I blame my interest in raw meat on my mother. Under the guise of protecting us, she wouldn’t let me or my sister touch raw chicken while we helped her cook, lest we contract a salmonella infection. Like any child, what I wasn’t allowed to do I wanted to do more, and I found myself overly fixated on the flabby tan crescents lying there prone on the cutting board, waiting for whatever would come to them. I took my chances where I could get them; at the supermarket, packaged tongue was particularly alluring. I would surreptitiously poke it through the plastic wrap, the cow’s lingual papillae both disgusting and beautiful.
Such a fixation on meat has not shifted much as I’ve grown, though I now find myself staring longingly at beautifully displayed vegetables as well, squeezing tomatoes with slightly inappropriate vigor. A wistful jealousy rises inside me for those who are at the start of the food-creation process, sometimes at the oddest times, like during a dinner this summer with a farmer friend, as we made dumplings from scratch with her roommates, using ingredients they’d harvested themselves, or at least could have.
As cheese is my one true love, I don’t eat a ton of meat—“eat food, not too much, mostly plants,” etc etc—but as the thought, “Oh, being a butcher would be fun” began to chime in my ear over the past few years (before I could scream “THAT’S TOO JULIE POWELL, KATE”), I began to feel that if I eat meat at all, I should be willing to personally confront its past as animal. This willingness has escalated into obsessive territory; I recently sat enraptured during an old episode of A Chef’s Life in which chef Vivian Howard slaughters a pig in a friend’s backyard, disappointed that the moment of death was not actually depicted (is this educational television or is it not, PBS?). And despite the bevy of internet content I should be consuming on any given day, I found myself quite willing to focus entirely for 20 minutes on a video in which a man breaks down an entire pig, my brain as soothed as if it’d been tenderly sous vide-d. I didn’t know it at the time of my viewing, but a few weeks later, I’d find myself learning how to take apart a pig myself from that same man.
Kind and patient butcher Bryan Mayer and I met at The Brooklyn Kitchen, a cooking school in uh, Brooklyn, where Bryan teaches classes, among his several other food-centric occupations. (I took a knife skills class there once and really know how to give it to an onion now, ask me how!) Usually a butchering class has a bunch of people working on one animal, but I was lucky enough to get a one-on-one—really personal time with this particular beautiful creature of God (I mean the pig, not Bryan).
This pig was actually half a pig, plus the head. Bryan told me that the whole thing was about 250-300 lbs when alive, which translates to 180 lbs of hanging weight, which is pretty big for a pig. This meant we were dealing with about 90-100 lbs a side, once it had been bled out and hung for about a week to cure. Our pig was raised “by a guy named Tim” at Autumn’s Harvest Farm in the Finger Lakes—they also raise goat, sheep, chickens, and beef—and it was a pastured pig, which means it got to roam around and have a nice free life until its death. As Bryan explained to me, industrial pigs are bred to be smaller and have less fat than pastured pigs because people have been taught to be afraid of fat. But it’s not the ’90s anymore, and “Fat is really good for you, fat doesn’t make you fat. We’re going to cook with fat.” And so we did.
One issue people who don’t eat pork have with those who do eat it is how smart pigs are. I doubt the following statement would convince them to switch back to meat—I’m not here to convert anyone to do anything except listen to me blab about how I love food—but a good thing about pig is that there’s very minimal waste; basically everything is used for food. “The other really great benefit is the bone structure, the muscle-to-bone ratio; there’s a lot more meat on the carcass because the bone structure is much smaller than say, ruminates like beef or cattle, sheep and goat,” Bryan explained. “So it’s a really, really efficient animal in terms of what you get off and in terms of muscle.
Pig is also “the most widely eaten animal in the world, and it takes a lot to produce that many pigs. So keep in mind that if you want to buy good pork, there are certain things that you are going to be able to get a lot of and certain things you can’t get a lot of.” For instance, consider the tenderloin, a famous cut of pork: I didn’t realize until I was sitting in front of 90 lbs of said animal that each pig only has two of them. That means that if you’re looking at a line of tenderloins in your grocery store, it took a lot of pigs to make them.
