a winter pork harvest
Yesterday was quite the day. Eleven people, six dogs, and one swine made up the work crew that descended on Cold Antler. The mission: to turn a living Yorkshire Pig into food. The pork patrol was mostly limited to myself, my good friend Steve Hemkens, and Vicki Frost the traveling butcher. But other friends of the farm stopped by during the day to help with various aspects of a winter animal harvest, and their effort was greatly appreciated. Two families, the Daughtons and the McEnenys, arrived with their young children and did everything from help pick out a butchering location to climb on the roof to push off snow. It takes a village, darling. This post is the story of one farm's winter pork harvest. The entire day. Welcome to the table.
The rest of this post will explain the work, the emotion, and the images of a day making meat out of a living animal. Be aware that the content is graphic. Out of respect for the animal, there is no images of her slaughter, but much of the work of butchering. If this makes you uncomfortable, please govern yourself accordingly.
Yesterday morning I woke up to snow. Outside thick flakes were coming down, snow-globe style all over the farm. It was beautiful. I stoked the wood stove, put a pot of coffee on, and pulled a wool sweater over my braids and headed outside to see to morning chores. I thought about the Tschorns hosting dog sled rides today in Bennington, and my friend Tim's photography show I still had not seen. There was so much I could be doing with my winter Saturday. But today I wasn't going to be riding in a dogsled or looking at pictures on a cafe wall. I went into the barn to have some words with Pig.
It was warmer than I was used to. The day was already in the high twenties, and the comfortable atmosphere paired with the gentle snow seemed to soften the work ahead. Pig was just inside the old red door, standing up, looking at me curiously. She let out a few gentle snorts and I realized how quiet she had been this whole time. She never really made any noise unless something in her evening meal made her snort with glee. Despite eating a hen that flew into her pen, she was never vulgar. She didn't smell bad. She wasn't violent, or jumpy, and never complained—though her world was never one to cause much complaint. She had lived a peaceful and comfortable life in this barn. Her nests of hay, pan of grain, and red water bucket served her well. Compared to most of the pork in this world, she was living the life of royalty. Her little curled tail wagged as I scratched her ears.
I looked down at her eyes and told her Thank You.
I had never meant those words more than at that very moment.
I walked out of the barn.
The next time I would go in would be with the butcher.
Inside the house I was preparing for the day. I baked an apple pie that morning, and put on more strong coffee for the crew. Steve arrived first with his bird dog, Cayenne. All four dogs played while we enjoyed a breakfast of pie and coffee, and caught up with each other. Soon the other families and the butcher arrived, and before long everyone was helping set up the work station and gathering supplies. I liked Vicki instantly. She carried herself with the authority of an expert in her field. She has been raising and harvesting hogs since she was nine-years-old. I was grateful she traveled all the way down here (over two hours) to serve the farm.
Even the children got in on the action. Ian Daughton (10) scoped out trees around the farm to use as our butchering hoist (I was silently hoping we could spare the neighbors the site of a bloody hog operation in the front yard) and his brother Seth (6) helped fetch cameras and bleach. Later during the day, little Eli McEneny (2) walked around the job site as uninterested in the carnage as he would be dry leaves in the fall. These were the children of sporting families. Kids that grew up learning where their food came from and helping with the process—they hunted, made sausage, had cows in the backyard. I however, grew up in gentrified Suburbia, and I couldn't imagine helping one of my parents' friends locate a slaughtering tree in second grade. They amazed me with their gumption.
As it turned out the only proper place to work was the giant Maple right on the front lawn. It was strong enough to hoist the animal, close to power sources for the electric saws, and had a flat area to set up the water and bleach stations, knives, and wrapping workshop. People who would drive by would see a carcass hanging from a limb. They'd see blood and guts and all sorts of things you don't plan on seeing when you drive into town to pick up a movie and Chinese food. "Oh well," said Steve with an air of stoic amusement, "This is the country. This is a farm. They'll just have to deal with it." I agreed. Goodbye Suburbia.
