Halfway to the slaughterhouse, I started choking on a pork rind. As I swerved in and back out of the oncoming lane I had a horrible thought: maybe I deserved to meet my end veering off Highway 69, gasping on this nameless, faceless, adulterated scrap of commodity pig, carelessly purchased as an expedient snack for a long drive through Wisconsin. It could be the karmic penalty for the part I was playing in the public consumption of a very different animal.
Our destination was Seward, Illinois, where three young American mulefoot pigs we'd packed up in Argyle, Wisconsin, had an appointment with the hog stunner. I'd been writing about this rare swine breed and the people trying to save it from extinction for nearly a year and half. Mike Gebert of skyfullofbacon.com had joined me to document the project on video. Slaughtering the pigs and eating their meat was a milestone I approached with both excitement and trepidation—an emotional conflict I've never experienced while waiting in a checkout line with a shrink-wrapped package of pork chops.
I like to think I regained control of the car by remembering what farmer Valerie Weihman-Rock had said earlier in the day. She reasoned that raising happy, free-ranging heritage mulefoot pigs for meat made up in some way for the millions of confined swine that live short, miserable lives before they're churned into Smithfield hams and Spam. "What this does is enable me to give a good life to these other animals," she'd said. "Makes up for the ickiness of all the rest of the pigs in the world."
In August 2007 Valerie took on the first of her mulefoots—two adults and eight piglets, including Dee Dee, the female the Reader had purchased a few months earlier from Linda Derrickson and Mark Kessenich, farmers in nearby Blanchardville. Her herd grew quickly. Two days before I arrived a sow had farrowed four more piglets, who were nursing in the barn, bringing the entire group up to 48.
Valerie loves her pigs. When a new litter of piglets is born, she moves them all into the barn, lays out her sleeping bag, and spends a few nights beside them in the straw.
Two years ago it was estimated there were fewer than 200 remaining registered specimens of this distinctive breed, marked by its uncloven hooves and hairy black coat and appreciated in bygone days for the quality of its lard and hams. Today there are hundreds more. But we hadn't come to Valerie's farm to celebrate their recovery. We'd come to haul away the first of the herd to be slaughtered.
It had been a stressful afternoon—for me, for the farmers, and above all for the three pigs we wound up taking, Edna, Erma, and Endive, the last of which was one of Dee Dee's piglets. They'd been born in April and in six months had grown to between 140 and 165 pounds each on a diet of quackgrass, chicken eggs, corn, oats, alfalfa, goat milk, and Swiss chard. The mulefoots were crazy for chard. And that's what we used to lure them from their wallow, up the inclined dirt road to the barn, where Valerie had constructed a pen with a loading ramp.
Up until that day, they'd never had less than an acre and a half to roam.
We were looking for smaller pigs, so Dee Dee was out, but we targeted other females. Many of them had swollen genitals, indicating they were in estrus, ready to pass on the rare genes of the mulefoot.
We lifted a large wooden crate to the bed of Mark's pickup truck, and he carefully backed the truck up to the top of the ramp. Valerie coaxed the first pig into the pen easily enough, with Linda standing guard at a gate jerry-rigged from a length of wire fencing. She and Mark lured a few more mulefoots up near the barn, and a couple males entered the pen, while the second female we'd hoped to catch trotted back down to the wallow.
At this point the herd became cautious. Surrounded by pigs of all sizes, Valerie, Mark, and I attempted to persuade a few more females to cross the mud up to the barn. But they were skittish, backing away so that we had to surround each individually and herd it in the right direction. This wasn't easy. They darted nervously between us and retreated into the pasture. A few other pigs got into the mix, and while we were in the course of urging a second female into the pen, the first one we'd caught escaped.
Valerie pursued them with a large pink bucket, which she'd try to place over their heads before backing them into the pen—the "old way of doing it," she called it. This went on for some time, taking on the frenzied pace of a Benny Hill routine, the three of us feinting and dodging until the only escape the pigs saw was the one leading to their ultimate end—though they couldn't have known that. By then even Valerie's chickens were jumpy.
