2.14.2009

Farm to table.


We've only been out the car for a minute, and already i'm starting to realize that my Blue Bottle hoodie and Nike's may have been a bad idea. It's cold--bitterly cold. And raining. Oh, and bloody. We're in Sonoma county, somewhere. I'm not sure exactly where because the map on my phone stopped updating itself 30 minutes earlier. It's early, and i'm tired, and excited, and nervous, and probably far more lit up on coffee than a guy attending a pig slaughter should be.

A couple of weeks earlier Chef told me we were doing a pig dinner. Brandon Jew, one of my favorite chefs in the city would be coming by to help out. Start thinking about what you want to cook he said. This whole idea was very cool to me...I had always wanted to go to one of Oliveto's whole animal meals, but had never had the chance. So here we were, about to do it our way--what could be better? What I didn't expect was Chef announcing a couple of days later that we would actually be attending the slaughter of these animals. Anyone could attend--it just meant waking up early.

As a chef, my whole career has been spent opening cryovac bags of meat, patting them dry with a towel, and butchering. I was aware of where the meat came from, but it was convenient that I didn't have to see it. One time I sawed a pigs skull in half to make headcheese. And for some reason, catching and gutting a fish never seemed particularly upsetting to me. But the pig. Oh, the pig. In the days leading up to the slaughter, I heard from so many people about how smart pigs were...that they would scream...that my level of hell would consist of me and my fellow cooks being made in bacon. However, like Chef said, it seemed like something that we had to do. It was our responsibility as cooks.

Which brought me to the wet, muddy, bloody mess that I was standing in. A short, yet wrong turn filled trip had led us here. Jessie from Marin Roots had been raising pigs and goats, but wanted to get out of the livestock game. We were to take two pigs back with us, but coming up the hill I saw a boar, very dead, yet convulsing and bleeding everywhere. This was not the white tiled abbotoir that I thought it was going to be. We were outside, in the mud and rain, a hunting rifle and scalding tank at the ready. The man doing the work that day was named John; blue collar all the way, with strong shoulders and a gruff voice. He was one cool ass motherfucker.

Watching the precision that he worked with was astonishing. Sadly, he told us that he was the only one doing this kind of work in the area--no one wanted to learn the craft and carry on these traditions. His tools were simple; two de-boning knives, a steel, two guns, a torch for burning hair off, and a hook for pulling the bodies where he needed them. In minutes the boar was skinned, gutted, and split in two.

Next up were our pigs. They were fed, and snorting and sqealing. There were goats in the pen with them looking on warily, as was their mother, who was in the pen next to them. As they were being led away, they screamed and fought, but soon they relaxed and started eating grass. John walked over and would casually say 'here piggy' and then a muffled pop. That was it. No ceremony, no final words. This was business. Collecting pig blood for blood sausage proved to be fairly difficult, what with the animal convulsing and all. Soon John got to work again, working with the same efficiency, but this time scalding, burning, and shaving the hair off instead of complete skinning. (apparently the boars skin is more like armor than hair)


And that was it. We headed back cold and wet, but excited for Monday, when we would be cooking the animals. I came back from my weekend on Sunday. Brandon had already been working stock, headcheese, sausage, and the porchetta's. On Monday, Chef made a porchetta filling and tied them up. They spun away on the rotisserie for hours. Brandon set the headcheese, finished his sauces, and blanched sausage. It was inspiring thing to see, and hard to even picture the animals as they had once been.

The dinner was a success. Nopa was slammed on a Monday night. Pork liver, headcheese, the porchetta, Amy's bacon brittle...it was one of the most interesting nights to be in that kitchen. Jessie came out and ate dinner, as did most of the kitchen crew. It was gratifying, to have seen the process from beginning to end. And I got to have a delicious porchetta sandwich to boot.










14 comments:

t. said...

Great post. I grew up on a dairy and we slaughtered animals using a mobile butcher about once a month. I think it is so important to understand where food comes from and how it gets to the table. I wish more people would be willing to view a slaughter.

the Commis said...

