In & Out of the Abattoir

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Saturday, March 7, 2020. No reply from Nicola’s. Perhaps they’re busy. Perhaps I’ll hear back soon. Who cares? I said my piece and I can see myself, in their shoes, just deleting the email – why put up with the attitude, right? Meanwhile, a sense of panic-inducing freefall has ensued as of a few day ago, as if my time is running out regarding the book. How, I think to myself, could I have gotten it all so categorically wrong that I can’t inspire a single soul to take a chance on the book? I’ve spelled out the strategy but I’m struggling to let it play out. I feel like I have to do something else, something… what?

Kev’s got a solo show in Missouri this month and it’s inspired him into a mad dash of forced creativity – he started out seemingly against the whole idea, resisting the work and the financial outlay that’s always involved but I’m happy to say he didn’t bail out on it and he’s making it happen.

These are vinyl cushion-type pieces similar to the stuff he did fifteen or twenty years ago when he was in grad school. He’ll throw in some Hot Wheels paintings (much of his later art appears in various DOP volumes, so wait for it) and his Godzilla pieces. It’s been a scramble but hey, when is the art-craft process ever pretty? Anyway, his art school buddy, Josh, had called him out of the blue to do a solo show at the college where he teaches and Kev says it’s because the dude is trying to get out of the boondocks of Missouri and it takes stuff like curating art shows to get one’s credentials paid attention to, who knows, it’s all good if it gets the juices flowing.

I don’t want to dwell on my non-starting author woes though I’m compelled, neurotically, to do so. It’s sunny out today, we’ll go for a long walk, maybe all the way to Ypsilanti, who knows, I just gotta get outta here. The vintage posts come in handy in this way, to bulk things up.

DOP1 VINTAGE POST – In & Out of the Abattoir & Other Food Adventures

Get Cooking

When I got home from the Houston Farmers Market, I developed my game plan, or more appropriately, my pork plan. I had plenty of cookbooks to pull from. I wanted to put Allen’s pork through the paces and showcase it in as many different ways as I could – to see where it was going to shine, if at all, compared to other pork I’d purchased. Brining, either wet or dry, will certainly affect flavor, so incorporating a recipe for the belly that didn’t involve any brine seemed like a good idea to showcase the fresh belly. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, in his entertaining and informative tome Meat, provides a recipe for Aromatic Pork Belly Hot Pot – no brine – just a braise in chicken stock, with Asian flavors and pasta noodles. This meal, according to Hugh, is closer to Asian home cooking than restaurant food and, even though the only other hot pot I’d ever eaten was in an Asian restaurant, I think he’s right. That’s because when I ordered the hot pot, out of just curious ignorance really, it generated a curious amount of attention from the Chinese folks who apparently ran the place – their eyes lit up and they gazed upon me with what appeared to be with respect and gratitude, and their own curiosity, even asking me how I knew about hot pot – had I been to China? I gathered that the dish didn’t get much interest from the Ann Arbor regulars. It arrived, appropriately, in a hot clay pot, with the requisite broth, noodles, and if I’m remembering correctly, chunks of fish.

Hugh’s dish came out well – the flavors of soy, ginger, green onion, star anise, rice wine, and chili flake were straightforward and aromatic. The belly, cut into large chunks, braised on the stove top and became quite tender. To eat it, you just trim the skin away from the soft fat, easy to do, set it aside, piece by piece, and enjoy the fatty meat combined with the pleasing broth and pasta, a good balance of the familiar and the exotic. This turned out to be a good confidence builder.

Next was Thomas Keller’s braised belly which involved a wet brine (ten hours maximum) prior to a braise in beef stock. The choice of stock, which some cookbooks treat rather cavalierly, usually suggesting chicken or beef, makes a big difference in my opinion; the delectable transformation of slow-cooked pork is especially magical in beef stock. Keller’s belly emerged tender and extremely flavorful, with an acute savoriness and a clear song of pork that only beef stock seems to deliver – much more so than chicken. I can’t speak as yet for pork stock because I haven’t made it yet – I’m hoping Harrison Hog Farms can help out with some bones and I’ll do some testing soon. Otherwise, for most other dishes (besides French Onion soup) I rely on chicken stock (light or dark) to ramp up the flavor; it compliments other foods besides pork so well.

