"I hope you have a plan. Because if you don't, that half hog can kick your (butt)."
Thus came the warning from food writer Michael Ruhlman when I told him that, inspired by his new book, I planned to buy and butcher my first half hog.
Days before interviewing the "Salumi" authors I'd, coincidentally, ordered my first half hog from farmer Kim Snyder of Faith's Farm near Kankakee.
Could she deliver it intact? "Yes," she said, noting that I would save some money on butchering fees. Snyder also knew a Chicago chef, Bernie Laskowski, who would help me through process. I signed on immediately.
Meanwhile skeptical friends warned me that this escapade would likely result in disaster, not to mention digit loss. "There's a reason why we have professional butchers," one said, "because this isn't something you can just decide to do yourself."
But Ruhlman and Polcyn's words echoed in my ears: Americans, they said, have lost touch with many of our hands-on food traditions and culinary skills — skills that were commonplace only a few generations ago. Butchering and curing one's own meat, they argue, could bring folks back in touch with some of those traditions, give them a better appreciation for their meat and even save some money.
I planned to test all of these assumptions when I met up with Snyder, Laskowski and the half hog in the kitchen of Cuzins Tavern & Pizza in Tinley Park on a recent frigid morning for a crash course in hog butchering.
Breaking it down
Over the years I'd heard macho chefs brag about breaking down a half a pig in 30 minutes flat. Based on these tales, I'd assumed that a neophyte like me could do it in three hours or so, right?
Well, not exactly. Nine hours after I'd arrived in the quiet kitchen, I was still elbow-deep in fluffy mounds of ground pork and slimy slices of liver. I would use them to make breakfast sausage, Italian sausage and pate campagne when I got home. But before I could do that, I'd have to get through a butchering process that felt like it was going on forever.
Those hours were spent sawing through slippery hog spine to make chops, slicing off hunks of ham, trimming ribs, and peeling gray glands and silver skin from bright pink slabs of meat. The sure-handed Laskowski, who is working to open the new restaurant Madison Street Kitchen, gallantly took over trickier tasks like deboning the ham and hacking through the harder chops.
I learned the proper way to cube and freeze meat and fat before running it through the grinder and how to handle a scimitar (curved butchering knife), boning knife and hack saw. I also learned why whole communities traditionally worked together on hog-slaughter projects. It's a mountain of work — and this pig didn't even arrive alive.
Even with Laskowski and Snyder's help, the process took all day (including a brief break for lunch) to break down all the cuts, grind the scraps and pack it all into zip-close and vacuum-sealed bags. The half hog carcass weighed in at 112 pounds (without a head and trotters), and I went home with 110 pounds of meat and fat and organs.
Proud that we'd thrown away less than 2 pounds in gristle, bone, glands, silver skin and sinew during the butchering, I didn't feel so bad about leaving the head for Laskowski as a gift. Plus, after nine hours of kitchen work, I'd lost the energy to stay another few hours to dissemble the noggin and boil it into headcheese.
Instead I'd take my groaning cooler bags stuffed with pork belly, leaf lard, shoulder roasts, ham steaks, chops, loin, neck, chop steaks, hocks, jowl, grind, liver, heart and tongue, pack them in my car and head home. But not before paying the bill.
As I watched Snyder calculate the hoof weight (155 pounds), slaughter fees ($35) and chilling fee ($22.40), I was sure that this would be the moment when all the hard work would make sense. Not having a butcher to cut, trim, cure, smoke, grind and package all my meat would certainly translate into major savings, right? Well, not really.
"Wow, you only saved about $60 by doing this yourself," Snyder announced. "Butchering and packaging it doesn't really save you much money at all."
After a moment of incredulous silence, Laskowski put things in perspective.
Half a hog, whole lot of work
You bought the pig, but does it make sense to butcher it yourself, and can you do the labor?
Chicago Tribune reporter Monica Eng bought and butchered a half hog, saving money--but definitely not time--in the process.