Surrounding the three pigs we wanted, we used more fencing to build a smaller enclosure within the pen, with a single exit leading to the crate in the truck bed. Valerie began to nudge the first pig up the ramp, but once inside the crate the animal got its hindquarters stuck in the bucket, and Valerie crawled in to dislodge it, softly telling the pig to "relax." Then I took Valerie's place as she backed away to persuade the others to follow. I had to push against the squealing pig's shoulder to keep it inside, and I couldn't see what Mark and Valerie were doing, but suddenly two more pigs trotted up the ramp beside me and crawled into the crate without a fuss.
We slid the door closed, and as we fastened it shut and strapped the crate tight to the bed, some of the other pigs nosed around in the dirt surrounding the truck as if nothing were happening. Their sisters weren't so calm, squealing and bucking, chewing the boards. This was the first time they'd ever been confined, and they didn't like it one bit.
Linda explained why we were taking them to the slaughterhouse a day early: "It's stressful to be in a truck going to the market, and they'll get there this afternoon and have a chance to overnight in a nice pen at the slaughterhouse where they can settle down. The meat will be in a better condition. They'll settle down and be calm tomorrow when it's time for the slaughter to happen."
Valerie touched their noses through the spaces in the crate. "You guys are fantastic," she said. "I've loved every moment of having you. You're very wonderful pigs."
We said good-bye to Valerie, and followed Mark and Linda down the twisted hilly roads of Green County. Having been too nervous to eat all day, I reached for the pork rinds.
Why were we slaughtering these three friendly, intelligent, beautiful young creatures?
Linda, Valerie, Mark, and others like them believe that the only way mulefoots can survive is if people start eating them again. Fortunately for the mulefoots, centuries of careful breeding have produced hardy animals that thrive outdoors, make good mothers, and are renowned for their delicious fat and rosy, well-marbled meat—a far cry from the wan, tasteless, industrially produced pork sold in supermarkets as the "Other White Meat."
"If you treat them like a zoo animal they'll become zoo animals," says Linda. "That won't be enough to really keep the genetics and the vitality of the breed. Farmers aren't going to raise zoo animals. There's not enough zoos. And farmers have to be able to get some income from them, and that means putting them in the food stream."
In the case of Endive, Edna, and Erma, the food stream would be a six-course dinner in five days' time, organized by the Reader with chef Paul Kahan at Blackbird and prepared by Kahan and six other chefs.
By midafternoon Mark was backing the truck up to the loading ramp at Eickman's Processing Company, a 55-year-old custom slaughterhouse in Seward. Third-generation proprietor Tom Eickman, a genial 28-year-old, came around back and helped open the crate. By now the pigs had reverted to their calm and curious selves. Linda had predicted that motion would settle them. "There you go," she told them, "there you go," and one by one they ambled out of the crate, snouts to the incline, sniffing their way down the ramp into a holding area marked suspect pen. Normally it's used for animals showing signs of illness, but today it was reserved for the mulefoots so they wouldn't have to mingle with the much larger—and presumably less sociable—pigs waiting on the other side of the room.
Eickman affixed a needled stamp that said "A23" to the end of a hatchet handle, pressed it into an ink pad, and handed it to a worker in the pen who gave the pigs a swift whack on each side. This was so they could be easily identified after slaughter. Eickman, by coincidence, has the number "23" tattooed in the rough style of the stamp on his right bicep—it was his football number in high school and his age when he got married.
The pigs, about to spend their first and last night away from home, seemed placid, exploring the limited confines of the pen and drinking from the water bucket. Slaughter was set for noon the following day.
Last year author and farmer Verlyn Klinkenborg wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about the moral necessity of watching, if not participating in, the slaughter of animals he raises for meat. "That's part of the job," he wrote. "It's how we come to understand what the meat itself means. And to me, the word 'meat' is at the root of the contradictory feelings the pig-killing raises. You can add all the extra value you want—raising heritage breed pigs on pasture with organic grain, all of which we do—and yet somehow the fact that we are doing this for meat, some of which we keep, most of which we trade or sell, makes the whole thing sound like a bad bargain. And yet compared with the bargain most Americans make when they buy pork in the supermarket, this is beauty itself."
