Pig Butchering Class at Ebey Farms

I never expected that butchering a pig would be a pleasant affair. It’s not.

I wanted to understand how much work it would take to process a pig in the event I bought one. As a bit of a foodie, I’m curious to make my own sausage, and try cooking some bits of the pig that are harder to get or more questionable. Finally, it should come as no surprise that I’m concerned about the long-term sustainability and health of our industrialized food supplies. The more I know, the more I think this food is not safe to eat.

So last Saturday, I was back at Bruce King’s farm, waiting for class to start, letting others make nervous jokes while I snapped some pictures.

I’ve slaughtered plenty of rabbits and a turkey. I’ve raised sheep, goats and pigs that were loaded on trucks (or dropped off) and returned in small freezer wrapped packages, but I’ve never been at a large animal butchering.

Here’s my top-level take away from pig butchering: it never feels like food.

It’s always meat: large meat in ways that make most people uncomfortable and nervous. When we were finished, there were still hardly any parts as something I’d recognize in my kitchen.

I also believe there’s an affinity humans share with pigs. It’s a reason Orwell made them the rulers of the farm, why Charlotte’s Web and Babe are tender tales of redemption. We recognize their smarts and personalities in a way that makes killing them uncomfortable. However, there’s hardly anything I eat that makes me as happy as bacon, ham or pork belly. The word, according to Bruce and Heath, is that I’ve never had real bacon.

This post is going to be long, but given the uncertainty of the new economy, it might come in handy if we all end up turning our lawns into more useful pig stys. Despite how gruesome it might seem, realize this was done by hand by people who care for the pig’s welfare while alive and killing it as humanely as possible, as opposed to mass mechanical slaughter houses processing hundred of hogs a day who live in cramped feedlots.

Click to get a larger image

We first talked about the tools needed: bone saws and very sharp knifes. This includes thick ones for cutting meat and a very thin one that is used to stick the pig.
With its super fine teeth, these saws are designed to cut through bone quickly without leaving shards or dust. You must have one.
The gun made me nervous; it’s true. What would happen to it afterward? Who would hold it? I did not want to.
While no one was making jokes during the turkey butcher, there was even more of a determined and solemn air as we went to sneak up on the sleeping pig.
Here’s the deal: even if you get a good shot at the pig, which Bruce did, you still only have 10 seconds to stick the pig and severe its arteries. It happened so quickly, I really missed it all.
While the pig might have been less stressed out to be killed in its normal sleeping spot in the sun and in the hay, getting it out of there to dress it required a lot of work. Here meat hooks are being put into the hock tendons. Since these were not being used, it’s ok that they get contaminated with an open wound.
The guys took turns dragging the pig up to where we were cleaning it.
The pig is ready to clean on pallets. We’re going to use a lot of water to clean it, so it needs to be off the ground. At this point, you might hang it as well, but Bruce’s tractor just broke, so we’re having to do it near the ground.
Scraping the thin layer of bristles of the pig took over an hour. It takes a few minutes for the skin to lift off once boiling water is poured on the pig. All pigs are pink once they are scraped.
Just because it’s slaughter day, doesn’t mean there is not other work to be done. Here the pigs get fed.
It wasn’t just hands on. We’re taking a look at different cuts of meat and discussing strategy…there are two sides of the pig and they could be cut differently.
Bruce also showed us what it was like to burn the skin to scrape. This is more popular with Eastern Europeans and Russians. Why? They are not likely to eat the skin like Mexicans might or need it for curing like Italians, so it’s ok if it’s slightly charred. What about the USA? Americans tend to skip the scraping entirely and just skin the pig for the meat.
The only part of the head that’s going to be saved are the jowls, but I can imagine how much work it would be to scrape the entire face.
Honestly, I just think this is an amazing picture. Bruce is singeing off any missed bristles.
Here we talk about the gentleness one needs with the knife; we’re going into the belly and the last thing we want to do is puncture the intestines.
It’s a slow gentle slicing through the layers of fat until you can guide your fingers into the abdominal cavity. Then you guide the knife with your fingers under the wall of muscle to slice open the pig.
It’s now all about getting the guts out without tainting the meat. Like the turkeys (and us) there are only attached in a few places.
Bruce is cutting the anus free and sealing with by tying it closed with twine. It is pulled out through the body cavity leaving the hams and loin clean.
As we’re cleaning the hog without hanging it, it takes teamwork to lift all the guts out to the side where the organ meat will be sorted and saved.
While the intestinal track is freed, we still need to get the heart and lungs out. Bruce used the saw to cut open the breast bone. Next he carefully cut open the diaphragm, freed the esophagus and lifted out the heart and lungs.
Now everything is getting hosed down again and the body cavity is cleaned out.
Another use for the bone saw: getting the head off. There are joints that one could cut through here, but they are very difficult for newbies to find, so it’s much quicker to use the saw.
In many cultures a lot of food is made from the head: headcheese, snouts, ears. We’re only keeping the jowls. These will be cut off last. Again, I find this picture rather amazing.
Using the saw, the back vertebrae are cut right down the middle. You should notice that the pig is now on a piece of plywood. It’s been washed in a light bleach solution and the pig and the area hosed down. Again, we’re doing whatever we can to limit contaminants touching the meat.
Working through one side before doing the other, we’ll first cut off the front shoulder.
Leaving the rear foot on to hang the ham for curing, Bruce is cutting free the ham. I’ll note that on this side of pork, we forgot to cut free the long loin. It happens. Thankfully there’s the other side to get one from!
Depending on how you like your ribs, there is a cut to make with the saw that gives you the difference between what becomes the chops and the ribs. While I recognize a pork chop when I see it, I did not quite get how they would be cut off the two slabs we ended up with.
The last step is to cut the bacon from the ribs. Here you see it attached and ready to cut. Then you repeat those steps: Loin, Shoulder, Ham, Ribs, Bacon.

You can read about Ebey Farm’s turkey butchering class here.

If you live in Western Washington and are interested in either attending one of these classes or finding out how to buy a pasture raised pig, you can contact Bruce by emailing him, here.