A couple years ago, I heard that a farmer was selling whole whey-fed pigs to some of the area's top chefs. I wanted one! This was a tasty form of recycling, after all. The farmer was using the byproduct of his cheesemaking — whey — for animal feed. I was told that the result was exquisitely creamy meat. I didn't think the whole hog thing through, though. So when I got a call early one morning saying that a pig with my name on it had received its death sentence, I had to scramble. My pig was just 60 pounds, small as animals go. But it was bigger than my freezer. Yet, it was also too small for the place that removed its hair and gutted it to cut it up for me. I didn't own a cleaver or a big butcher's block — or the skills to cut a whole pig. The butchers I called shunned my business because they didn't believe this was a USDA approved transaction. When I met up with Justin Severino, the chef who ended up doing my butchering, I told him how it went on the phone with the meat markets that I tried to get to do the deed. They chided me for ordering a pig that I couldn't handle on my own. He understood.
"It's just not geared that way," Severino said. "It is all USDA-managed, and the USDA is definitely systematic about what they do, and there is nowhere in their system where they support one person that buys one pig and wants to take it to a small butcher shop and get it custom-butchered the way they want it."
Previously, Severino owned a high-end meat processing shop in California and later worked on a farm in Virginia butchering animals. For my job, a local restaurant where he was working at the time let us use their kitchen.
Severino lopped over the head, and made short work of my pig. In a little over an hour, I had lots of vacuum-sealed freezer bags with ground pork, pork shoulder, pork shanks, on and on — and what he labeled a "fun bag" that included the tail. And yes, the head, pretty much intact. With the eyelashes.
I paid Justin around $130. My pig cost something between three and four dollars a pound. And it was worth every penny. For months — OK, I'm embarassed to say, nearly two years — I pulled these items out of the freezer and made things like fabulous fresh maple-lacquered hams, simple chops, and rolled stuffed belly. Just a few weeks ago, my mom made a pork Osso Bucco with the legs. Amazing! The piece de resistance was supposed to be the head. I tried a stuffed pigs head. It wasn't quite what I planned. Over a toast, we analyzed the meal.
"It's very flavorful, it's interesting," my dining companion Erin Holland said.
"It's basically like a hot dog," I admitted.
"It's much more glamorous than a hot dog," Holland told me.
See, the idea was to have kind of matchstick cuts of tongue, chopped bits of ear, and cheek, kind of rolled up into the skin of the pig's head and cooked and sliced, then pan fried with breadcrumbs. My roll of meat, though, fell apart when I removed it from its cheesecloth wrapping where I'd simmered it. So I tossed everything into a food processor, shredded it up and packed it into a pattie.
The whole process took some eight or more hours over two days. I talked with food writer Jennifer McLagan about whether this was really worth it. Her latest book is called Odd Bits: How to Cook the Rest of the Animal. I told her that cooking the whole pig was so much work that I wondered what was wrong with just allowing offal to go to ground meat and dog food. She scoffed at how I would let these odd bits go so easily to the dogs.
"They're really too good for Fido," McLagan said. "You know I think there's lots of tasty, delicious bits wit lots of fabulous delicious textures and tastes. Like, whereas the prime cuts that everyone is so obsessed with, there's not a lot of difference in taste and texture. I would argue probably between a New York cut and a ribeye."
McLagan actually says that there's a moral responsbility to eat as much of an animal as possible once we've killed it. Unless there are some cryovac packs in the recesses of my freezer, I think I've lived up to her code. Like Edgar Allen Poe's short story, there might be a heart lurking somewhere. McLagan has an answer for that, too.
"Something like a heart is extremely versatile," she says. "If you know the source of your animal, you can make kebabs with it, cook it rare, or you can slow braise it, or you can even chop the heart up raw and make heart tartare, which is absolutely delicious."
Looking back at my two years with the pig, I can pretty much say that I'd do it all again. Although, Chef Justin Severino is getting ready to open his own restaurant, so perhaps I can just stop by there.