I'd chosen Eickman's to do the job after speaking to Tom Eickman several times. He'd patiently answered my anxious questions and agreed to let us observe the process. I'd heard it made good sense to avoid places that won't let you watch the handling and slaughter of your own animals, and his willingness to let a pair of reporters onto the killing floor with a video camera and tape recorder seemed a good indication of his confidence in the process. He also gives regular tours to local high school students, and he'd had some practice with the media too—the History Channel had been there recently, shooting a documentary about hamburgers. His only condition was that we not videotape the stunning and the bleeding of the pigs. "With the public you get some people that are very sensitive," he says. "They don't really understand where their food is coming from. Some people see that, it connects to reality a little more and it bothers them."
The following day we were joined by Jason Hammel of Lula, one of the chefs who would be preparing the dinner at Blackbird. Hammel regularly butchers whole animals in his restaurant, and he buys a lot of meat from Eickman's, but he'd never witnessed a slaughter either.
"I don't feel comfortable," he said, but "one of the reasons to come here is so that you get out of your comfortable zone and try to understand another part of your job."
Eickman gave us all white coats and led us into the holding pen. The mulefoots were lying quietly on the floor, but with some prompting they stood and filed into the killing chute through the opened gate. Once there, they stood motionless.
If they felt fear, we couldn't see it, not even when one of Eickman's workers sprayed them with a hose for better conductivity. Nor did they stir as he applied the two-pronged "electric wand" behind the ears of the first pig, shooting 340 volts of electricity into its brain. It stiffened, frozen for seven seconds until the power was cut. Instantly, it collapsed on its side, unconscious but convulsing and evacuating its bowels, involuntary muscle reactions initiated by the electricity.
The two standing pigs remained still even as the worker attached a chain to the still-kicking animal and hoisted it above the killing floor. As its thrashing subsided, he inserted a knife into its throat in a single inward-up-backward-and-down motion that severed the jugular veins and pierced the heart. A gout of blood erupted from its throat, and then slowed to a trickle, emptying into a drain on the concrete floor. "We try to bleed them as fast as possible," said Eickman. The worker moved it along a track and got to work on the next pig.
Eickman's, unlike many other small processing plants I'd called, was equipped with a scalder, a machine that would allow us to keep the skin and the trotters on the pig. Most places saw off the feet and remove the skin from the animal—a terrific waste of fat and protein that would likely make the early keepers of the mulefoot turn in their graves. The pigs were pulled along the track to the long, metal contraption resembling a coffin or a tanning bed. The first was laid inside on a cradle of scrapers extending above a tank of hot water. The lid was closed, and Eickman hit a switch. The machine rumbled to life and the pig tumbled inside while the scrapers took off the stiff hairs of its thick black coat. A clicking sound came from inside. Eickman explained that this was its hooves hitting the inside of the chamber. This tells the workers that the animal is rotating properly.
After three minutes it shuddered to a stop and the lid was raised. White, denuded, and steaming, the pig was removed to a table, where a pair of workers shaved a few remaining tufts of hair from its body, then excised and discarded its eyeballs and eardrums. Excepting its uncloven hooves, the carcass no longer resembled a mulefoot. But it looked a little more like meat.
The worker made incisions on the pig's hind legs, hooked them to a pair of chains, and hoisted it back up onto the track. Another made a cut at its rectum and sliced downward, slightly off center through belly and soft cartilage to its first nipple. He then sliced upward from the wound in its throat, reached inside, reversed the knife in his hand, and brought it downward. The pig split open, exposing a jumble of red, gray, and pink innards. He cut around the rectum, making deft slices down the back of the cavity, and the intestines, stomach, liver, heart, and lungs tumbled out in one connected mass, leaving only the kidneys and the surrounding leaf fat, highly prized for making lard. In less than a minute the offal was waiting on a steel table for an on-site USDA inspector to examine.
A federal inspector only has the power to deem parts of animals unsuitable for consumption, Eickman told us. If a whole animal is to be condemned, a veterinarian must be called in to make the judgment. The inspector lifted and prodded the organs, peering into them like an oracle. He detached the tongue and the heart, cutting the latter open and examining the interior of the muscle. These pieces passed, but the liver was another matter. As it turned out, each of our pigs had faint white spots in the dark brown flesh of the liver—signs of some sort of infection.