Beef stock on the other hand isn’t as versatile and its flavor, however beefy to begin with, doesn’t often remain behind in a dish to any large extent, whether it’s chili or a braise – to me it can be very subtle. Unless you’ve reduced it down to a glace, where it can add a beefy punchiness when finishing a dish, in general I think it’s more elegant than athletic. Everything changes however, regarding combining beef and pork, to the benefit of the taste buds, and it applies to slow-cooking the meats together too. I once braised beef shanks and pork ribs together and the resulting sauce was a savory standout, elevating the pork and beef beyond themselves.

The pork-braised-in-beef-stock method motivated me to make a substitution when I considered what to do with the two pork jowls. I had a recipe from Molly Steven’s outstanding All About Braising book that was intended for belly, but I thought may also work well with jowl, given the similar meat-to-fat ratios in the two cuts. What also attracted me to Molly’s recipe was the dry brine or rub – overnight with salt and herbs – I could compare that to Keller’s wet brine technique. Cooked low and slow, this time in chicken stock, and served with turnips, Molly’s recipe seemed a fail-safe way to get on with my second encounter with pork jowl.

As an aside, I should mention my that my first memorable experience with slow-cooked pork had been in France, at the Hotel Du Buet, where we stayed for a night during a guided hike around Mount Blanc in 2005. The succulence and savoriness of that dish has remained with me. In fact, that whole meal was memorable, partly because after a long hike food always tastes great and partly because the food at this unpretentious hotel was as good as any home cooking. I remember the celery soup, made with chicken stock, was a savory joy, the potatoes gratin were transcendently tender and buttery and even the ratatouille, which I think is an overrated dish typically, complimented with a vegetal sweetness.

Back to my pork jowls. At about two pounds each, they were too large to braise together in any of my pots, so I broke out my electric roasting oven for the first time, added the aromatics and took a chance with the beef stock instead of chicken. After over two hours in the braise, the aroma was telling me things were going well but when I checked for doneness, they held together in my tongs in quivering, rubbery hunks – tougher now than when they went in. It was a matter of waiting them out and sure enough, after another hour, the cheeks had transformed into luxurious tenderness – it was remarkable how the meat and fat were ready to fall apart. I know now that a meat braise always takes at least three hours and often longer to reach fall-apart-tenderness, but back then, I was still learning. With the jowls cooked, I still had to finish the dish; an interesting part of the recipe was the final roasting which required removing the gelatinous skin, which peels away easily, revealing a thick layer of now very delicate fat. Roasting at 425F for ten or fifteen minutes browns the fat and adds even more flavor.

Sliced like belly, exposing the layers of meat and fat, and served with the sauce and crusty bread, it was revelatory like only fatty pork can be. Here you can see the outer layers of jowl with the dark cheek meat towards the center:

“Confit of Belly” is also a recipe from Thomas Keller’s fun and beautiful Ad Hoc book, confit being a method of cooking meat (of virtually any type, on or off the bone) submerged within its own fat, at a very low temperature, in this case 250F, for several hours. It resembles poaching whereby you achieve tender, succulent meat but without the associated sauce you create from a braise. Of course fish can be confitted but, as there’s not enough fish fat to do this, you need some other lipid, usually olive oil. I’ve had success preparing salmon this way – it emerges from the process with a pleasing butteriness, delicacy and subtleness of flavor. My confit of belly was flavorful but not tender, which was frustrating, but had I been more patient and given it more time to cook than the recipe called for, it may have eventually relaxed. We served it with a endive, spinach and peach salad:

Lard

For Keller’s confit, I had to use grocery store lard, not the finer tasting leaf lard, which is more difficult to find and essential for use in pastry. Leaf lard is also more expensive, as it’s obtained from the areas around the kidneys, versus rendered out industrially from various areas of the carcass. There are in fact several “grades” or qualities of lard, the quality being a fairly objective determination related to flavor and performance. Leaf lard, so named because it appears as “flares” or “leaves” of solid fat, is considered the highest quality lard within the pig. Next in quality is fatback, or lardo – a hard, subcutaneous form of pig fat usually found between the skin of the back and the muscle of the loin. The lowest grade is “caul” fat, which is a net-like lattice of fat surrounding digestive organs, like the small intestine. Caul is often used to wrap leaner meats like rabbit during braising or roasting to add fattier flavor, or simply to bind trotters or terrines while they cook – the caul essentially cooks away, adding its flavor to the dish.

