Two weeks ago I set out for the Hudson River Valley’s Kingston, N.Y., to participate in the third day of an introductory Butchery 101 three day class at Fleisher’s Grass-Fed & Organic Meats. Upon inquiring where I could learn more about slaughtering and butchering classes for The Root’s readers, contacts in Maine’s “food world” had mentioned Fleisher’s butcher training as having an excellent reputation. Fleisher’s co-owner and master butcher Joshua Applestone, has earned what Primal Cuts author Marissa Guggiana describes as “a rabbinical role among their growing community of (high-end butcher) peers.” Heck, Julie Powell of “Julie & Julia” fame wrote a book based on her apprenticeship at Fleisher’s. When I spoke with Jessica Applestone, Joshua’s wife and co-owner of Fleisher’s, she verified they’d had students from Maine – including a young chef from Monhegan Island (I was unable to reach him for this story) who had apprenticed there. With that I made my arrangements.
By the time I joined the group in Kingston on Sunday, they had learned knife skills, how to steel a knife (honing the edge, not to be confused with sharpening), how to clean tools and work surfaces, wrapping/Cryovacing (think vacuum-packing), observed the breaking down of a lamb and pig, broken down a pork shoulder, Joshua had demoed sausage and bacon making, and discussed Offal. I didn’t end up meeting Joshua (next time!), but he’d mentored with a master butcher by the name of Hans Sebald, who was described in god-like terms to me, and that was who I was told would be doing the slaughtering and butchering that day.
We piled into cars and traveled out to Meadow View Farm in New Paltz, NY. Along the way we chatted about what kind of people take the class (chefs and butchers, Culinary Institute of American students, and everyday non food world folks who just want to learn more about what they are eating), the return of old-fashioned butcher shops (breaking down whole animals from local farms), and the ethics of eating sustainable meat. By the time we arrived at the farm, we’d also addressed the fact that 60 years ago we’d all have seen a pig killed before rather than this being our first time.
The experience really began with the arrival of Hans Sebald, a man who has been butchering since he entered into a three-year apprenticeship for a farmer/butcher in Germany at age 15. Hans taught at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) for 20 years, and now teaches (almost) monthly butchery workshops for Fleisher’s.
While final preparations were being done, Hans introduced himself and gave a brief lecture on feedlots (usage of antibiotics and hormones) and factory processing. As part of his job with the CIA he’d been to the biggest meat processors: #1 Tyson Foods (they do an estimated 5400 cattle/day), #2 Cargill, #3 Smithfield, and #4 ConAgra. He said one slaughterhouse he visited did 18,000 pigs a day. At one he hadn’t been to he heard they did 22,000 a day. Those might be bigger than normal days, but I’ll leave you to get a cup of coffee and let those numbers sink in.
School lunches, Hans touched on those too (he’s a dad as well).. “I could talk all day long about what should, and shouldn’t be done,” he said. “It’s all about convenience, and who suffers? Kids. Once they are hooked on certain prospect (junk/fast/highly processed foods), it’s hard to get them away from it.”
Hans said in 1972, when he was working for a butcher in Queens, New York, the norm was to bring in whole animals or quartered animals through the back door. One day, on the stoop a boy was sitting and he asked the boy to move out of the way. Hans was carrying a side of beef and didn’t want to risk an accident. When Hans came back out the boy said “Mr. what did you have over your arm just now,” and Hans replied a section of cow. The boy asked “what does a cow look like?” Hans was so sad this urban youth had never seen a cow. That story is part of why he is committed to educating people about ethical butchery and bridging the food education gap.
With everything ready, Hans reminded us this animal was raised for food, and told us in a nonjudgmental way we could walk away, that we should if we could not handle it. No one did. We were there, our trust complete in Hans skills and ethos.
The pig was in a trailer so it would be calm, and thus easier to handle. It had spent the last several months of its life foraging, eating yummy scraps, and getting plenty of fresh air. This was a happy pig.
Hans entered the trailer, closed the door, and shot the pig in the head with a .22 single-shot stunning it. For Hans part, he was so calm, so completely focused on that pig and making sure he took its life as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Once the pig was stunned, it was dragged out of the trailer where Hans slit the throat (because of the angle I didn’t actually see this part) and bled out. Then the pig was dragged to a tub where Hans and Ryan (pig slaughtering is a two person job) poured boiling water (temp 145) over it (the water helps the hair come off easily). Hans used a thick rope, wrapped around the pig’s body, to keep it moving (in theory, so it would not cook) and help take the hair off. Using a bell scraper he and Ryan got most of the hair off (think Gillette shave), and using a hook removed the pig’s hoofs and dewclaws. When 90% of the hair was off, Hans noted things were proceeding well.
What I realized then, was that for all the pigs I had seen on farms, it was only when the hair was removed that I connected this naked pinkish skinned animal to what is served at restaurants. Farm pig. Restaurant pig. Disconnect.
Using the farmer’s John Deere tractor, the pig was raised the to eye-level view. The remainder of hair was scraped off with knives, and the carcass was rinsed again (Hans was very attentive to the constant cleanliness of the pig and it’s environment). Hans then cut the tongue out so he could get to the intestines, which were oddly beautiful when he pulled them out. Next, he removed the head, and then using a meat saw split the backbone from the tail to the neck.
As Hans removed each organ, he placed it on a folding table, then he went through the anatomy. Hans was part butcher, veterinarian, and biologist. He spoke with us about muscle development – softer vs. tougher areas = the more muscular areas are tougher so how/where you cut them makes all the difference.
Hans and Ryan working the pig in the field took over an hour, but in a slaughterhouse…15 minutes! Now consider an industrial setting with processing lines 200 feet long with animals being broken down in sections, and a conveyor belt for trimmings, bones…
We departed the farm, took an hour for lunch, and headed back to the shop for step-by-step instructions with Hans on where to cut, how to trim, remove skin, and debone. Note *we did not butcher the pig from the field. It was hung to air dry for somewhere from a day to a week. At Fleisher’s, they hang the halves in the cooler unwrapped for a week. This concentrates the flavor and allows the muscle fibers to soften, break down a little, making them easier to cut and the meat tenderer.
For more information on Fleisher’s Butcher Training (101 and apprenticeships) visit their website.
Check out “Part Two, In the Classroom and Resources” this Thursday.
End note: Federal law prohibits the sale of pork, beef, and lamb not slaughtered at facilities under federal or state inspection. Therefore, most classes like this with the slaughter component, will do a pig vs. a cow = less money is lost (pig = less meat than a cow = less money). It’s legal to give the food to family and friends.