But on to the main event. Butchering a pig feels like what I imagine it must be like to be a medical student working on a cadaver; you’ve seen the thing before, you have a game plan, but you sort of have to let it tell you what to do once you cut it open. Going into this I imagined there would be more of a specific game-plan each time, but every pig can be butchered in dozens of different ways; it just depends on what the butcher wants to use it for. A key part of butchering and cooking with Bryan was learning about and working on some less common cuts of pork, ones that utilize the animal in more sustainable ways. If you’re going to butcher a pig to be sold at a grocery store, for instance, you’ll do more traditional cuts, like pork chops, that you know home cooks will buy. If you’re butchering at a restaurant, you’ll do things that you can serve to multiple guests, like grind up the less tender parts to make sausage. There’s far more creativity than I realized, and—going back to the surgeon comparison—every animal is different, which means cutting into it is a little bit like finding your way around in a dark room. (You’re also wearing three aprons, one of which is chainmail—just in case you stab yourself, no big deal—which adds to the doctor vibe.) I felt constantly like I was going to mess something up and cut the meat in a way that would waste it or make it unusable.
I’d also imagined beforehand that such a large animal would require more hacking, but it’s a relatively precise process. Much of the time you’re following the natural seam of where different parts of the pig come together, sliding the knife along until you feel that you should stop, whether because of bone or fat or skin. There is some sawing, but it’s minimal; at some points, you use your body weight and the weight of the animal on itself to break through bone (this is called jointing). It’s almost rhythmic in nature.
As we worked—moving through the animal section by section, Bryan patiently coaxing me through cuts he could have made in seconds—I could feel my consideration of it transforming from less pig to more pork. By the time we got to the portion of the program where we’d cut a few pieces specifically to cook that day, I could feel myself almost entirely emotionally detached from the animal I had known it to be at the beginning, large blank face staring at me and all. But there was a way it connected back; the first thing we’d done was remove a big hunk of fat from the pig. That had been cooking down with a bit of water (this is called rendering). Now the rendered fat was filling the room with the most beautiful smell of pork. We were going to cook our pork cuts in the fat it had been next to, and almost nothing else.
Bryan had us do three cuts: a tenderloin, cutlets made from a top round, and presa, aka shoulder steak. They were all well-salted to pull some of the moisture out, but that was it. I’ve made tenderloin many times before, but never just on a stovetop in pig fat, turning it every four minutes until it was brown on the outside and cooked on the inside. We did the same with the presa, but with the cutlets we made pork schnitzel, which meant they were floured, egged, and breaded, and then seared for only a few minutes. When finished they were garnished with some lemon juice and nothing else. Unlike the dry pork you’re likely familiar with, this was all juicy as hell, partly because it wasn’t cooked higher than 140 degrees. “USDA used to tell you that you had to cook it to 165, which is probably why people didn’t like pork,” Bryan told me. “Now they say 145, that’s getting better. I like 135. People are really nervous about pink pork. You don’t have to be.”
It was the cutlets that got me the closest to remembering that what I was eating had been alive, and not that long ago—they were flecked with purple-blue spots of clotted blood. “Mainly what causes this is that the animal wasn’t bled out fast enough, and so blood was allowed to clot. And where that tends to happen is in the leg,” Bryan explained. “It’s not bad, it won’t taste bad, but you can see from a consumer standpoint [it’s not ideal].” We ate it, and the rest of it, and it was all the best pork I’ve ever had, probably some of the best meat I’d ever had. It tasted so much like pork, it brought me back to the time in Puerto Rico I had fried chicken that had been killed mere hours before in the backyard of the roadside store we bought it at. That chicken tasted like chicken, you know?
The rest of the meat we cut would be used for other classes. As we divvied up what we’d cooked and couldn’t eat to people hanging around the building that day, I felt calm, almost meditative. I asked Bryan how many pigs I would have to butcher to feel good at it. “I’m still not there,” he responded. “Thousands.” Then he sent me home with a small cut of pork.
Since I didn’t have all that pork fat, I assumed that my meal wouldn’t be as good as the one I’d had with Bryan. But the next day I salted my piece, adding a little fresh rosemary I had on hand. I heated up some olive oil in the pan, and seared the pork on both sides. Then I ate it with a crusty loaf of bread and butter, a fancy lunch just for me.
It was the best pork I’ve ever had.