Rendered lard is obtained by either boiling fatty pig parts in water until the fat melts or from dry heat methods, like in an oven or a skillet. These two processes create somewhat different products. The wet method produces a more neutral flavor, lighter color, and a high smoke point, whereas dry-rendered lard is darker in color, contains more of the “porky” flavors generated by the cooking process, and has a lower smoke point.

Industrial production methods are used to produce the lard found in most supermarkets and this, unfortunately, is the lard that I was forced to us for my confit of belly. Most of us would agree that industrial production methods, as the term implies, are focused on what any “industry” would be focused on, whether we’re talking about automobiles, or gumballs, namely low-cost, high quantity and high speed. It’s no surprise then that the lard you get from an industrial system is a cost-effective mixture of high and low quality fat sources from throughout the pig. Industrial systems are also typically interested in creating a product with as long a shelf-life as possible, accomplishing this by way of additives: deodorizing agents, emulsifiers and antioxidants (preservatives) like BHT. The lard may also be bleached to obtain a uniform white color. This extra processing explains why your package of industrially produced lard says “no refrigeration required” whereas untreated lard must be refrigerated or frozen to keep from spoiling.

Can you taste the difference? Yes. You can also smell the difference. I’ve made pie crust with leaf lard – the aroma during baking is very nice and the flavor is pleasingly savory as opposed to an all-butter (sweeter) or shortening (flavorless) crust. I’ve also made pie crust with commercial lard. It sort of stinks, despite the deodorizers, and tastes a little like it smells. I found myself walking into the kitchen, industrial-lard-pie-crust cooking away, and smelling something that seemed a little “off.” Not horrible or rotten or completely wrong, but not right either. I think I paid the price so to say again, when I used my grocery-store lard in my belly confit, although I didn’t do a side-by-side comparison with leaf lard. Belly always tastes good, it’s almost impossible to completely screw up the cooking of it, but in this case, the texture, combined with that “off” aroma and flavor just didn’t add up to the kind of eating pleasure that inspires another try. I have to believe that my industrial lard was at least partially to blame.

Before I left the Willis farm, Paul and Phyllis were kind enough to give me a tub of lard from their pigs. Odorless when chilled, it was mildly aromatic when cooking along with the butter and flour in my pie crust that encased two chicken pot pies.

When I cook pot pies, I make a mess of the crust; I’m no expert at handling pie dough. But the recipe I use, which I learned froma Zingerman’s Bake House pie-cooking class, looks and tastes great. It calls for a fifty-fifty mixture of butter and lard. Lard adds tenderness and savoriness while butter allows for an appealing golden-brown color, crispiness and of course a buttery flavor. The two together seem to create a flakiness that is especially delicate and a pleasing combination of savory and sweet. Using only lard, I think the pie crust is too pale, too tender and too one-dimensional in flavor. A butter-only crust produces a golden-brown, flavorful, flaky crust but without the memorable tenderness and savor from the lard. Eating dinner, I put my spoon down long enough to try to capture the delicate, flaky goodness:

This lard, just like in Phyllis’s apple pies, cooked up very delicately (in comparison say to the lard I was buying from Zingerman’s which cooked up much sturdier and crunchier). So it’s obvious to me now that lard varies in appearance, smell, taste and certainly performance depending on the source. With more practice, I’m going to master the best thickness for the Willis butter/lard crust – next on the agenda will be a Guinness pie, stuffed with mushrooms, beef shoulder and homemade beef stock. You can bet it won’t look pretty, but there’ll be plenty of crust for everyone to enjoy.

