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Thursday, December 9, 2010

How about a hand for the hog...

How about a hand for the hog


Well they tell me, but I can’t be sure
that a man’s best friend is a mangy cur.
I kinda favor the hog myself;
how about a hand for the hog.
Ya say a hog ain’t nothin’ but a porky thing,
little forked feet with a nosey ring,
Pickle them feet, folks,
how about a hand for the hog.

From Big River written by Roger Miller

“Okay,” said the lady with the soft Teutonic accent. “Who’s going to kill the next one?”

“I guess I will,” I volunteered. I grabbed the captive bolt pistol, loaded it with a 9 mm round, and headed to the hog enclosure where a couple of farm hands were already isolating my victim from the rest of the herd.

It was a damp, drizzly, cold, foggy late November morning in Branchville, NJ. MD and I were attending a course in hog slaughter, butchery and meat curing at Mosefund Farm. We had flown in from sunny Santa Barbara the night before, driven to our hotel in Newton, NJ and made the 20 minute drive to Branchville, arriving for our 7 AM introduction to the other participants (11 in all) in a tent set up to provide some minimal protection from the elements.

After introductions, we all proceeded to the hog enclosure where some 15 or so Mangalitsa hogs were penned. These hogs had been fed out and readied for slaughter while another 150 or so Mangalitsa were roaming freely outside, rooting for acorns and wallowing in the mud.

Christophe and Isabell Weisner, the husband/wife team from Austria who led the course, are the driving force behind the resurgence of the Mangalitsa breed of hogs. Mangalitsa were developed via selective breeding in Austria/Hungary in the early 1800s and have been around since, but dwindling in numbers because they are extreme lard-type hogs instead of meat hogs. (Heath Putnam, who met the Weisners in Austria several years ago brought the breed to the US.) Whereas meat-type hogs produce lean meat, lard-type hogs produce much fattier meat, well marbled, juicy and flavorful. But with the tendency in the last few decades to move away from fat and toward leanness in hogs, the Mangalitsa fell out of favor. Remember, pork has been advertised as the other white meat. Hogs have been bread to be leaner and leaner over the past twenty or so years, and the taste of pork reflects that intent. Tasting a bite of Mangalitsa pork, which is advertised as the other red meat – is a world different than the dry, tasteless pork most of us are used to. Take a look at these Mangalitsa chops and compare them to what you find in your local market.

As we got with the days work, Christophe downed the first hog and took us all through the process from slaughter to dressing out the carcass. I was amazed at how little things had changed since we slaughtered hogs when I was a kid on the farm many years ago. The only real difference was that back then we shot the hogs with a rifle from afar whereas now the killing is done with a captive bolt pistol held to the hog’s forehead, which stuns the animal, allowing it to bleed out properly.

Before I get on with the rest of the story, I’ve got to say I learned a lot during my first day at Mosefund Farms. First, I learned why they call New Jersey the Garden State. It’s because it’s beautiful. Having never been outside Newark or Camden in my previous visits to New Jersey, I had always assumed the entire state to be as presented on The Sopranos. Believe me, it’s not. Just 30 minutes from the Newark airport will find you in wooded rolling hills dotted with picturesque farm houses. It looked to me more like New England than New England, where I have spent some time.

Second, I learned that hogs are as dumb as I remember them. Having spent a lot of time on a farm and around farming as a kid, I had a hard time reconciling the notion that pigs were as smart as dogs, which is something I’ve heard from numerous sources. The pigs with which I was familiar didn’t even come close, but, I thought, maybe I wasn’t that careful an observer as a youth. Watching the pigs on Mosefund Farm, I can tell you, they aren’t particularly bright. And there’s a reason for that. As near as I can figure hogs are interested in four things: looking for food, eating, sleeping and getting pissed at other hogs. (There’s also rutting but none were so engaged during my observations.) That’s about it. They don’t even notice when one of their pen mates is slaughtered before their eyes. One time MD and I sailed to Santa Cruz, one of the islands off the coast from Santa Barbara. We were anchored in a cove with a couple of other boats and about a million seagulls roosting up in the cliffs, when someone from one of the other sailboats shot one of the seagulls with a pellet gun. The rest of the gulls went absolutely berserk and created a noise like nothing I’ve ever heard. Obviously they – with their bird brains – knew something bad had happened to one of their flock and let the world know about it. A hog gets killed about six feet away from a dozen others, all of which snuffle along totally unconcerned.

