Monday, March 5, 2007

How to Skin a Pig

I find nothing repulsive about butchering an animal. Where others see gore, I see the miracle of evolution. The innards of a pig are utterly pristine. To me this came as a revelation. It does not matter how many of the animals you slice open: on the inside, each is identical to the one before it, a marvel of genetics and mammalian engineering. The organs glisten. They are squeaky clean--the liver crimson against the steely grey of the intestines; the kidneys perfectly ovoid and efficient; the heart a mighty muscle, a compact little machine.

During the first full day of the matanza, or pig slaughter, we will kill and gut six pigs. As we work around the viscera, the first order of business is to tie off the colon, to avoid any contamination of the animal's cavity. Then these few organs--liver, kidneys, heart--we seek out and keep. The rest becomes feed for the chickens. We wrestle an empty carcass into position and hoist it off the ground with rope and pulley for skinning. Four of the original six pigs will be handled in this manner, skinned and broken down into pieces. Two others, being white pigmented, are immersed in a hot water bath, a giant metal drum filled with water heated from a fire pit underneath. These two pigs are then scraped to remove all hairs, revealing a smooth skin that will crisp up nicely around the succulent hams.

By mid-morning there are 13 adults working at various phases of the pork production. I am already weary. My day began at 3:30 am, when anticipation shook me awake in our motel room. We had agreed to serve breakfast and lunch for the workers. We made the meals ahead, so they only needed to be reheated and displayed on platters. We'd been told the men-folk would be up at the crack of dawn. It was still dark when we arrived at the farm, where farmer Brett Grohsgal, greeted us with a flashlight and guided us into the house. We started coffee. We heated the oven. We checked the menu: My wife's special strata of Panettone and Challah breads with pancetta, rosemary and Gorgonzola cheese; Tennessee smoked bacon and chicken-apple sausages; scones with dried fruit and lavender-vanilla sugar; chocolate chip banana bread; tropical fruit salad. There was food for a crowd.

One by one the shareholders in the pig operation wandered into the kitchen. The house was utterly full.

"Having a lot of people over is my favorite part of the matanza," says Christine Bergmark, the second half of the farm team. "Most years we have someone sleeping on the couch."
The matanza is into its eighth year. It started when Bergmark was trying to figure a way to deal with all the leftover tomatoes at the end of the season, the ones that weren't good enough to send to market. The tomatoes were being thrown back into the fields to rot. Bergmark thought a farm animal might take care of the tomatoes.

"I thought maybe we should get a pig," Bergmark said. "Brett went out to get a pig. He came back with five."

"They get lonely," Grohsgal explains sheepishly.

They tried raising other animals for the matanza: goats, sheep. But goats and sheep find a way to break out of their enclosures, and then they are in the fields eating Grohsgal's prized greens.

"They were eating my collards!" he declares. "You can eat my arugula, but don't mess with my collards. That sealed their fate."

No more goats and sheep.

These days there are six pigs, making plenty of work at killing time. And most years the weather is much more of a factor. The slaughter usually takes place in January, sometimes in bitter cold. But this year the sow was not impregnated on the first attempt. The pigs are a mixed breed adapted to local conditions. Weeks passed before the sow was ready to mate again, which pushed the matanza into March. Not so bad if you like warmer temperatures, and a little more daylight on either end of the workday.

Inside the barn, things are humming. Besides the skinning operation, there are several stations where workers are carving big hunks of pork, cutting and sawing loins into manageable pieces, separating choice cuts from sausage meat, trimming slabs of bacon from the bellies. Inside the walk-in refrigerator, a bathtub is filling fast with hams, shoulders and rib sections.

My job, it turns out, is official Cleaner and Sharpener of Knives. I am constantly running back to the house to the only source of hot, soapy water. I wash the knives, then give the blades a quick tune-up on the Chef's Choice grinder. There are lots and lots of knives. Knives of every size and description. My personal favorites are the ancient carbon steel chefs knives, of which Grohsgal seems to be a collector. They sharpen to a mean edge. Before the day is out, I am using one of them to separate pig heads from pig skins, then trimming the bristly skin off the jowls so they can be cured for guanciale, a bacon-like specialty.

Chef Jeffrey Heineman, one of the shareholders, will turn the pork cheeks and tongues into incredible braises. And that will be my last memory of the day: dinner of tongue and cheek, a bottle of red wine, a piece of bread. Call it a night. I'm done.

Stay tuned for tomorrow's exciting conclusion...


john said...

i really enjoyed your photos and info thank you very much. i am doing my first pig this week and am looking forward to it

Steven Stier said...

Skinning a pig is easy. You just need to soak the pig to a boiled water so that the pig's hair hold will loosen. You then need to scrub the hair off using a knife or any kind of blade. When your dine skinning the pig you then have to chop it depending on how you will cook it. If you want to know tips on how you to cook a pig you can visit How To Cook A Pig.