Brawny

If you simmer a pig’s head and some aromatics in a large pot of water for about four hours, until the flesh can be easily coaxed from the skull, you’re well on your way to making a brawn, or headcheese. When cool enough to handle, the meat, tongue, and fat (along with the ears and some of the skin if you like) are chopped and mixed together with parsley, lemon juice, salt, pepper and several tablespoons of the reserved broth (which will be rich in gelatin from the bones and skin). The mixture is placed in terrines, weighted and chilled. Having set in its own jelly, it may be turned onto a plate, sliced and served cold with accompaniments such as mustard and pickles. It is also very tasty pan-fried into a sort of headcheese hash.

As with many traditional recipes based on thrift and necessity – think tripe, heart and just about any other offal besides maybe liver – headcheese has suffered from historical neglect, at least in America; instead of being a legitimate food experience, it seems doomed to conjure up stomach-turning mystery and derogatory humor. The term “headcheese” itself is a curiously misleading moniker, having of course absolutely nothing to do with cheese. Brains, liver, heart, kidneys, tripe, sweetbreads, and lungs, all may present a more challenging arsenal of flavors and textures to the eater, but are not burdened in our vernacular with such perplexing and misdirected connotations of unpleasantness. Was it always this way with headcheese?

Below you see my pig’s head. It was federally inspected, per the USDA-Food Safety Inspection Service, and frozen about one month ago. You’ll notice that the processor has trimmed what are typically the very bristly areas around the eyes and mouth, as well as cutting the ears away from the skull – this may have been for inspection purposes.

Of note, the method of slaughter indirectly dictates whether heads may leave a facility for consumer use – the skull cannot be “breached” as with free-bullet or captive bolt stunning – food safety concerns require that the head be “condemned” (a regulatory term) in the same way that many parts of beef cattle that involve brain or spinal tissue are automatically condemned for disposal and cannot be sold. Electrical stunning and CO2 stunning are in fact more common and practical components of humane slaughter for pigs due to the animal’s physiology, including the location of the brain within the skull. Simply severing the pig’s arteries by cutting or “sticking” in the areas of the throat or chest, without stunning, is considered inhumane, and unlawful by the USDA – such a practice would exist now only outside the boundaries of licensed and inspected facilities.

I used Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s instructions calling for brining the head first. I didn’t agree with his brine recipe however – I thought the salt concentration too high and the brining time too lengthy for pork that, even in the thickest areas – the jowls – does not approach the meat volume of a large cut like a shoulder or ham. Given Hugh’s reputation for well-researched writing, it may be that his instructions are historically accurate, or simply to his taste, but I chose to substitute Thomas Keller’s brine recipe and timing from his “Ad Hoc” book – it calls for about half the salt and half the time as compared to Hugh’s.

After about ten hours, I discarded the brine and refilled the pot with water, adding onions, parsley, thyme, marjoram, cloves and coriander. I let it simmer, checking the meat occasionally until, after close to four hours, a large chunk of jowl that I had trimmed off (to help the head fit in my pot) gave up its rubberiness and “relaxed” into that delicate falling away stage which means it’s done.

I had read, in Fergus Henderson’s famous book The Whole Beast that one should simmer for only two-and-a-half hours, until the jowl begins to pull away from the skull, but to me, having cooked jowls before on their own, in a braise, that amount of time leaves you with springy, rubbery, unpalatable stuff. I much prefer to let it go until the relaxed stage – at least three-and-a-half-hours for the pork I’m getting from the farmers market – it may depend on the pig.

At this point, the flesh is very easy to remove from the skull, and if you aren’t put off by this, or the exposed bones, teeth and eyes, you’re left with at least a couple pounds of tender meat, fat and skin (including the tongue and snout), to chop up as you see fit. You’re also left with a lot of stuff you may not want to use. I was selective, only including what I thought were good hunks of meat, tongue, snout and fat, leaving the skin and questionable material out. I took the position that I wasn’t building a mystery (apologies to Sarah McLachlan) – if I couldn’t recognize it, then I wasn’t going to chop it up and put it in there.

