My Charcutepalooza Began on the Farm

My first Charcutepalooza post is a retrospective before the storm, maybe even a lament that this viral phenomenon didn’t gain strength a bit earlier, when I was wrist deep in fresh, pastured pork.  At the least, though, it got me to write this, which I’d been meaning to do for a while.

After a BBQ-filled upbringing in Kansas City and a Maruchan ramen-fueled four years of college, I caught a bug that turned into full-blown foodie neurosis as my adult life progressed.  Skip forward a few years to 2010, when I decided the time was right to try to add a dose of reality to my gastronomic quests.  I wanted to get my hands dirty and experience the farm to table process.  Not a groundbreaking story, but important for me.

I started with an apprenticeship.  After finding out that a colleague owned an organic farm that was just getting a start in pig husbandry, I poked and prodded for months to see if I could get a coveted invite.  It came through, and I got up at 4am on a freezing Saturday morning in March 2010 for a two hour drive to Quicksburg, Virginia.  God’s country.  Luckily the healthcare reform debate wasn’t at its acrimonious worst at that point, because the Obama/Biden sticker on my Subaru Outback station wagon might’ve drawn some unwanted attention.

What followed wasn’t exactly the experience I was looking for – I didn’t get to participate in the slaughter – but I got some grit under my nails during a 12-hour day breaking down four pig carcasses with a salt-of-the-earth cast of characters.  Amazing people all, and I could tell they found it a bit humorous that a food tourist had broken into their closed circle.  They gave me the job of cutting back fat to process into lard.  Four 200+ pound Ossabaw mix hogs have A LOT of back fat, but I was happy as those pigs must’ve been in sh*t.  They even paid me.  In sausage.  I remember on the drive home slapping myself and belting out the entire Randy Newman “Good Ole Boys” album, which I memorized in my dad’s Taurus as a kid, just to stay awake.  When I got there, I made a frittata with fresh chorizo that made it all worthwhile.

I learned a lot, but I was eager to go even deeper.  Because the slaughter is only done twice a year in Quicksburg, I had months of lag time, so I decided to try my hand at sausage making and curing.  I started with fresh italian, cajun “green”, and smoked andouille, all of which came out great.  I also cased some spanish chorizo with curing salts and cultures, then put it in a badly retrofitted wine fridge for three weeks.  It came out decent, if not a little rough edged.

Around the beginning of fall, i started to work on my colleague again.  The farm was nearing 100 pigs at that point, and I wanted to slaughter one of my own.  She eventually gave in to my barrage.  The date was set for the second week of December, and I had an epiphany: I would fly my younger brother, also a food lover, out to DC to join me on the farm for his birthday.  Perfect.  Not only would I get some treatment for my culinary virus, I’d be able to finally put the years of emotional torment that I’d doled out as a big brother behind me.

As December neared, I did what any other sane person would do to get ready.  I ate my way through Thanksgiving in Kansas City, one of America’s fattest metropolitan areas (thanks Jim Shahin for your bourbon-brined grilled turkey recipe).  The weekend following, I went back home to KC again for my yearly BBQ pilgrimage, hitting Smokin Guns, The Woodyard, Jack’s Stack, and Big T’s in just over 48 hours.  I had a week of lag time, and then I visited New Orleans, where I went to Cochon Butcher, Donald Link’s magical wonderland of charcuterie, three times in three days.  I flew home on Friday morning at 7am, packed my bags in a hurry and kissed my fiance (who I hadn’t seen in two weeks), drove to Baltimore to pick up my brother, and then turned around for a five hour drive to Quicksburg that should’ve taken three.

I was feeling a lot of anxiety on that drive.  I couldn’t stop thinking about what the moment of slaughter would be like.  All the gory details ran through my head, including the thought of whether I would sh*t myself when the time came to wield the knife.  Perhaps luckily, we arrived too late for the first round of slaughter, and instead drank in some bourbon and the sounds of a cold farm night.

We got up at 430am the next morning and ate a quick breakfast before putting our Carhartt overalls on and heading to the same neighbor’s house for a day of butchering.  Motor oil coffee being drunk by a nine year old kid.  Donuts.  Camouflage.  Missing teeth.  One missing arm.  And eight halved hogs hanging from the rafters.  I found out I graduated to cutting “lean” for sausage, which was a small thrill.  We worked methodically all day.

The offal was put in cauldrons over a wood fire to cook down into “puddin.”  Later the solids were removed from the pot and cased as something like boudin.  The liquids were cooled and cut for scrapple.  The bellies, hams, and tenderloins were carefully broken down for doling out to the many local pig investors who stopped by throughout the day.  The sausage was ground and seasoned with the hosts special recipe.  Never measured with anything more than a cupped hand, it included salt, pepper, sage, and sugar.  Period.  The lard went into the pots, where it had to be stirred for hours as it rendered.  It was later pressed into chicharrones, the beautiful, golden lard poured into old coffee tins for storage.  The trotters went into a pile of scrap dog treats.  My brother spent most of the day tending the pots, because that’s where the beers were.  Starting at 8am.  At least one pot watcher had a dozen before the clock struck 10.

