How to Butcher a Pig in Your Front Yard

First off, my chef friends would correct me. I didn’t really butcher the pig, because it came to me already killed, skinned, halved and chilled; I fabricated it. Which is to say, I cut it up. Technically correct or not, fabricate is a terrible word to describe all the decisions that accompany the division of an entire animal. I mean, when you’ve got a 260-pound pig on your table you’re not constructing or fabricating the thing, you’re working reductively to cut its royal hogness into smaller, more manageable, roastable parts.

I’ve cut up countless chickens, some ducks, a baby lamb, a 100-pound pig and, as of last week, two deer. But none of it prepared me for this hog, which I ordered a few months ago from an Amish farmer. We arrived at his farm in September looking to supplement our smallish harvest of potatoes and squash, but when we saw the fleet of pigs roaming on the open fields snacking on peas and grass, I signed myself up for a whole pig. These were just as I like my meat: raised honestly, organically but not organically-certified, and going for 75 cents a pound instead of the usual 3 dollars-plus. I figured that if the farmer was going to skin and halve it for me, I might just keep a cheap thing going and cut it up myself.

No problem!

The farmer called me from the Amish communal phone (I imagine this thing as an vintage booth sitting at the nexus of four field corners) to tell me that they were processing the hog that evening and that I should pick it up the following morning at 10. At precisely the hour we pulled up and parked in front of their house, a 1960’s rambler retrofitted with no electricity and no running water, the walkout cinder block basement functioning very well as a root cellar and vegetable store.

 

The farmer and one of his strong, apple-cheeked sons lifted the hog, which they had skillfully spliced into two halves down the spine and then sandwiched back together again, onto our trailer. We dropped the head and the organs into a cooler, racheted the behemoth down, balanced a piece of insulation on top to keep the sun off of the meat, and then sped home, taking the paved roads.

It was pretty close to perfect butchering weather: high-30’s overnight, low-50’s in the daytime. Ideally I would have liked the daytime temp. to be around 40, but the pig was thoroughly chilled and remained so for the duration of my work.

 

One thing became immediately clear: the fat outweighed the lean on this pig. The farmer said that his pigs were mixed breed, of duroc, berkshire, and something-else parentage. So I knew it wasn’t a “the other white meat” sort of hog, but that it was what they call Chuffy: old-school, husky, bred for lard and intramuscular fat, the perfect sort of meat for curing and smoking.

I knew this, but when I cut into the belly my eyes still bugged. Check out the girth. (Don’t mind my fey hand.)

 

 

Here is where the confusion set in. The thing was so fatty I couldn’t see my way out. I ran inside, grabbed my laptop and went to woolypigs.com, the website for mangalitsa pork that I had been mooning over for weeks, and straight to their mangalitsa butchery pdf. Mangalitsa are old-fashioned, curly-haired Hungarian hogs which the Austrians—people who love their speck and bacon and sausage—have never given up. The thick pads of lard are high in unsaturated fat and oleic acid; they cure very well and the dark meat, threaded through with rivulets of fat, tastes uncommonly good. Check out the Austrian farms section of Wooly Pigs, where you can witness crazy Austrians pressing entire boned-out pig halves into single blocks of speck or rendering out cauldrons of lard, squeezing out the brown cubes of cracklings (known as greaves) beforefolding them into dark rivers of chocolateChocolate! I have worked with Austrian chefs, have watched them whip lard with pumpkinseed oil and spread it on bread as if it were cream cheese, so I know they have it in them to combine the two kingdoms of sugar and lard. They are masters of fat.

My husband soberly punctured the greaves-chocolate daydream, begging for his health: “Don’t do it.” (But I may have to!)

 


Professionals will note that I should have removed the tenderloin before separating the shoulder from the belly. Yes, that was my first mistake, and I did lose the tip. But for the rest of the first side I honored the Mangalitsa pdf and did what it told me to do.

And that involved the sawzall. Enter, husband. Yes, I used a new blade.

 


This cut separated the belly (which at this point still includes the ribs) from the loin. The chine bone, the dull-looking one at the top of the loin roast, needs to come off at some point, too.

But next I cut off the ribs.

 

Aw, stunted tenderloin.

 

And then I cut a nice roast from the top of the loin, the fattier and thicker end nearest the shoulder. In my family we just call this “the pork roast we like,” or the “bone-in loin roast, you know, shoulder end” but I will shorten that to Thielen Family Roast. Give it a spice rub, roast it slow and low on the bone, and after a couple of hours the ribs will be both crisp and tender and the loin, buffetted by its little bone cage, will remain juicy. You know, I really should have cut it bigger. At least one more ribs’ worth.

(Did you see that fat cap?)

 


On to the shoulder. I throw big parties around here, so I left it large. All I needed to do here was remove the hock.

My father-in-law, background hands in this operation up to this point, came in to help me on this one. A retired doctor who was a general practitioner here in town for over thirty years, he has seen it all: surgeries, autopsies, etc. And now, hog on the table. He instinctively started directing my knife. “Just follow your plane of incision,” he said. I followed, feeling like a med student, but the joint obediently popped and snapped open at my knife.

 

 


After knocking down the first side we took a short break, so I will here, too. Part II of the Amish Hog Takedown will follow shortly.

And for more on Mangalitsa hogs, go here, to a piece I wrote for a local blog.

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