When you’re done sorting and chopping, it all goes into a bowl with some lemon juice, black pepper and, like Hugh F. says, “A big handful of parsley.” (I chose not to add salt until serving). Mix, transfer to a terrine or other loaf pan lined with plastic wrap, and refrigerate, weighted if possible. I had to improvise the lid (a piece of cardboard) and the weights.

The next day, I turned it out onto a cutting board which, thanks to the plastic wrap, was very easy. I’m convinced this would’ve been a problem otherwise, even if I’d tried the technique of warming the terrine in a water bath, because it still required some tugging to come loose. Sliced and plated with pickles and mustard, it made for an attractive and appetizing lunch.

As with many cold meat preparations, the flavors were muted, but I think that makes such dishes refreshing – the fat, pork, lemon and parsley were bright and clean, yet still decidedly porky.

My wife Angie, who’s not fond of meat served cold, and was challenged by the idea of eating headcheese to begin with, heated her portion in a cast iron skillet until the fats rendered and caramelized the meat. It was hearty, flavorful and satisfyingly unctuous, practically crying out to be loaded onto a toasted bun with sauteed onions, bell pepper and mustard – a blue jeans and beer mug counterpart to the necktie and wine glass experience of the chilled and sliced version. As such, I present the headcheese hoagie; if I ever open a food cart, this will be on the menu:

Hearty

What to do now with the pig’s heart and liver? Hugh F. came through again with Faggots and Onion Gravy, a dish well-established in Great Britain. A faggot is a large meatball wrapped in pork fat – either caul fat or bacon – and baked. My faggots, about one-quarter pound each, contain equal parts heart, liver and pork sausage along with seasonings and bread crumbs. I ground the sausage and offal together coarsely, mixed this with the other ingredients, and wrapped the billard-ball-sized meatballs in two slices of bacon that I stretched thin using the back of a knife. The flavor is bold, rich and intensely savory but without being heavy. The iron-like potency of the liver and heart are undiminished by the deep smokiness and luxurious mouthfeell of the bacon. Don’t be afraid to use a high-quality, thick-cut bacon – Neuske’s at a minimum, which depending on where you buy it, can be obtained as a thicker-cut version – the meatballs respond well to as much bold fattiness as you can throw at them. Along with the rich onion gravy, which includes reduced wine and beef stock (that great friend of pork again!), a meal of one faggot and sauce, with crusty bread, grits, winter greens, and a robust wine or stout beer is a potent experience.

Ultimately, I think this type of slow-cooked, nose-to-tail cooking provides some of the most satisfying food experiences one could wish for. Immersed in this nose-to-tail “pork plan” I lost interest in chops and loins – such lean, dense, chewy, and dull hunks of protein seem like they should be the cheaper, more challenging and least desirable portions of the pig. However, there always seems to be someone who takes a concept to its vanishing point so to say. For example, I recently read of a restaurant in Portland, Oregon serving “Peppers and Pig’s Rectum.” Gad zooks. There are folks, I know, who’ve made a living eating, especially on television, parts and pieces of things that push the limits of edibility, and cause us to ask ourselves what, indeed, ceases to be “food?” It may simply be subjective, but my personal bright line – that place where I will not go – is the rectum.

[1]

Into the Abattoir

View of a Pig

The pig lay on a barrow dead.

It weighed, they said, as much as three men.

Its eyes closed, pink white eyelashes.

Its trotters stuck straight out.

Such weight and thick pink bulk.

Set in death seemed not just dead.

It was less than lifeless, further off.

It was like a sack of wheat.

I thumped it without feeling remorse.

One feels guilty insulting the dead,

Walking on graves. But this pig

Did not seem able to accuse.

It was too dead. Just so much

Poundage of lard and pork.

Its last dignity had entirely gone.

It was not a figure of fun.

Too dead now to pity.

To remember its life, din, stronghold

Of earthly pleasure as it had been,

Seemed a false effort, and off the point.

Too deadly factual. Its weight

Oppressed me – how could it be moved?

And the trouble of cutting it up!