At around 3pm, the time had come to trek back up the hill to the farm and slaughter our pig.  The anxiety came back a little, but a day of butchery has a way of desensitizing a man.  Our host had a pig in mind, but he introduced us to the whole mess of hogs in their habitat first.  There were the beautiful, big ole Berkshires and their stud, Napoleon, whom we were told was an uncontrollable, 400-lb chaos and sex machine.  Some Tamworth mixes and a big group of Ossabaw Islands hogs, so called because they hail from an island off the coast of Georgia where they evolved wild.  We decided on two Ossabaws, little guys about 125-150lbs apiece.

The normal routine for the slaughter was to sprinkle some feed on the ground and coax the pig over to eat it.  The coaxer would have a pistol in hand, administering a quick kill shot to the head and then slitting the pig’s throat to bleed it out.  Almost immediately, though, the entire herd could sense that our host was acting differently, so they scattered widely.  We eventually had to bring out the rifle and shoot them from 25-50 yards, a task I was in no way prepared to carry out.  A friend of the host’s did the shooting for us, expertly and thankfully.  I made the throat cut on the second pig, recoiling a bit when I felt the knife go in, but finished with some confidence. I wish I had something profound to write about how I was feeling at that moment, but it was quick and rather emotionless, almost seamless with the regular rhythm of the farm.

We then had to shock the pigs in hot water so the hair and skin could be removed, but that’s where the problems began.  The host’s big, wood burning water heater wasn’t getting up to temperature because of the cold, so we couldn’t fill the trough to roll the pig.  Instead, we had to put an oil drum over a fire, fill it with water, and use the host’s tractor to lift the pig up and dip it in.  Needless to say, this wasn’t a perfect process.  The water wasn’t hot enough.  We couldn’t get the whole pig submerged.  But in the end we managed to do a decent job.  Next came the hanging and gutting, which was a more intricate process than I would’ve thought.  Precise knifework will detach the hog’s entire package of innards, causing it to fall neatly into a bucket.  My knifework pierced one of the intestines, causing it to rain sh*t on my hands.  After a thorough rinse of the whole enterprise, we retired after a nearly 16-hour day. I passed out so hard that I broke the cardinal rule of nightly contact with my fiance.

The next morning, we mobilized early to do the butchering.  I think I cursed at a rooster, a turkey, a dog, and a goat when I couldn’t find anyone else to complain to about the freezing drizzle.  We hacked and sliced our way through the carcasses, perhaps not quite as expertly as the neighbor, but well enough.  In the end, we loaded the meat into four bins with ice and put them in the back of my car.  We held back a rack of ribs and a cut of tenderloin to throw on the smoker for lunch.

As we drove off the farm towards Baltimore-Washington Airport, I had a feeling that the hardest work was over.  I kept thinking about how happy I was that my brother had been along, how it made a spiritual experience even more memorable.  I dropped him off for his flight and sped home.

Then the real work began, and my appreciation for the work butchers do was cemented.  I have long been enamored with the butcher’s trade, thinking often of McGonigle’s Market in Kansas City, seeking out any Dario Cecci material I could find to read, and dutifully devouring Cleaving by Julie Powell and the Primal Cuts: Cooking With America’s Best Butchers anthology.  I was in for an education.

An aside.  Ossabaw flesh is a beautiful, deep red, almost like a piece of high-grade tuna. The leaf lard from inside its cavity is perhaps the most healthy and pure fat in the universe.

After two straight nights of cubing shoulders, sawing bones, and cleaning tenderloins, I turned to sausage making.  Night three was smoked andouille, which was excellent.  Night four was boudin, a cooked sausage with shoulder, pork liver, rice, spices, and herbs, from Donald Link’s recipe in Real Cajun.  Night five was bacon curing, again from a recipe of Chef Link’s.  Night five was also when my fiance said, “When is this going to end?  I want my relationship back.”  Night six was hot italian sausage and spanish chorizo, both of which my fiance helped me case.  Amazing considering she doesn’t really even like to eat pork or handle meat.  Night seven, the hams were cleaned and salted, and we made ribs on my Big Green Egg that were outrageously good. I’d estimate it took me about 40 hours to break everything down, and my freezer is so full of vacuum sealed meat that we can’t make ice.

I was pretty happy with the results, for the most part.  But it wasn’t all roses.  The bacon came out too salty, passable for cooking but not for frying with eggs.  The italian sausage had a floral quality to it that was a bit off-putting.  I’ve had an unholy struggle with bad mold on my spanish chorizo, perhaps because I used beef middles instead of hog casings this time around. But the payoff came eventually.  My friend invited me to a chili cookoff against 12 other competitors, and my smoked chicken and homemade andouille version won both the judges prize and the people’s choice award.  I got a wooden spoon and a small bar tab, which I spent on three Schlitz’s and three Miller Lites for the judges.

At this point, the only thing left to do is figure out what to do with the hams when the weather gets too hot to keep them in my shed.  And see whether the mold attack on my chorizo can be repelled.  And eat a whole lot of pork.   And turn the last bit of fresh pork belly I have into pancetta.

Two thousand words later, let Charcuteapalooza begin.

12 Comments

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12 responses to “My Charcutepalooza Began on the Farm

  1. Wonderful post. Thanks for sharing the experience. I have plans to go do the same soon.

  2. Hey, This is great! I did something similar but, 4 years later, I’m still at the farm. I’m going to tweet this.

  3. Great post. This is exactly what I need to do. Inspiring.

  4. Ryan

    I’ll bring desert…

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