A supposedly fun thing I keep on having to do

Please note that this week’s column is about pig butchery. It’s not graphic, but we do kill a pig.

The first pig roast I worked was in 2005. Strictly speaking, it wasn’t a pig roast, but what the Germans call a schlachtfest, a slaughter-feast. The closest American term for what we did is a “hog-killing,” but that’s always sounded too orderly to me. It sounds mechanical and efficient, like taking care of business. It doesn’t suggest, as “pig roast” does, that a hundred hungry people are going to descend upon you shortly after the pig is dead, standing around and wondering when lunch will be.

We were slightly underprepared, which is a funny thing to be when you’ve flown a master butcher in from Germany to help. Torsten was from Hamburg, 6’4”, and built like a suspension bridge, with cable limbs and a plank body. His hair and stubble were iron grey, and he had the drawn face of a limestone saint watching a cathedral door. The line of master butchers in his family went to the Thirty Years War, and in his Hamburg shop hung the certificates to prove it. He was the ninth generation and the last, for he’d married a Saudi woman and converted to Islam. Their children had never touched pork, and Torsten himself no longer tasted his own work.

Our guests of honor were two Tamworth hogs, each weighing almost 600 pounds. A normal pig, the sort that gets turned into pork chops cling-wrapped on a plastic tray in the supermarket, might weigh 240. We had not planned on having so much pork, but it was Jonathan’s first time raising pigs. Jonathan and his wife Nina were a couple of brilliant autodidacts who happened to run a dairy farm (which they still run today). In 2005, they had a herd of 20 or 25 dairy cows, from whose milk they made cheese. When you make cheese you get a lot of whey, and the easiest thing to make from whey is pork. All you need for this are some self-contained mobile pork production units and a bit of pasture, and Jonathan and Nina had lots of pasture.

When Jonathan decided he wanted some pigs, he started by researching what kind of pigs to buy, which is how he wound up with four Tamworth piglets (1). Each was the size of a large spaniel, and they made adorable snorting noises as they cavorted around the pen. Everyone knows pigs will eat anything, and more pork is never a bad thing, so Jonathan didn’t bother researching porcine nutrition. Instead, we fed them all the whey and kitchen scraps they wanted, so by the fall they’d been drinking 40 gallons of whey a day for 6 months straight. Their shoulders reached my hips, and each weighed more than any three people on the farm.

Pigs will eat anything, and this includes live prey. Their eyes point forward like wolves’, and their teeth are sharp. To feed them we had to lug 20-gallon cans of whey over an electric fence and through a pen occupied by a ton of very hungry, utterly single-minded omnivores, then empty them into their trough while they tried to get the can out of our hands in their haste to feed. We weren’t sorry when it was time for them to feed us.

The day we chose to say goodbye to the largest and most assertive pig, we led it to another pasture with some bread soaked in whey. Jonathan had his farmer’s .22. The tractor was standing by to act as a hoist, and there was a pile of food on the ground to keep the pig happy. Torsten was wearing gingham, as is traditional for a butcher in Germany, and a passing cop had stopped to watch. The pig started eating, entirely unworried, and Jonathan stepped right up in front of it and shot it between the eyes. The pig kept eating. Jonathan checked his rifle. Ejected a perfectly normal spent casing. Lined up and fired again. This time the pig stopped eating, shook its head, and gave Jonathan a look, as if to say, “Whatcha do that for? I’m eating here.” Then it kept on eating. Everyone shared a look. The cop pulled out his .45, stepped up to the pig, and fired. The pig fell over. I don’t think the ground actually shook.

And then things started to get complicated.

After you kill a pig the first thing to do is get its hair off. The usual procedure for this is to scald it in hot water then scrape the bristles off with a bell scraper. We did not have a bell scraper, or a tub big enough to fit a 600 pound pig. Instead we had saucepans and kitchen spoons and disposable razors and a propane torch. And Tamworth bristles are embedded in their skin like rebar in concrete (2).

The next step is to saw the carcass in half down the spine. We did not have a saw. We had an old cleaver that had been used to kill chickens. The pig’s spine was a good two inches thick. It took Torsten half an hour, hacking away like a berzerker trying to cultivate self-discipline.

And then there was the small matter of the second pig.