When the abattoir, butchering table, and supplies were all lined up and ready it was time to slaughter. Vicki had a 30-30 deer rifle, and explained that she would wait as long as it took to get her perfect shot on a calm animal. She had stood in pig pens for two hours before. She had no interest in a frenzy or chasing a wounded animal through the snow. I trusted her, and only the two of us went into the barn.
I stood just outside the pig pen while the butcher climbed in with the now loaded rifle. I had been asked to stand behind her and act as calm as possible. Pig seemed confused by the sudden roommate, but not in the throes of any existential crisis. Vicki spoke to her in a calm voice, explaining to her perfectly what was going to happen. "Your farmer has been taking care of you and feeding you for a long time, and now it's your turn to feed her." she said as she scratched the little girl's head. I was a little shocked at how okay I felt about all this so far. I was told it would rattle me. I was steady at the helm. 100% present and aware. And I felt lucky to have someone as experienced as Mrs. Frost on the job. The woman has been raising and butchering hogs for forty years and her mind was entirely focused. Her expertise and steady hand were all the affirmation I needed. This woman butchered over 500 swine a year, on farms all over New England. Both me and Pig were in good hands today.
If Pig did know what was coming, it wasn't jarring enough to stop her from eating the pan of sugar-soaked apples and grain that would be her last meal. I watched the scene with curiosity, but not remorse. Guilt and sadness wasn't on my mind at all, (but then again, she hadn't pulled the trigger yet). I had no idea how I would feel about the slaughter of my first hog. I was less than four feet away from the event. Slowly and gently, Vicki aimed her muzzle right behind the porcine ear and the shot rang out. Pig dropped instantly to the ground. Just like that, it was over. I did not cry.
Within a moment of the drop Vicki sit her neck and the pig bled out right where she had slept the night before. I watched her final moments of twitching and said a prayer quietly to myself. I was assured that she was already gone. The bullet had gone directly through her brain and that instant drop to the ground was the certainty we needed. Within moments Vicki's husband and Steve had walked in the barn door. They slid hooks through her back hock tendons and dragged her out to the giant maple. The work of making food would begin.
Vicki set to skinning first. She cut off the skin around the pig's feet and head, and gently pulled off the hide with the expert of a surgeon. It was many, shallow cuts, and took half an hour. Feet were removed, so was the head. What remained hanging was no longer anything like a pig at all. It looked like the hanging meat you've seen in movies and television your whole life. But you know, in your front yard.
While we worked with Pig, the Daughtons headed out to help a friend move and Scott McEneny became a homeowner's super hero and climbed on the roof of the house to push off snow. I had been so worried about the barns and animals I didn't realize my own attic roof was swelling. I told him I could rake it down, but he insisted that he had to do something, and was stunned at his kindness. His wife and their little boy talked to the sheep, and their two hunting spaniels in their Volvo sang back-up. I kept thanking them like an idiot. Not many of my friends in my previous life would come help gut a pig and shovel my roof. I decided right then and there, he was getting meat on Monday once we wrapped it all up. All who helped that day would leave with some. It was the least I could do.
We breaked around 2PM for pizza. I wasn't sure what Emily Post had written about the etiquette of hosting traveling hog butchers, but I decided in that mine would be well fed and have all the coffee or tea she could drink. We came inside and washed up before enjoying a thick-crusted pizza loaded with cheese. It tasted amazing. I had been fasting all morning, and we had been working non-stop. We talked for over and hour in there. About farming, our dogs, relationships, sustainability. Vicki seemed comfortable at Cold Antler, and I was pleased at that.