The gash in its throat was shocking, but not pathetic.

Once I ran at a fair in the noise

To catch a greased piglet

That was faster and nimbler than a cat,

Its squeal was the rending of metal.

Pigs must have hot blood, they feel like ovens.

Their bite is worse than a horse’s –

They chop a half-moon clean out.

They eat cinders, dead cats.

Distinctions and admirations such

As this one was long finished with.

I stared at it a long time.

They were going to scald it,

Scald it and scour it like a doorstep.

-Ted Hughes[2]

Paul Willis, on behalf of Niman Ranch, the largest customer of Siouxpreme Packing Company, had graciously put me in touch with Gary M. of SiouxPreme to set up my visit to their slaughter plant and their “cut” or butchering plant in Sioux Center and Sioux City, Iowa respectively. After spending a pleasant night and two days at the Willis farm, I took leave of Paul and Phyllis, driving west to Sioux Center, ostensibly following the Niman hogs from their weigh-in location near Thornton to their final destination. I arrived in Sioux Center in the early evening – during a violently windy rain storm as it happened – and booked a room in the brand new, sparkling clean and surprisingly large Holiday Inn. I thought of what Paul had told me about pigs not liking the wind; that it tended to frighten them, and how they were coping with the storm on top of the stress of their new environment: the slaughterhouse lairage. The pigs and I were each spending the night in an unfamiliar place and in the final stages of our partially shared adventures; me trying in vain to wash the smell of pig poop from my cowboy boots in the hotel room bathtub (they washed up clean with soap, water and a little scrubbing, but I couldn’t get the smell out – I ended up having to throw them away) and the pigs hopefully settling down from their long ride. I slept fitfully, as I sometimes do in a new place, possibly more anxious about my plant tour the next day than I consciously realized. I woke the next morning excited to get going but then found myself flummoxed as to what to wear into the plant, as if I had a choice. All I’d brought with me were jeans, my somewhat smelly cowboy boots and some walking shoes. I remember thinking “I can’t wear this stuff, I can’t go in looking like this, what do I think I’m doing out here?” Looking back, I can see that sudden panicky, scattered and overwhelming lack of confidence – that distancing from myself and my task – was an anxiety attack. I had worked myself into thinking that something was wrong with me, I’d gotten in over my head, or that I shouldn’t be doing this. I felt like I was going into work and wasn’t prepared at all. The worst thing about an anxiety attack is the fear and powerlessness of the attack – not knowing what the hell’s going on or what to do about it. Now, I know much more about what happens and why and I can cope much better, but that morming I found myself desperately trying to convince myself that I belonged here, that I could put my clothes on, and that I could get to the plant within the next half hour and make my appointment with the plant manager. The anxiety passed, I decided my boots weren’t too smelly (you had to get your nose down next to them to catch the odor), got dressed, packed my luggage, got in the truck and drove to the plant.

I was introduced to John, the plant manager, and we sat in his office while we exchanged a few questions. He wanted to know how I knew Paul Willis and what my interest in Siouxpreme was – he seemed to harbor the briefest whiff of suspicion as to my motives – and for my part, I was just eager to ingratiate myself and see what I could see. John turned out to be a thoughtful and intelligent manager, demonstrating from the beginning a sincere interest in his many employees. He spoke about how the nature of their work could be stressful and how he felt obligated to provide a type of leadership that would support them. I share his views and I was glad to see a such a thoughtful and dedicated guy in a position that might easily have been filled with a gruff, tough and rough-hewn task-master. To tour the plant, I had to donn a bump cap, disposable smock and plastic covers for my boots and these items were dispensed from a dedicated storage area, staffed by a friendly Spanish-speaking young woman. (John would later tell me that most of their workers were Spanish-speaking, explaining that because of the pay and nature of the work, it was this minority group that had predominated). Properly dressed out, I followed John to an unassuming door which he swept open, ushered me through and quickly closed behind us. I was immediately confronted with the full reality of a slaughter plant running at full tilt to process as many as three-thousand pigs per day.