A pig that’s 600 pounds alive yields 450 pounds of meat, fat, skin and bone; 40 pounds of blood that has to be collected for blutwurst and stirred so it doesn’t coagulate; 10 or 12 pounds of liver, kidney and heart; what seem like miles of intestines, stomach, and digestive tract; and finally two huge torpedoes of leaf lard. This particular pig had dined exceptionally well throughout its life, and its meat was a deep blush of rose, with a solid four fingers of fatback over the loin. The fat was firm as cold butter and the color of clotted cream.

To make wurst, you need a meat grinder and a sausage stuffer. We did not have a sausage stuffer. The meat grinder was borrowed from the American Chinese restaurant down the road. It was perfectly usable after I spent an hour scrubbing it of what looked like previous month’s dumpling filling. The tamper was missing of course, so we pushed meat into its maw with our fingers. Torsten still had all of his after twenty-five years(3).

If you are making wurst from two giant pigs, then in addition to a meat grinder and a sausage stuffer, you need not space so much as a sense of scale. An understanding that you’re dealing with twice your own weight in sausage. That we had — or at least, Torsten had.

The physical requirements are: enough casings for 300 pounds of wurst, enough pots to cook 300 pounds of wurst, enough places to put 300 pounds of wurst before and after cooking, enough people to eat 300 pounds of wurst. All of these except the last had to be jury rigged, cobbled together, scrounged, or faked. Other necessities include: a 6’ table that will get completely covered with blood from making blutwurst; a farmstead’s worth of mason jars to hold the leberwurst when you run out of casings; a stockpot big enough to boil a hillock of meat and stubbly pigskin which still won’t be big enough for poaching the wurst; and finally, since this is a dairy farm, a handy cheese kettle, a water-jacketed stainless steel vat 6’ across and 3’ deep, in which you will actually poach the wurst because it’s the only thing big enough for the job. And more than any of these things you need, mentally, to be coming from a place where all this improvisation is par for the course and everything is really going to be OK.

Eventually all the wurst was poached and smoked, those four-finger thick sheets of fatback were salted and hung, and the hams, each weighing thirty pounds, were embalmed in salt. Then we swept out the hayloft and pulled out tables and benches from somewhere and actually started cooking. The farm had a wood burning brick oven used for bread. Into it went two rib roasts from the pig, the size of small tree trunks. They emerged with their skins craggy as bark. One of the shoulders did too, bigger than my torso, along with trays of potatoes and squash and whatever else we could pull from Nina’s garden. There were yards of bratwurst on the grill, and at least another 20 pounds of other wurst piled on boards. Somewhere, there was a salad. Soon enough a hundred and some people showed up and stood around wondering when lunch would be.

The next year, Jonathan bought 8 piglets, in two batches of 4. He chose not to butcher them himself.


(1) Tamworths are an English heritage breed - good at foraging, well adapted to life outdoors, and, most importantly, quite delicious.

(2) This is one of the reasons the breed is no longer widely kept.

(3) Torsten knew, and I did not, that on most modern electric meat grinders, the vertical feed tube is quite sensibly made longer than the vast majority of human fingers. Please do not misuse this information.


In the piece about Balthazar, I mentioned the dough dividers they use, made by a Japanese company called Rheon. The dividers are among the simplest machines they make. Videos of the more complicated ones are hypnotic.

B. and Paula mentioned “machines where you put butter and flour in at one end and get croissants out the other.” Of course, Rheon makes those too. I’ve anchored the video at the butter intake (2:30), which I found hilarious, but the next 2 minutes are well worth watching too.


My sincere apologies for the lack of a newsletter last week! I was travelling and a little overwhelmed, without time to either write or line up a guest column.

This week’s title comes with apologies to David Foster Wallace. As it suggests, there’s more to come next week. Also, more on bread and baking soon!

If you’ve enjoyed the stories so far, please consider sending a link or an issue along to someone you know who might find this interesting, or consider posting something about this on social media. There’s nothing like word of mouth.

Thank you for reading let them eat cake, a weekly newsletter about food systems and food. And as always, a super-special thank you to my pre-release readers, Jen Thompson and Diana Kudayarova.

best,

tw

p.s. I’d love to buy you a coffee. Drop me a line!