demolished by Ethan's friend's brother earlier this year). The pine needles are traditional and help to loosen the hair. When the scald water is hot enough, we kill the animal with a .22. Usually this is very quick and the animal does not suffer. We give them a bucket of feed and a few moments later the animal is down. The other pigs never care at all and seem to be glad there is more food left for them (this here is the most unsettling part of the whole thing).

Then we drag the carcass over to the scalding tub and cut slits in the tendons on the backs of the legs. These tendons are very strong and will not break. Hooks are fitted into the slits and with the help of a block and tackle we hoist the animal up.

We cut the jugular vein and collect the blood in a bowl to be mixed with marjoram, pepper, garlic, salt and cracked barley. You can put a little vinegar in to keep it from coagulating. We set it aside for making blood sausage (blutwurst) and blood cake.

Then we dip the carcass in the scald tub to loosen the hair. We know we got a good scald when the hair is easy to pull out. Then we hoist the carcass up again and tie it off securely. With large, sharp knives we scrape the hair and first layer of skin off. It is sort of like shaving. This is the most tedious and time-consuming part, reminding me that traditional people had good attention spans. In a processing facility pig carcasses are skinned. We don't skin them because we want to salvage as much of the good delicious fat as possible. If you don't get all the hair off you will have hairy bacon.

I always think of the "Ballybay" song: "Children on the stairs, and children in the bier/ and another ten or twelve over sittin' by the fire/ she fed them on potatoes and a soup she made with nettles/ and lots of hairy bacon that she boiled in the kettle..."

Once the scraping is all done, it's time for the tricky part. We sharpen our knives well and I make a very careful incision along the belly and, as our book Home Processing of Livestock and Game (our copy is blood stained) says, "Cut deeply around the bung and tie it off." This is difficult, because if you cut too deeply or at the wrong angle it will cut open the intestines. It is always best if the intestines stay intact until later.

The first thing I see when I make the cut is the beautiful crystal-white bloom of the subcutaneous fat. Underneath there is a layering of muscle--the abdominal muscles I suppose, and more fat beyond this to cushion the organs. When you get to the abdominal cavity a fluid runs out. The beautiful veined blue ruffles of the intestines start to bulge out.

Now I begin dissecting the tissue from around the pelvis. With the male pigs you really have to watch out for the urethra, because if it is nicked it will leak stinky urine everywhere, which will have a poor effect on the pork.
Using a saw I cut through the pelvis. This is always the most anxious part. I am never sure if I am cutting quite right, but it always works out and the bones spring apart and I pull the end of the colon and the tied-off bung through the pelvis. Then I gently cut around the spine, breaking all the little ropes of connective tissue as I go, and keeping an eye out for the plump and delicate kidneys hiding in their glorious igloos of fat. Here are the kidneys with the fat removed:

The organs begin to all come out in a great mass, their beauty revealed: The delicate curves and pinkish ruffles of the small intestines attached by scalloping tissue in a tentacled mass, the large blue-green bulging colon...

The smooth and slippery brown-lobed liver on my right with the green aqueous mass of the gallbladder riding like a glassy spot on one flat lobe;

On my left there is the spleen, a hidden purple-mottled sea creature, like some long, flat primitive aquatic life form, lying in wait between the smooth white bulge of the deep purple-veined stomach and the intestines. Attached along the bottom length of the spleen is a clear expanse of tissue, all white-webbed, and when it is held up and stretched out it glistens in the sunlight like a fine and gossamer spiderweb of lace. The most beautiful part, I think.

Now I encounter the diaphragm, which guards the chest cavity. Cutting carefully I detach it from the ribs. Just when I think I've finished with it there will be another piece holding everything back. Digging deep into the chest cavity I cut away the esophagus and bring forth the treasure of the heart, wrapped carefully in the membranous pericardium, attached inseparably to the red-marbled lungs. The lungs are the same color as the surface of Mars and have an unearthly lightness to them. It is like lifting a porous volcanic rock: The expected weight makes you try harder than you need to.

At last the organs all fall away from the empty carcass, and I pick out the ones to wash and save. You can eat the whole pig, really, but my family only prefers the heart, liver, spleen, kidneys, and a few intestines for blood sausage. We could eat the chitlins and stomach if we wanted to. We also save the lungs, but only for the cat. If anyone knows a good recipe for the lungs, please share it.

Now there remains removing the head and front trotters. The head has lots of good stuff--brains, ears, jowls, cheeks, snout and tongue. Headcheese is a good use for the head, in which the entire head is washed and boiled for a long time. Little pieces of meat are scraped off and minced, and the broth becomes a gelatious aspic. Likewise Brawn can be made, which is very similar, except that the trotters are included.

At last the carcass is washed down and ready to be taken to the butcher. I stay behind and cut sections of small intestine, which I wash thoroughly, turn inside out with a spoon and soak in vinegar before stuffing with the blood and barley mixture for blood sausage. At home we boil the sausage and bake it in the oven. The skin turns crusty and black. It is a very rich and delicious dish.
After all the work and clean up were done and the organs were washed and bagged and put on ice, we sat down to a delicious meal of pig's heart and slices of the diaphragm grilled with Vindaloo seasoning and sea salt. In the frying pan is leaf lard, cracklings, corn fry bread and sliced cheeks and jowls. We also had radish pickles, eggs baked in clay and a Seminole pumpkin. Yum!

The very best part about the processing is the amazing amount of really nourishing and delicious food that we have afterwards. Our house smells beautifully from the lard cooking down and stock simmering on the stove. We can look forward to fried kidneys, dried salted pig's liver, liver pate, blood sausage, blood cake, rolled spleen cooked in broth, stuffed trotters, and pea soup with pig's ears, as well as real risen lard-fried doughnuts and other lovely things cooked in lard, bacon and sausage. Here is a photo of cavity fat to be cooked down into leaf lard. Leaf lard is more saturated than regular lard and is preferred for tender, flaky pastry.

I hope that I have done well to express the awe and reverence that processing pigs has given me for the cycles of life and death and the beauty and mystery of the organs. It means so much to me to have had the experience of holding a fresh liver, or to see delicate layers of connective tissue or to feel the slippery fluid around the hyaline cartilage of the joints. I feel a deeper connection and understanding of my own physical body.
To end, I must express our appreciation for our pigs, whose sacrifice has given us so much to be thankful for.

Cabbages and a Turkey Egg

We harvested our first savoy cabbage the other day, the same day that we found the first turkey egg from Shahrazad (this is the name we've decided on for our female turkey, Sulaymon the Magnificent's mate). It is a very large, creamy colored egg with light brown speckles. They say that the first year turkey hens rarely hatch their own eggs, but we are going to let her give it a try. She made a sweet little nest out of grass (not pictured).

Welcome Honey-Cow

A week ago we got our first cow! She is a Jersey named Honey and is due to calve today. We are hoping she can hang on until the weather is not so chilly. She is very sweet, although the first time I touched her udder she kicked me. She will be 7 years old this year. She was a rescued Jersey from a dairy and has been milked before. We are so happy and thankful that she has come live at our farm.
"We have a cow!" we keep telling each other, not quite believing it. The family we bought her from is moving, and was very sad not to be able to take her with them. She was in with goats at her old home, so has been calmly ignoring our goats, who are just a little bit freaked out at the shock of being around a cow for the first time. It's only a matter of time, though before they are crowding around her.

As our friend Miles put it, Fox Grape Farm is soon to be a place of "milk and Honey."
We are a little nervous about milking a cow for the first time, but are looking forward to the milk, yogurt, cream, butter, clabber, buttermilk, cheese, kefir and whey. Oh, yes, and also the manure!