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Our Homegrown Pork Report

January 11, 2010
January 10, 2009

We departed Orleans in the dark, at a little after 4:30 a.m. The hogs were huffing and shifting around in the trailer. The long anticipated trip to the slaughterhouse was a drive marked by a sense of unease. We made small talk, listened to the radio, and felt the weight of their fates as we pulled their nearly 400 pounds to Bridgewater, Mass.

We left the pigs at Den Besten’s with a 6′ 5″ Dane who had knives strapped across his middle. He had told us to come early – “We do a lot of ethnic business on Saturdays.” Pulling in at 6:30, opening time, there was a line of trucks behind us. Central American-looking guys in light jackets hunched their shoulders against the cold, smoking cigarettes and not talking. I went inside to the ‘office’, which consisted of a closet featuring a phone, water heater and numerous notebooks. The office furniture I stood beside was a long

shiny table with a band saw at one end. I overheard a discussion about whether or not a particular sheep still had baby teeth, as a slaughterhouse worker hoisted the ruminant in question by its back legs. I was out of there as fast as possible. The faint smell of offal and meat lingered in my nose. There was an open trailer in the field loaded with folded, furry hides.  The sight of live chickens, pigs, cows, goats and rabbits waiting in a variety of pens was burned in my mind.

The hogs, now pork, were ready a week later and I hoped it would be ‘dead’ at Den Besten’s for pick-up day. Now we were too early and found ourselves employed in boxing the frozen meat and fresh hams and bacon. Somehow the ‘fatback’ didn’t make it into the car. I didn’t know to look for it in the room where big hooks made their living gripping huge quarters of cows.

The fresh hams and bacon were delivered to Tony in New Bedford’s densely populated North End. The Salchicharia was just starting to heat up at 8 a.m, and the kitchen was filled with huge trays of fresh white fish fillets, buckets of marinating stickleback, and vats threatening to overflow with chunks of meat in a dark red sauce. There were chickens being sawed in half on a band saw, and fryalators bubbled with the first batch of fish of the day. Three guys traded off jobs, keeping it all moving as Tony and I talked shop about the smoking. “Take the skin off the bacon slabs, slice it pretty thick (not that thick!), cut the hams after smoking, save the smoked hocks, see you in 2 weeks.”  We stopped only once on the way out of town, to ask for some directions from a couple of friendly Pakistani gentlemen in a convenience store filled with the heavy, fragrant smoke of incense.

After two days thaw in the fridge we sampled inch-and-a-half-thick bone-in chops marinated in ginger, lemongrass and soy sauce and barbequed on the grill. The recipe was from a cookbook lent to me by a Thai friend, and I haven’t cooked chops inside since. The meat was a rich red, marbled with white fat. It looked like steak. The flavor was very, very good. I next defrosted ground pork and made sausage patties with sage, black pepper, crushed red pepper, and a sprinkling of some other dried herbs. Delicious.

I left the roasts and spareribs in the freezer for use during the depths of winter and, after two weeks, moved on to the bacon. The bacon ranges from a very delicious mild smoke flavor with a strong salty attitude, to incredibly salty and dark tasting stuff that I can barely eat. I don’t know if the difference is due to some aspect of the smoking technique, such as injecting brine or not having an even brine mix during soaking, or even location of the meat in the smoker. I have run into those issues smoking fish. Also, the bacon is from two very different pigs, and all the bacon cuts are not from the same place on the belly. I will continue to ponder these ideas as I work my way through BLT’s, clam chowders (begun, of course, with bacon and its lovely fat,) and breakfasts of backyard eggs, homefries and bacon. I may try rolling some bacon in brown sugar before cooking.

The hams were still huge for my use after being split by the smoker. I was lucky to find butcher Rick Backus at the East Orleans Village Market, and he graciously cut the hams in half again for no charge just a couple days before Christmas. A relative generously sent a spiral ham from Harrington’s of Vermont for the holidays and we put our hams in the freezer for later. I am eager to taste the smoked hams and curious about the potential uses of smoked hocks.

Will we do pigs again? At this point, I am uncertain. The amount of work involved in raising them to market weight is daunting. The cost is also prohibitive, given steep rises in the cost of grain that began last spring, around the same time that the price of gas began to go haywire. While gas prices took a nosedive, feed costs remain consistently high. If I had acres of pasture and reliable sources of expired bread, brewery grain, dairy, cheese making or ice cream making byproduct, or even spent produce, it might make a lot more sense.

However, I love to eat meat that I know lived a good, clean life, even if it means I have to dispatch them myself, as I do the chickens, or lead them to their final moments with treats of cake and cookies, as I did with the pigs. It must have all started years ago when I learned that a fish pulled to shore will die of suffocation, gasping for water and getting only air. A swift blow to the top of the head will put it out of its misery, but that’s a subject for another post. It takes a strong stomach to take an animal from infancy to table, caring for it twice or more every day. It takes an even stronger will to plate it and bring that first forkful to mouth, knowing who it was you plan to chew. In the end, its a good feeling made even better by the incredible flavor.

To raise your own pigs, pick up Small-Scale Pig Raising  by Dirk Van Loon and grab a piglet or two in the spring from Frank Shaw at Top Choice Farm in Plymouth, 508-224-7370. Check your local ordinances about raising livestock. Shaw also can sell you a freezer or roaster pig if you don’t have the space or desire to rear it yourself.

To barbeque pork chops, try this marinade from Thailand; The Beautiful Cookbook by Panurat Poladitmontri. Mix together 2 garlic cloves, 1/2 teaspoon white pepper, 2 Tbs sugar, 2 Tbs fish sauce, 2 Tbs soy sauce, 1 Tbs Oriental sesame oil, 1 Tbs Chinese rice wine or white wine or whiskey, 2 Tbs chopped lemongrass, 1 Tbs finely chopped green onion,  and 2 Tbs coconut milk. Let four pork chops soak for 30 minutes, then grill over a medium-high fire for about 8 minutes per side.

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