September 28, 2010

This Little Piggy Went to Market....

Frank, the head of the meat department at Healthy Living, nonchalantly pushed his way through the glass door with half a pig slung over his shoulder.  I don’t mean part of some pig. I mean half of an entire pig.  Deborah, the instructor of the class I’m taking, looked up but continued talking about the upcoming assignment as if this were routine.

My attention was lost to her, however, and I gazed at the kitchen area where Frank had set the pig down on the counter.  The counter was about ten feet long with a stovetop at one end and the pig, stretched out from one front hoof to one hind hoof, took up about six feet of it, dwarfing the three by three red plastic cutting board it rested on.  Its skin, which looked exactly like what it should look like- pale pink pig’s skin- lay cold and tight against the marble countertop.  Frank’s assistant wheeled in a cart behind him and set down a knife and a hack saw next to the pig and then left the room.

When Deborah finished speaking, she encouraged everyone to take a seat at the kitchen counter.  I moved to the last seat in the row, furthest from the pig, and as the other seats filled I noticed one student pull the instructor aside, her hands over her mouth and nose, her eyes filling with tears, she was breathing hard. Deborah quickly ushered her out of the room to the hall where I could see through the glass wall that the student was very upset.  I wondered if she was a vegetarian and had been caught, as I had, off guard at this huge piece of meat that didn’t look like “pork” when I bought meat at the grocery store but looked like what it was- an animal. One that had at one point been alive and moving, maybe had some spunky pig personality, the kind that inspired Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web or the ambitious pigs of Animal Farm.

Looking at meat this way should not have been new to me.   My brother is an avid hunter and quite often I see the animals he has killed before they are butchered.  Even though I have seen the animals as a whole, I’m not afraid to eat the meat later, as some people might be.  Meat tastes good and I know that my brother has respect for the tradition of the hunt. But I have never seen what happens between when the animal goes down and when it appears again on my plate.

Deborah introduced Frank by offering a little biographical information and then he wasted no time in cutting up the meat.  As he lifted the pig, gesturing to different parts of the animal, he explained that the meat was pasture raised and began a discussion of how important diet is for any animal raised for meat.  Well balanced diet for animal equals well balanced diet for you, he said. Frank took the knife in hand and proceeded to carve out what he says he always carves out first- the pork leaf fat, just inside the hollow stomach cavity. As he wielded the knife expertly and trimmed out this length of fatty lard, I forced myself to gaze straight ahead and not shy away.  If I was going to eat meat then I had to have the respect of watching how it was prepared. I listened to him as he explained that this makes the best piecrust and again it hit me- the connection of farm to store to table that I had been missing. Of course you make piecrusts with lard and of course lard is animal fat, pork fat to be specific. And here it is. Frank explained that the lard is boiled down and that, in fact, they can it and sell it in this store.

Frank made quick work of the rest of the pig first taking out the tenderloin. This, he explained was the easiest to get to and thus the first thing removed. I naively realized as he pulled this length of meat out that there’s only one tenderloin in this half a pig- making just two in the whole pig. What a small cut of this great expanse of pig. Of course they are so expensive.

Next Frank moved to the face bacon, then the shoulder.  Slicing from the shoulder to third rib he explained that the shoulder contained the pork butt or what made for excellent pulled pork.  The mention of pulled pork brought me instantly to Ruby’s Barbeque in Austin, Texas nine years ago, perhaps the first time I remember eating pulled pork. It was served on wax paper and messy as hell but also like nothing I’d ever had. A lover of pulled pork, my husband had recently made his own version and I, not having a firm grasp of meat cuts, remember being taken aback when he returned from the grocery store with something called ‘pork butt’ and intended to make the delicious pulled pork I remembered with this less than appetizing sounding cut of meat.  But now, I was struck by the fact that the pork butt was not butt at all but simply shoulder! When I pressed for it, it didn’t seem Frank had any neat answer for why the pork butt was actually the pork shoulder, although I did learn that there is some attention to changing the names of meat for marketing purposes- to make them more attractive.  Pork butt is also referred to as Boston Butt and spare ribs apparently are more appetizing with the addition of the prefix St Louis. The journey from butcher house to table was seemingly quite transformative, not only in physical recognition but also in character identity. It seemed meat is more appetizing when given a geographical association.

From there, Frank carved through the saddle loin, the actual butt, and finished up with the belly explaining which cuts of meat came from where.  When he was done, he had a pile of meat hunks on his cart that his assistant wheeled back to the meat department.  As he washed his hands and cleaned up his work space, he summarized his main points of the day: know where your meat comes from and make sure it is fed with grass that you would walk on with your bare feet.  And one last time I was hit with a feeling of obvious agreement. And one last time, that feeling was quickly followed with a gentle chiding in my head- but you don’t actually think about that when you are in the meat section. And I was left where I started: thinking about that journey from farm to table, something that should inform more of my grocery shopping and food consumption and maybe, after this experience, it will.