Saturday, March 10, 2012

Try It: Hog Butchering or How I Learned to Long for Local Food

It was an unusual day. The weather was unusual. Leaving our kids with our excellent sitter in the middle of a Sunday afternoon was unusual. But nothing was as unusual as the event on our social calendar: A Hog Butchering.

The unlikely outing appeared on our radar at the end of a wonderful night at Chef Justin's Cure out the outskirts of Lawrenceville. We were giddy and reckless after a wonderful night of drinking and dining with friends of ours (of Potsticker and Offal Night fame).  So when we saw "Hog Butchering" it seemed like the perfect continuation of fun! Also, I must admit, my favorite part of Little House in the Big Woods was always when Pa butchered the hog and Ma made head cheese. I would salivate wondering if my Ma would ever make head cheese.

We arrived and saw the guest of honor draped under a white sheet. I wasn't worried about my own reactions (after several decent anatomy/physiology classes, dissections and oh yeah giving birth three times) a little blood and blade action wasn't going to faze me. I was pretty sure. But I admit to being worried about my significant other who can be more sensitive to wounds and such.

Let's just say we were both curious how it was going to go down.  (Later I learned one staff person was assigned to watch all the guests and see if anything was going to come up.)

Chef Justin welcomes us to the butchering

What commenced was one of the most educational, exciting and thought-provoking afternoons I've had in awhile. I loved it. Hubby loved it. Chef Justin killed it. Not literally, because as we learned, all animals must be slaughtered at USDA-approved facilities. No exceptions. But Chef Justin is very committed to the art of butchery, and works with local farmers and sources to acquire carefully raised animals. Our subject dined on squash and watermelon. She, as revealed by the udders, proudly displayed a lovely, creamy two inches of back fat. Not every female can boast of that much back fat.

Who's hungry!

Chef Justin taught us about proper knife technique ("draw a line" and "never butcher frozen meat") and also educated us on the edible nature of almost every part of the animal ("the bung cap makes a delicious casing" and "white buttery lard makes the best pie dough ever"). We also learned the different cultural traditions involved in butchering and how scrapple, now disdained, but was once a delicacy is served fried in the Mid-Atlantic but as a cold turine in the Gulf region.

Not a bit of that pig went to waste except for the portions of skin that had contacted the slaughterhouse machinery. Chef Justin sliced those portions away for disposal while bones went for stock, lard for dough, other numerous cuts to be cured (in the fridge) and later dried (in the scary basement). We drank, we laughed, we chatted and we learned.

We met Nate from Clarion River Organics who connected Chef Justin with the pig farmer. We discussed Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) and the problems with the current meat market system. It dawned on me that I didn't have any choice in how my meat was prepared - unless I was more active in my choice of how and where I purchase my meat. It's not a choice every family can afford. But if more families begin to make the choice, perhaps the current system can change.

Everyone was smiling at Cure that evening.

The crazy weather continued that evening as we dined on pork, potatoes, root veg and gobbled up our chocolate souffl├ęs with pistachio butter.  The meat from the show's star won't be ready to enjoy for some months so we have an excuse to go back. My belly was full but my mind open to new food choices and a desire to do better for my community and my family increased.

Buying local and eating local is something I've always felt was right but I never started. I'm now in the contemplation stage of making the behavior change. Yet, I'm spoiled. I like buying strawberries out of season and sticking with familiar cuts of meat that don't require much thought on my part to prepare. I'm the mom of 3 and a business owner - I'm often dead tired and completely uncreative by the time dinner rolls around. But I'm also the mom of 3. And a local business owner. And if those aren't good enough reasons to throw my support behind local food, than I'll just to have say it's a matter of taste!