The room was full of busy workers, each one dressed identically in white lab-coat, white bump cap (covering a hair net) and poly gloves, urgently focused on their tasks, some working shoulder-to-shoulder, and most wielding some version of a knife or saw. The bright fluorescent light, the sound of machinery – conveyors, saws, and ventilation fans – the blood, bones, raw flesh and bustling activity was, for a moment, disorienting. I was struck by the undeniable sensory impact of being face-to-face, literally, with the carcasses of hogs in the mid-point of the slaughter process, their trimmed heads dangling from each carcass by single flap of skin, almost unrecognizable as pigs, the bodies attached to an overhead conveyor by their hind legs, moving steadily, much like a car body moves through an automobile assembly plant. Except this process was all about “disassembly,” a word used by one of my pig-farmer friends, and it indeed described what was going on here to the animals that I had spent the previous day observing in their pastures, eating corn, sniffing my shoes, and socializing amongst themselves under the Iowa sky. The pigs had come from farms much like the one I had just visited, and had spent the night in a holding area, known as a lairage, to rest, drink water and otherwise calm down from the stress of being transported in a semi-trailer over the road, sometimes for many hours. By the afternoon, they had been stunned and exsanguinated (bled), scalded to remove their hair, eviscerated, split along the backbone, washed, stamped with a code number, and transformed, in a matter of a few hours, into butcher-ready half- carcasses of meat and bone. They would be trucked, in refrigerated semi-trailers, to what is called a “cut plant” or butchering facility, only an hour and a half drive south, where the carcasses would be further disassembled into the various loins, shoulders, ribs, hams, trotters, etc. that chefs and home cooks recognize as pork.

My tour had begun at the end of the process. John, explained that we would “begin with the clean, and end with the dirty.” He wasn’t being euphemistic – he was describing how a facility tour is conducted in a manner that minimizes the risk of contamination by the visitor. By starting me out at the end of the process, where the cleaned and washed carcasses were hung in spotless, refrigerated store rooms, awaiting loading onto the transportation trailers, and moving backwards through the slaughter procedures to the lairage, where the live pigs were held, I would be moving farther and farther away from the finished food product, towards the living animals.

All of this was taking place under the eyes of inspectors from the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) who wore the same white lab coats, hardhats as the workers and occasionally stood shoulder-to-shoulder with them, examining their work and the condition of the carcass and viscera. Federal inspectors are, by law, required to be on site during slaughter and they are tasked with enforcing food safety and humane slaughter regulations. Each federally-inspected facility provides office space on site for these inspectors to process paperwork and accomplish administrative requirements. (Within a year, soon after opening my own small business – Humble Hogs – I would be completely immersed in working with the USDA-FSIS myself).

As we made our way back through the facility, I could see that the entire process, again much like an industrial assembly plant, combined automation – conveyors, cleaning units, packaging machines – with employees whose jobs involved working in specific, specialized functions that they repeated continuously as the carcasses moved in and out of their workspaces. This was not a classic country hog-killing, where a pig is raised, slaughtered and butchered on the farm, often with only several people involved from start to finish. Even this plant, which is considered a medium-sized facility, requires sophisticated technology and equipment, and approximately 140 employees, to receive, slaughter and ship two to three-thousand pigs per day. Of note, a large slaughter plant will process as many as 32,000 pigs per day.

At SiouxPreme, each area had its area of specialization. Each process further subdivides the carcass, but the individual components of each particular pig must be “traceable” back to the original i.d. number that an animal receives. This is for quality and food safety purposes. In this way, organs are collected – one bin per pig carcass – in gray-colored plastic bins that run along a conveyor. John gave me the opportunity to climb a short set of steel steps near one end of the room that placed me on the same level as the workers handling the large chain saws that split the carcasses (the heavy saws hung from support cables attached to the ceiling), and the bins of viscera as they passed by. Here and there I saw an organ splashed heavily with a blue dye – these organs had not passed inspection for whatever reason and were condemned for disposal. After passing by at least one USIS inspector, the viscera are further segregated for processing; intestines destined to become “chitlins” for example are washed in a high-tech, stainless steel washing machine which removes all traces of contamination. The head is inspected and systematically processed – the ears and snout are removed and the flesh is trimmed from around the skull, including around the eyes, giving it a bloody, open-eyed horror-movie stare. The jaw bone is removed by a specialized machine, the skull is opened with a saw, and the brain is passed to two workers standing at a small stainless steel table, who specialize in removing the pituitary gland with large tweezers, placing it in a thermos of liquid nitrogen, to be used by pharmaceutical companies. The eyes may also be removed for clients specializing in other forms of biological research.