I think my addiction to offal and pigs started with bacon, and then was magnified by Chris Cosentino of Incanto. He tells a vivid, first hand story of slaugtering a calf himself, and it elicits the type of pride and loyalty we all should have for the food we ingest. To say that it is a right of passage only scrapes the surface, I'm certain of that, but unfortunately, the slaughter is an experience I have yet to partake in. From Fergus Henderson, who is leading the way in returning respect for 'the whole beast', to Thomas Keller's story of the rabbits in upstate NY, and having Bourdain and Zimmern providing mainstream publicity for offal and other forgotten foods, we as chefs, and aspiring chefs, are responsible for preserving and providing the best possible product for our communities and taking that task as serious as our pride for cooking. Bravo, Chef, next time,and I hope there will be, bring your whole staff.

Queen of Cuisine said...

Fabulous post. What better way to respect the food and where it comes from.

Brenda Heisler said...

Yep, that's where food comes from. It's a fact and I love knowing it. Makes me appreciate it and the farmer even more.

Thanks for sharing. Hadn't see that done before.

lakeviewer said...

Slaughtering an animal is probably not what I wanted to read about. But, it all connected and was necessary to understanding.

samin said...

JT is a zen master.

Los Gatos Girl said...

Beautifully and respectfully written. It's not easy. I helped slaughter a hog once, and they used boiling water in an oil drum to help remove the bristles. It makes you fully appreciate everything better. ((and dare I say it...the flavor of freshly butchered meat is outstanding))

You know, I adore your posts, and look forward to them every week.

I can't wait for the podcast.

Let me know if you want to do a newsletter. I've got the back end all set up.

Colin said...

Sweet post. Bet the porcetta tasted better than any before.

Lisa said...

I grew up looking every day into a refrigerator that housed bar-sized jars of pickled pigs' feet and lambs' tongues, and ham hocks in butcher paper in a bottom drawer. And head cheese. Lots of head cheese. Our neighbor hunted bear, deer, squirrel and anything else that was legal and we ate it all. Now I have a packet of scrapple in my freezer whose ingredients read simply: pork, pork skins, pork stock, pork hearts, cereal, pork liver, salt, spices, sugar, onions, corn and soy protein. And today the further reality check of your blog. Growing up the way I did has helped me understand that all food comes from somewhere and your photos just furthered that education. It's never pretty but it should be appreciated and understood. Thanks yet again.

Ms. Divina Loca said...

Reading this reminded me of a field-trip I took in the seventh grade -- to a meat processing plant. That day we saw mostly pigs being killed and butchered. Granted, this was a corporate processing pland and not a piggyhadagreatliferightupuntilthelastday kind of operation. Many of the kids were grossed out and I didn't like the gore aspect (still don't), I remember thinking that it was important to know about this. -Nancy.

MODman said...

MMMM.... Pork. This takes me back to my days growing up on the western slope of Colorado. We used to get fresh free range pork and beef by the side every year. Nothing like it. When is dinner served?

Nick Arora said...

Just curious, but what's your take on Chef Gordon Ramsey's Kitchen Nighmares? Is that show just an exercise in sensationalism or is it realistic?

-Nick Arora

zeph said...

Hmm, I think I stopped by that Monday night. Was my first time at Nopa and it was great. I was sitting at the bar overlooking the kitchen, and the plates 'o pig that were leaving the kitchen looked fantabulous.

FYI, I'm still thinking about the bacon brittle.

Great post, keep it up.

freshlybaked said...

wow... what a great blog! i am a culinary student attending a farm to table program in colorado. we will be holding a harvest dinner at a farm where we will slaughter and prepare two lambs along with local produce we will harvest, cheeses, wine and beer. this was a great first step to prepare myself for what i will see. i believe everyone should experience this, to realize where your food comes from, and how it got to your plate. maybe we would not be so wasteful if become more aware of what it takes to produce our food and get it to our table.