Why? Because their brains are so small they don’t have the capacity for much of anything but the four activities listed above. A certain amount of brain size is used for driving and regulating all of the physiological functions of living – anything left over can be used for thought. The hogs we were slaughtering weighed between 250 and 350 pounds – about the same as a large human – yet their brains would fit in your hand. Given the size of their brains as compared to their body size (and in comparison to our brains and body size), I can’t see how they have the excess brain capacity to even get pissed at other hogs, but they do. But it does explain why they don’t really apprehend what’s happening to their fellow hogs and why they, themselves, go willingly when it’s their turn.

Third, it dawned on me that I might need to rethink the idea of free range. Mosefund Farm is in a beautiful rural setting with a lot of room for hogs to roam. The pen containing the most of the pigs was open to a large tree-studded hill where the animals were free to roam and snout around to their hearts’ content, but few of them chose to do so. To be sure, there were a few roaming around, but the vast majority were crowded around the small enclosure with a concrete base that contained their feeding apparatus. Others were lying in the mud right at the edge of the concrete. And this when they could have been rooting for acorns on the hillside and lying in the deep leaves.

It made me realize that we humans are a lot like these hogs. We, too, by choice live in houses or apartments when we could be free ranging it. We do occasionally go out into the woods, but only for short periods of time, and we almost always come home to sleep. Unless, of course, we’re camping, in which case we usually carry a smaller version of our home with us in the form of tents, campers or trailers. The animals are no different – we imagine they appreciate the great outdoors and would much prefer to spend their time trundling about the hills. But the reality may well be that they, like we, may prefer to be in their own version of a snug home.

Finally, I learned that the Austrian way of dealing with these hogs is truly the Paleo way. From snout to tail there wasn’t but about two large handfuls of hog that wasn’t used for something edible. It’s truly amazing how delicious many of the parts are that you wouldn’t normally think about eating. And we ate them all, and there wasn’t a one that I didn’t enjoy. I’ll post about the various tidbits in future posts.

The three-day course was divided into a day of slaughter and dressing out, a day of butchering and a day of curing and sausage and lard making. The latter is an event I really got into and will explain in much detail in a post to follow.

As I describe the slaughter and dressing process, I will include photos of the process. These may seem somewhat grisly to those without a farming or surgical background, so if you’re squeamish, be forewarned. If you’re going to eat meat, however, you should perhaps take a look at where it comes from.

I stepped into the enclosure as two farm hands used large red plastic shields that looked much like large cutting boards to pen my hog, who seemed to be pretty much unconcerned at the events taking place, against the fence. I straddled him, pressed the device against his forehead, and pulled the trigger. He dropped instantly without a sound.

Another participant stuck a knife in the hog’s throat; a third held a large stainless-steel bowl to catch the bright red blood, stirring it with his hand all the while to prevent coagulation. This blood would be used to make delicious blood pudding.

After the hog had been exsanguinated, we grabbed him by the legs and carted him to the tub to be scalded. During this procedure, the hog is rolled over continuously by hand using chains for leverage. The almost boiling water loosens the hair, which needs to be removed in the next step.

The hair removal – and there is a ton of hair on a Mangalitsa (they’re not called Wooly Pigs for nothing) – is the most difficult and tedious part of the entire operation. It requires a ton of elbow grease. Every inch of the hog has to be scraped clean of hair with little funnel-shaped metal contraptions. (We always used butcher knives on the farm, but our hogs weren’t anywhere near as hairy as these.) As I was scraping away, all I could do was imagine my Paleolithic ancestors doing the same thing – and probably a lot better – with flint knives.

