Bone and Blood: How the Sausage is Made

When my neighbor invited me to view a pig butchering at a local farm, I was a little reluctant. I had witnessed a goat slaughter last year, and since then had lost my appetite for horned beasts. Could this experience push me over the brink into full-blown vegetarianism? That might be nice for my cholesterol levels, but I wasn’t yet ready to forever ruin for myself the glory that is a crispy pork belly.

Yet, there wasn’t much of a choice. Two motivating factors determine my life decisions: follow the source of the food and choose the option with greater potential for narrative amusement. Yes, off I would go – to a place called Whistle Pig Hollow, which sounds like either a children’s book or a Southern Gothic horror story. As we headed towards the farm, the highway turned into a windy country road, which narrowed into a sloping pathway blanketed in damp leaves, and again I started to have misgivings. Why was I driving ever further towards such a cinematically cliché setting for murder? With a butcher’s apprentice in my car, no less?

Once we pulled in and exited the vehicle, however, I felt instantly at peace (due to the chloroform pumped out into the surrounding air, no doubt). The landscape, with its verdant rolling hills, looked borrowed from northern England. In the immediate distance, a handful of hairy, content-looking pigs grazed by a fence. We walked up to the farmhouse, where a bunch of twenty or thirty-something year old guys stood around a fire, smoking cigarettes. They were chefs and butchers from area high end restaurants: Woodberry, Clementine, Fleet Street Kitchen, Parts & Labor, etc. Almost everyone present sported beards and flannel, including the pigs.

An older man with a clean-shaven face and a sensible jacket stepped forward, beamed at us and shook our hands – this was John, the farmer who owned the place. He gave us a hearty “Welcome!” and sent us inside, where his wife Gretchen had laid out a most appetizing spread of snacks and charcuterie. There were a variety of aged and soft cheeses, including this wonderful soft goat cheese layered with peppered jam. The highlight was this two-year aged country ham that was incredibly delicious, and indubitably expensive, and there was a great heaping pile of it so we could openly gorge ourselves without fear of being “that one jerkbag who ate all the good ham.” Plus, lots of beer and wine and mulled cider. I would be cheerfully glutting a particular food, and then look up and notice Gretchen bringing out yet another edible thing on a pig-shaped tray.

After we had eaten like, ahem, pigs, Gretchen gave us a short presentation about the farm’s heritage pig operation. Heritage pigs are essentially old-timey breeds with needs, making them unfit for the modern factory-farm horror show. These breeds thrive best with light and air and freedom of movement, plenty of which is available at Whistle Pig Hollow – a literal pig heaven. The meat from heritage pigs tends to be redder and fattier than the lean, white consumer pork available in grocery stores. They raise a few purebred pigs at this farm, but mostly they like to mix and match breeds to maximize deliciousness potential.

The pig we were butchering that day was a cross between a Berkshire pig and a Mangolitsa. I forget what that means except that the pig was much fattier and had grown a lot faster than its parents.

Luckily for my continued status as a carnivore, the Berkalitsa had already been slaughtered and halved. Chef Chris Amendola (formerly of Fleet Street Kitchen) broke down the pig into its composite parts as the other chefs and butchers looked on, silently observing and critiquing technique, while the other kitchen tyros and I asked questions like “what’s that thing? What are you going to do with all that fat?” Mostly, though, everyone quietly watched the process. It is always thrilling to watch experts in the midst of doing something they are really, really good at.

After this pig was neatly divided, we went off to go visit its still living compatriots. I cannot claim to read the porcine mind, but these pigs just looked so happy. (I could honestly just watch pigs run around forever. They’re so comically clumsy and their ears flop around like precious baby bunnies.) All the adorable piggotry had not made us forget how delicious their friend would be. We headed back into the house, where Chef Chris had prepared pork loin.

Upon parting, Gretchen gifted us all t-shirts and thanked us for coming out to their farm to be educated and fed endless, delicious pork. I definitely did not leave Whistle Pig Hollow entertaining any thoughts of converting to vegetarianism. I did, however, reflect on differences in meat, from process to product, from the farm vs. the factory. To be honest, I have fallen into the habit of eating utter crap (hello, Totino’s party pizza rolls) and not at all doing diligent sourcing of the things that have rolled into my mouth. This experience made me resolve to eat like a responsible grownup. I’d like to start eating less, but higher quality, meat, and pay the locavore premium – better for me, better for the pigs and for the Earth overall.

** Note: this blogger was not paid to endorse Whistle Pig Hollow, aside from the copious amounts of free ham and cheese and beer and stuff.