The next round of work was gutting and splitting the carcass. Vicki estimated the weight of Pig to be around 180 pounds. A third of that would become waste, and the rest would become food. The "waste" was mostly entrails and things like the head, fat, and feet. On future animals I might render my own lard and make scrapple: but this was not my intention with this first pig. I would take the hams and bacon to be smoked, but that was the extent of my adventures beyond basic pork. So entrails went to compost and the head went far into the woods for the birds. The skin was laid out for the chickens to pick the fat off and enjoy. The soil, the crows, the poultry, and several people would be fed by this one animal. How humbling.
Vicki explained the anatomy to me, and said that the inside of Pig was as healthy looking as the outside. The only thing we needed to be mindful was that she did eat raw meat (the errant hen) and that meant the meat would have to be frozen for twenty days or cooked to 160 degrees, well done, in case of any possible trichinosis. The chances were rare, being so few meals she acquired that way, but no reason to play it safe. I was so upset. Did I mess this up? Was the pork dangerous? Vicki assured me it was fine, that she would eat it and feed it to her grandchildren, just not rare.
We set the sides on the table and went to work. We cut up the liver, heart, some fat, and all the scrap cuts into a giant bowl for sausage making. We wrapped up the roasts, loins, ribs, and chops in cling wrap and freezer paper and stacked them on the table. Mounds of wrapped meat piled up, cuts I could never imagine seeing in a grocery store. Jowl steaks, Blade roasts, and stir-fry cuts would be in the freezer along with the hams, belly, and chops. The whole time we worked Vicki explained how to cook things, how to prepare them, and stories of past hogs and farm adventures. It might sound like a bloody mess, and it was, but it was also a happy practice. A bunch of kind people getting together, working side-by-side to achieve this goal.
Time went fast as Steve showed me how to wrap and mark the packages. As it got colder out we worked even faster to get everything in the freezer. I looked over at Vicki, in just a light sweater, snow pants, and a garbage bag apron and how cold she was among the knives and flesh and decided she was getting a tip. How could a four-hour round trip to dress one hog be profitable for her? I offered her pork as well (stupidly, she had plenty) but decided this was the best way to show my appreciation, and entice her back for the next pig. When you find help this good, at so good a price ($200 was her fee for the travel, slaughter, butchering, wrapping and bringing all her own supplies. Not to mention, over five hours of work...) you hope they'll like you enough to return.
A one point worked stopped to take in a scene. We all were stunned to see a group of robins in the well, just down the hill. I saw them splash at the stream and saw hints of green grass the water had washed the ice clean from. I felt as uplifted, better than I had in days. I took it as a sign that the worst of this winter was over. That spring, and lambs, and good things were going to come my way. Robins on slaughter day: a new folk saying was born.
Eventually, everything was wrapped up and cleaned. Knives were put away, the meat in the freezer, the station torn down, and all that was left was our footprints and the red pile of blood under the maple tree. Steve left with a hug, told me he was proud. I was proud too. That was the overriding feeling of the day. I had no regret or guilt for taking the life, and realized this would carry over to the lambs in the fall as well. This was my work, creating healthy meat, the food of the ages. I was proud that I completed this project, the first I executed alone. I needed help of course to do all the work, but the planning, the pen building, the finding cheap feed, the labor, the raising, the setting up the butcher date and the day's work...I did it. I felt like carpenter that finished her first house. This was a life to live in.
My life has changed from one that coveted material things and experiences to one that savors hand-made comfort. I used to want everything I saw at Crate and Barrel and dreamed of weekends in London. Now I am planning how to install a bread-baking wood stove and filling a chest freezer with yard pork. I still enjoy the Crate and Barrel catalog, I still imagine weekends in London, but they aren't what they were. They are distractions now from a better world. Amusements. When I realized the only reason people were shopping or vacationing was because someone else was making their food: it lost much of it's appeal. You can be the most strident anarchist and own your own indie gallery but you're as dependent as a suckling child if you can't fill your own fridge from time to time. I'll trade in my plane tickets for a weekend like this any day.
This morning when I was outside fetching water from the well for the sheep, I walked past the giant tree that was yesterday's scene. The new snow had all but covered the blood.
A farm exhales.