This was a disappointment we were prepared for. Eickman said the overwhelmingly majority of hog livers he sees are condemned—nine out of ten. It's no reflection on the rest of the meat. It doesn't seem to matter whether the animals live on pasture or in confinement, though for some reason the livers of animals raised for show at agricultural fairs are particularly susceptible.
Eickman's isn't equipped to salvage the blood or clean and process other organs, such as the stomach or intestine—"the big guys are the ones that can afford that," he said. So these, along with the livers, were tossed into an bucket marked "inedible." The inspector examined our hanging carcasses and poked the glands behind the cheeks before stamping his approval on their hocks.
Next the pigs came to the scale, where they were weighed before being tagged. Hogs typically lose up to 80 percent of their live weight in processing. Endive, Edna, and Erma had all shed 40 pounds and now weighed 125, 115, and 100, respectively.
Tagged, they were moved into another refrigerated room filled with hanging carcasses, some whole, others split in half, waiting for pickup or butchering by Eickman's staff.
As we waited for our pigs to be bagged and loaded into the bed of Hammel's truck, we talked about what we'd witnessed. As I'd stood ten feet away, watching the first pig die, my breath had grown short, my heart had begun to thump, and a flash of heat had swept up my chest and across my face. The reaction subsided as gradually as the animal's convulsions did.
"I didn't know how I'd react to the actual moment, but what I kind of realized is that it doesn't seem like there is any one moment," said Hammel. "I kind of felt like it was a continuum from the moment they're in the crate waiting to be slaughtered to when they finally got into that tumbler. It seemed like life didn't just end at one spot. It was ending. I was expecting to feel something at one specific second, and I felt something the whole way."
We had 100-mile drives back to the city ahead of us, and it was approaching rush hour. I put the hearts and tongues in a cooler, and we stuffed 30 bags of ice around and inside the pigs and headed for Blackbird.
Later that night, after their respective restaurants closed for the evening, Kahan and a few of the other chefs assembled in Blackbird's basement prep kitchen to break down the pigs. A six-pack of Miller High Life was chilling in the sink, and the first of the three mulefoots was waiting on a table. Kahan took a blade to the muscle and fat in its neck, then hacked at the bone with a cleaver until the head separated from the body.
"Look at that," he said, showing the marbled dark red neck meat surrounding by a thick blanket of creamy white fat. "That's pretty awesome, don't you think?"
Behind him Blackbird chef Mike Sheerin got to work on the largest of the carcasses, the "torpedo." Sheerin, who honed his meat-cutting skills at Jean Georges in New York, was the "expert butcher of the group," according to Kahan. After a few quick strokes of his knife, he gripped a jowl and the snout and twisted the head off with a single turn, an action far more fluid and graceful than it sounds. Next he removed the shoulders and the hams in single sections, first by cutting into the tissue and then hacking the bones with a cleaver. He cut through nearly an inch and a half of back fat, down the middle of the saddle, then around each side of the rib cage, detaching the loins and the bellies.
Kahan cleaved the trotters from the hams and shoulders while Hammel worked on the saddle of the first pig.
"It's pretty great-looking meat, isn't it?" said Kahan, who'd worked with mulefoots before. "It's really deep red in color, like a Berkshire hog. It looks like there's a pretty good amount of fat."
After 20 minutes the first two pigs were almost completely broken down. When Paul Virant, chef-owner of Western Springs' Vie, arrived to take on the third, he was amazed to find the Blackbird crew using cleavers on the carcasses instead of saws. "It's great to see the different ways of doing this," said Hammel.
In about an hour all three mulefoots had been completely disarticulated into heads and tails, kidneys and leaf fat, hearts, tongues, shoulders, hams, trotters, loins, and bellies. A pile of bones sat on a tray for Sheerin to roast and simmer into stock.
It was impossible to tell which pieces came from Endive, Edna, or Erma. They were wrapped in plastic—looking as close to something you'd see in a fluorescent-lit display case as they ever would. The meat was shelved in Blackbird's walk-in refrigerator or packed in black garbage bags for the visiting chefs to take back to their own kitchens. Everything that came back from the slaughterhouse would be used. Nothing was thrown away.
