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I approached Jess as he was loading his rifle. I put my arm around him and thanked him again for what he was about to do for me. And for what he had already done for me. He and our friend Abra raised a hog for us on their farm in Northport, Michigan. A Duroc-Old Spot cross, it lived a happy life rooting in the dirt and eating whey from the nearby Leelanau Cheese Company along with the apples, cherries and chestnuts dropped from the trees in their neighbor’s organic orchard.
Jess Piskor and Abra Berens started Bare Knuckle Farm a few years back just north of Traverse City, Michigan. They started with produce, selling at local markets and to chefs and eventually added chickens and ducks. They decided to add a few pigs back in 2010, working with their neighbor Gene Garthe—an organic fruit and chestnut grower. We bought one of those first pigs and were stunned by the quality. The next year we bought another pig, but this year, when Abra called to ask if we would like another, we asked about the possibility of coming to the farm and being part of the process. She was thrilled to have us, so we set a date and, along with Chris and Dani, two of my other butchers, I made the drive up to Northport.
I wanted the blood.
I figured if we were getting a whole pig, we should get the blood too. We could make black pudding or morcilla. Something fun. I wanted the blood, but it wasn’t that big of a deal. At least not until that moment. I had spent the last hour with the pigs. Chris and Dani and I walked around in the mud patting their heads and tugging on their ears. In turn, they tugged at our pant legs and nipped at our boots. They seemed comfortable with us and that made me happy, though increasingly anxious. The severity of what was about to happen hit me and my arms began to tingle. My heart was racing and it was hard to keep my emotions in check. But out of respect for our hog I kept myself together and told her we appreciated her and would do right by her. Really. I got down so we were eye to eye and told her.
Jess wasn’t taking his part lightly either. We talked for a moment about whether or not it was better for the pig to be taken by a stranger on a concrete floor in an unfamiliar place or by the hands that looked after it its whole life and made sure it was comfortable and safe—both in life and now in death.
The shots were fired and it was done.
And as I approached my pig in her final throes and saw Jess struggling with her to keep her in position to be bled properly, and struggling with her to try and gather the blood for me—and struggling with what we had just done, the blood became a very big deal.
Nothing in my career as a cook or butcher could have prepared me for this. I have been to farms, butchered hundreds of pigs, plenty of whole cows and lamb, countless chickens, ducks and rabbits. Of course I knew how the animals die, but having it right in front of me made it different. This was different.
There was still a lot to do. The scalding and scraping, hooking the gambrels, steeling our knives and cutting began and while I had no idea what to expect, I was prepared for the worst. You would think the inside of an animal would be a big mess, sloppy and slimy and an olfactory punishment, but it wasn’t. Sure, there was a bit of blood, but it really was an astonishingly clean process. Precise and careful and dry. It was all very logical. A few simple cuts, a little tug here and there and we had a container full of organs and intestines. We had a heart and liver, kidneys and lungs and a bladder. We have always respected and championed the organs, but never more than when seeing the steam rise off the almost neon pink lungs as they got their first touch of cool fall air.
We figured out how to separate and flush the intestines for sausage casings. That may not sound like a big deal, but it is. I had only read vague descriptions of how to turn a tangled mess of innards into something useable. But reaching into mire of organs and pulling at the intestines, tearing them apart from the fat and tissues holding it all together found us the familiar sight we had only ever seen in plastic packaging. We had foot after foot of sausage casing that only needed a good cleaning and we had one less part for the discard bin. Jess had never done this and didn’t know how but the sight of me pulling off lengths of intestine had him reeling. After everything he had shown us, from the best way to scald to where to make the first incision, I cannot describe the pride I felt in being able to teach him something. Seeing us break down the hog into different parts and discussing why we cut the way we do and all the uses for the different pieces was also a new experience for him, as he hadn’t done much fabrication, but teaching him about the casings allowed us to help him extend the life of his pigs.
After we finished cutting and packaging and placed the parts in the cooler we had lunch. We took all the bits of meat trimming and made a stew. The pieces were browned in a well-loved cast iron skillet, and we added some veggies and herbs and water and let it simmer away while we talked about the day. When the stew was tender and seasoned, I shut off the heat and stirred in the blood. The stew got thick and velvety. Rich and dark.
As I ate I couldn’t help but think of how desensitized I’d become to the sight of the animals I cut. For all the time I’ve spent reminding people that our bacon and pork chops, ham and sausages come from an animal, and that the quality of that animal’s life is crucial to the quality of the meat we eat, I realized how easily life can be taken for granted. This delicious pork came from a life—a life that was cared for by our friends. I thought of Jess’s face as he slumped over our pig collecting the blood. I thought of the introspective looks on the faces of Chris and Dani as we walked back to our car. Taking this life and turning it into nourishment really hit home.
Sitting outside in the crisp fall air, the stew warmed us and comforted us. We knew we would do right by this pig and by every other pig that would lie across our butcher block.