Warning: The photo gallery accompanying this article features graphic images. If you’re a regular reader of our Feed The Vegan column, beware.
I took a butchery class, mainly to see if I could. I’m not good with blood; just having knives around makes me a little nervous. But I like them. I play with a pocketknife when I’m trying to think. I took my old chef’s knife to be sharpened and swooned when it melted through a tomato. So sharp! I was transfixed. My fear of being cut is like another’s fear of heights—the impulse that draws us to the edge is more frightening than the edge itself. And so I decided to slice up a pig.
The class was in a small butcher shop in San Francisco. It has been a butcher shop for a hundred years. I was told to bring a smile, and that’s it. Aprons were provided, and with them my first pangs of intimidation. Our instructor handed out syllabi and smocks. My classmates filled theirs confidently; mine draped me like a collapsed tent. They looked the part, and when they talked, they talked meat: about killing a deer at seven years old, about cutting a pig in half with a Sawzall, about building a backyard cinderblock roaster, about chest freezers, the merits and foibles thereof. One was a professional barbecuer (“IBCA rules,” he said, when asked what kind). One confessed. “I’ve never butchered anything”—phew, I thought—then, “I’ve only field-dressed.”
The pig came out, pale, muscled, and gloriously, defiantly headed. I planned my escape. The fake text? The well-timed bathroom break? Paul Simon was playing in the front of the shop. (“Why deny the obvious, child?”) I stood my ground. This pig was small. I could handle it. It was a suckling pig, 20 lbs. or so, from Long and Bailey Farm—a so-called “heritage hog,” a Duroc-Berkshire blend. This elicited exhalations of approval from the crowd.
The first student eagerly took up her knife. Butchers, we were told, keep their wrists locked and cut with their shoulders. Like fly fishing, I thought. And like that: a connection, an analogy to make this experience a little less insular, and less daunting, than cutting off a pig’s head. But still, the head had to come off.
How to describe that first cut? The skin is peachy and smooth, like the untouched surface of jelly in a jar. And then the knife goes in, the skin ripples and splits, and everything changes. It’s amazing how fast the shift from soul to meat happens. One slice and the fourth wall is pierced, the play becomes a thing, the animal just a body, the spirit is gone and what’s left is simply food.
The shoulder and the butt (so called because it butts against the spine) separate from the carcass between ribs four and five. Legs come off one vertebra above the C joint, where the spine curves into the tail. The saddle (belly and ribs) splits, with a whack of the cleaver, into baby back ribs and spares. Butchery is mathematically precise because meat is money. A rack with nine ribs instead of 10, a loin four ribs long instead of five, are mistakes measurable in dollars. “So much of what butchers do is making the meat look good in the case,” our instructor said. Cut in straight lines, cut smoothly. This was hard to do when timid, as I was, or enthusiastic, as my classmates were, tittering on about the bone saw (“such a cool sound”) and the cleaver (“the fun job”). Butchery demands narrow awareness, clear-eyed calm. As our instructor said, “If you’re cutting through bone and you’re not getting through, you’re never going to get through. Just go around.”
One of my tasks was separating the loin from the chops. I peeled meat away, slithering in the flexible boning knife and slowly sawing off the meat. It didn’t go well. If the body is an interior world, as Da Vinci said, this one was apocalyptic. I opened my mouth to say, “I’m really butchering these chops,” but then realized the pun. It was a humorless environment, the butcher shop, humor requiring a certain analytical distance, beyond the reach of splattered blood.
The joke, it turned out, was on me. Those chops found their way into my take-home bag, and now glare at me from their freezer-shelf perch, totally mutilated: one thick, one thin, pieces of fat hanging off chipped bones at odd angles. This is not money meat. But courage is courage, however sloppy, and so I’ll proudly admit that I butchered these chops. And then I’ll happily consume the evidence.