Once the hog was dehaired, we hung him by his feet for dressing, a process involving opening the hog’s belly and removing his GI tract from anus to stomach without spilling the contents. This is more of a precision job than you might imagine, and one requiring a bit of a delicate touch at times. Thank God my surgical training wasn’t all a waste.

Once the GI tract is removed en block you extract the lacy, weblike caul fat and separate the liver from the rest of the viscera and the gall bladder from the liver. You throw the liver in a pan along with the kidneys and spleen, all of which will be consumed later. Unbelievably, even the spleen is edible. We had it as spleen on toast. And the kidneys… I couldn’t look at the kidneys without thinking of Joyce’sUlysses and the main character Leopold Bloom, who heads out early in the book to Dlugacz’s, the pork butcher, to get kidneys for breakfast.

Bloom has just taken a fried pork kidney up to his wife, Molly, when she smells something burning. She asks if he left something on the fire, and he remembers the other kidney.

–The kidney! he cried suddenly.

He fitted the book roughly into his inner pocket [he had been looking at a book when Molly noticed the burning smell] and, stubbing his toes against the broken commode, hurried out towards the smell, stepping hastily down the stairs with a flurried stork’s legs. Pungent smoke shot up in an angry jet from the side of the pan. By prodding a prong of the fork under the kidney he detached it and turned it turtle on its back. Only a little burnt. He tossed it off the pan on to a plate and let the scanty brown gravy trickle over it.

Cup of tea now. He sat down, cut and buttered a slice of the loaf. He shore away the burnt flesh and flung it to the cat. Then he put a forkful into his mouth, chewing with discernment the toothsome pliant meat. Done to a turn. A mouthful of tea. Then he cut away dies of bread, sopped one in the gravy and put it in his mouth.

Next came the heart and lungs, which required reaching deep into the carcass with the left hand to feel and identify the trachea while using the knife in the right hand to sever it, blind. Once the heart and lungs were extracted, it was time to split the carcass in two. (The heart and lungs were used for an absolutely delicious soup called, logically enough, heart and lung soup, which we made and devoured hungrily a couple of days later. I’ll have photos and the recipe in a future post.)

After splitting the carcass into its two halves with a hacksaw – another arduous task – we set about removing the fat from the insides of the hog, the leaf lard. This fat, which you can see glistening in the photo, is the inner body fat that pads the organs. It is almost pure white and soft.

You separate the leaf lard from the carcass with your hands as MD is doing below and save it for rendering later. Because of its delicateness and lack of taste, the leaf lard is primarily used for baking.

In true Paleo fashion, throughout the dressing process we cut off small parts of the hog and ate them raw. The leaf lard was evanescent in that it kind of dissolved in your mouth like cotton candy. The meat was delicious even raw.

Once the carcass was split and the leaf lard removed, the dressing process was pretty much finished. We cut the heads off some of the carcasses and not on the others. Ultimately, the heads were removed from all, but for whatever reason some were remove on the day of slaughter while others were removed on the day the hogs were butchered.

A tired and greasy MD preps liver under the glow of the vapor lights.

It was long after dark by the time we had prepped all the organs and hung the last carcass in a refrigerated truck and repaired to the tent where it had all begun early that morning. We had a dinner of what else? Mangalitsa. We debriefed and prepared for the next day.

In the next post, I’ll talk about the butchering process, and in the final post about how the various parts are cooked and/or cured.

I’ll leave you with a video of Michael Clampfer, the executive chef at Mosefund Farm who put on our course, talking about Mangalitsa and how they’re raised, where they come from and how they’re different. In this video you can see the beauty of New Jersey that so surprised me.

Click here to view the embedded video.

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