Two days later Brian Huston was cutting away the tough skin on a pork loin in the open kitchen of the Publican. The restaurant had opened just nine days earlier, and he was facing larger numbers of customers every night. But he'd found time to prepare porchetta with lentils, lobster mushrooms, and black mission figs for the mulefoot dinner.
Porchetta is a traditional Italian preparation in which a whole pig is gutted, boned, rolled upon itself stuffed with a mixture of offal seasoned with garlic, fennel, and herbs, and then roasted. For Huston's version, he was going to rub the loins with a paste of rosemary, oregano, garlic, shallot, anchovies, capers, lemon zest, and olive oil. He would then roll each loin lengthwise, with a butterflied pork belly as a protective fat cap so the meat wouldn't dry when he put it in the oven. (An adaptation of this recipe and others from the Reader's mulefoot dinner can be found accompanying this story at chicagoreader.com.)
The chefs Kahan tapped for the mulefoot dinner are all committed to building strong relationships with the farmers that supply them. As Huston worked, he talked about Iowa farmer Jude Becker, who supplies the Publican with Duroc pork.
"You go to one pork farmer and the pigs are in their own cage and they sit in their own filth," he said. "And you taste that. Jude's pigs—they're free-range. You can spend all day on Jude's farm and get in your car and you won't smell like pig. It's like a normal farm—they're free to roam, and I think the quality just shows in the food. The fat on it is better, the marbling is better."
Huston had never worked with mulefoot meat before but the thick fat cap on the loins looked familiar. "I'd say that fat cap—like the fat cap on Jude's pig—I'd say it's rare that you get that. That's a good inch-and-a-half fat cap. Fat is flavor." And the meat itself? "The color quality—you can see the color. You can see the color of this is not an off-white. It's a lot richer in color."
Later that day in Western Springs, Virant and his sous chef Nathan Sears were prepping their dish. Sears was rolling crepinettes, small sausage patties of coarsely ground shoulder, skin, fat, and kidneys heavily seasoned with red pepper, pink peppercorns, sage, and reduced red wine and wrapped in caul fat (recipe at chicagoreader.com). Virant, meanwhile, was braising Tuscan kale sauerkraut in a lowboy oven; behind the restaurant a shoulder was smoking. He'd skinned and boned it the day before, then applied a bacon cure overnight, washed it down, and applied herbes de Provence, sage, and bay leaf before putting it into the smoker for about ten hours.
He planned to serve the crepinettes and a few pieces of "bacon" sliced from the shoulder with a pinot noir-plum jam he and his crew had put up, along with hundreds of other jars of preserves, pickles, krauts, aigre-doux, and vinegars made from local produce. As Vie has evolved, Virant says, they've started sourcing and butchering more whole animals from the midwest too, starting with chicken, lamb, and pork.Recently they started buying whole organic, grass-fed cows from a farm in Elkhorn, Wisconsin, and having them slaughtered at Eickman's. Two weeks earlier, they'd broken down their first side of beef—weighing in at 424 pounds.
"With pork we know where the cuts are," said Sears. "But with beef, since the muscles are a lot larger, there's different cuts within those cuts. So it's like the bone structure is pretty much the same, but to get the tri-tip and the flatiron—it's kind of like muscles you don't get out of the pork. So finding those muscles—because they're big enough in the cow to be a separate subprimal—is probably the hardest part about butchering it."
Hammel took his bellies back to Lula after butchering and cured them overnight, then braised them with apples in a mix of Riesling, chicken stock, and aromatics. He pressed the bellies so they'd be uniform and planned to brush them with a cider-honey mixture before browning them. He had the challenge of creating one of the early, lighter courses on the pork-dominated menu with a cut that fairly symbolizes fatty excess. He planned to serve it with cured sardines and a smoked green apple and celery jam he'd created by Cryovacking celery root with oil made from the leaves (adapted recipe at chicagoreader.com). This sucks oxygen from the cell structure of the vegetable, infusing it with the flavor of the oil. "It tastes raw," he said. "Shaved raw celery."
Avec sous chef Justin Large was happy to get the heads, hearts, and tongues of the pigs. "I had worked with head a lot," he said, but "never with this variety of pig." He braised the heads in the restaurant's wood-burning oven with cinnamon, brown sugar, orange, and salt for a day and a half before he picked the meat off. "The amount of the actual useful meat in the head was pretty surprising. I was pretty shocked actually. So we got the heads out, and of course there's always cheek meat and other bits and bobbles that you pick off the head. But the best part was in the jowls—you could peel the fat away from the cheek and there's all these strands of really gorgeous meat." Large chopped that meat along with the braised hearts and tongues and blanched brains. He added more spices, ricotta cheese, lemon zest, and parsley and stuffed the mixture into whole- grain mustard ravioli, which he'd serve in a dark consomme made from the roast pork bones.
Back at Blackbird, Mike Sheerin boned, cured, and smoked the hams before cooking them sous vide overnight. And in lieu of a sweet dessert, Avec-Blackbird pastry chef Tim Dahl decided to make pork rinds he'd serve with a cheese course. Though there'd been no time to entertain the notion of it, the chefs kept remarking how the mulefoots would be ideal for charcuterie, such as lardo, prosciutto, or guanciale. Not to mention pies: "You can tell they're traditional lard pigs," said Large. "The amount of fat was amazing. You could make pies for the rest of the winter if you wanted to."
On the afternoon of Sunday, October 19, the chefs began to arrive at Blackbird to prep their dishes. The waitstaff was setting up wineglasses for the pairings Kahan had chosen for each course, while Mike Sheerin put cipollini onions on the restaurant's wood-fired grill. Nathan Sears peeled the skins from Vie's plums. Justin Large was getting set to panfry his ravioli to crisp them up. They all ate the staff meal while they worked.
That morning Hammel had still been thinking about our day at the slaughterhouse: "I think it completes the process for me," he said. "It was a big gap in my experience that I didn't realize was there. I mean, I don't think it completes it because I didn't kill the animal. That ten feet away that you are is really a crucial ten feet. The visual impact and the sensory impact is there, but the physical act is still missing, and one day that'll have to be something I confront, I think."
Me too. Valerie has more pigs to harvest this winter, and she's been talking about arranging a traditional farm slaughter. I think I ought to be there.
Just before six, the servers gathered in the dining room so each chef could explain his dish and the wines. People began to line up outside, and when the doors opened some 70 of them filled the restaurant. The dinner had been booked solid in two days—Kahan said he'd never hosted an event that filled up that fast. Each guest paid $125 plus tax and tip; after expenses the proceeds went to Kahan's charity of choice, Slow Food Chicago, whose parent organization has done much to promote the reintroduction of the mulefoot and other rare breeds. In the end the event raised $7,500.
Mark, Linda, and Valerie drove down from Wisconsin, our guests of honor. As the chefs began to plate the first course in the open kitchen at the rear of the dining room, Kahan banged two plates together, and he and I and Slow Food Chicago's Joel Smith thanked the crowd, the farmers, and the pigs. And then out came Jason Hammel's pork belly, plated with his cured sardines, celery, and green apple jam. Someone at my table described it as a "fat souffle." Justin Large's headcheese ravioli en brodo, redolent of baking spices, orange peel, and lemon oil, might have been the crowd favorite, followed by Virant's crepinette, highly seasoned and texturally multidimensional. More than any courses Mike Sheerin's ham and Brian Huston's porchetta showcased the naked qualities of the meat, particularly Huston's tender, juicy loin, capped with that thick blanket of luscious fat. Tim Dahl's cheese course—light, snow white chicharrones, brioche made with leaf lard, Munster Gerome, pickled golden raisins, and Asian pear—was almost refreshing after five other courses of pork.
In the end Endive, Edna, and Erma—transformed from living, breathing pigs to a form almost unrecognizable as animal but in its own way just as beautiful—produced more meat than the guests at the dinner that night could eat. There would be mulefoot restaurant specials in the days to come.
Care to comment? Find this story—along with a slide show, video, recipes, and our previous stories about the mulefoots— at chicagoreader.com/wholehogproject.