Paul Willis told me that pigs will search out the members of their own herd when they’re off-loaded from the transport trailers into the lairage, or holding area. During transport, groups eight or nine pigs from the same herd are, in the best scenarios, kept together also. Allowing the pigs to remain in their herds, or at least with other pigs from their herd, minimizes stress – they’re social animals and have, even in their short lives, established social networks and naturally want to be with each other. Pigs will fight with each other in some cases to establish, like most other animals, the rank and structure of dominance essential to their nature. But in the several hours I spent with Paul Willis in his fields and watching him load his pigs for transport, I never saw any fighting amongst them. In the fields, they tend to maintain at least a foot or two of space between themselves, and while you’ll often see a pig go off on his or her own, investigating something, they generally maintain the proximity of their small groups.

Pigs are rather curious actually, I think, in the way they don’t struggle, let alone fight, when herded closely together. Crushed together closely enough, which happens during handling sometimes when you’re trying to get a certain group of pigs together in a trailer, while at the same time letting only one or two out through a gate – pigs will even tolerate, briefly, getting up on their hind legs to relieve the pressure on their bodies and get their head up – they’ll put their trotters on the back of the closest pig, who probably doesn’t appreciate the experience at all, but is usually so closely packed together with his corral mates that he can’t budge. Pigs can apparently tolerate being nose to tail and shoulder to shoulder, at least for short periods of time, and seem to prefer that over standing alone, or several feet apart when in an unknown environment. Long-term close proximity is of course stressful to them; pigs need their space as people do. They need to have free access to other pigs, but they need the freedom to come and go as they please. In this way, the pasture system allows them to express these natural tendencies. In confinement systems of course, where animals are kept in tight quarters, alone or in overcrowded holding pens, the pigs show symptoms of anxiety – tail biting, chewing on railings, etc. One can only imagine what internal state of anxiety they are forced to endure, day and night indoors with fluorescent, unnatural lighting, standing on slotted cement floors with their own waste constantly flowing underneath them and without any natural sights or sounds to comfort them.

Finally, we entered what is known as the “kill floor,” a large space about one-hundred feet long and a little less in width with high a ceiling. It resembled a warehouse. The floor is dirty concrete – not filthy or dusty, just stained, a result of its proximity to the lairage – the wide doorway through which the pigs were being led from their separate holding areas. When we entered, I was struck by the noise – it was a combination an almost continuous squawling and screeching from the machinery that echoed disconcertingly off the hard floor, walls and ceiling. There was a mechanized “herding” panel which, after a group of hogs was herded into the four-foot-wide “run,” descended from the ceiling. A solid-walled steel panel, it is designed to close off the run from the lairage entrance and to create a temporary corral for the pigs as they are guided towards the CO2 chamber. As could be expected, the pigs found the panel disconcerting – one pig happened to be facing it while it descended, and its movement and the fact that it blocked the pig’s exit, caused the animal to dodge about, trying to nose its way under and around or otherwise get past it. The panel began to move slowly towards the end of the run, a distance of about twenty or thirty feet, forcing the pigs inexorably forward towards a metal gate at the far end of the run. In this way, the pigs were mechanically herded towards a small, maybe five-by-five-foot holding “cell.” The metal panel then ascended, its cycle complete, and began its return towards the start of the run. Within a few minutes, with the pigs crowded together within this last cell, the door to the elevator platform opened, and a handler with a plastic rattle paddle swatted at the pigs to get them to enter the elevator. The pigs typically resisted going into the new space, so it took some cajoling by the handler, who seemed impatient most of the time I watched her, and in fact appeared quite frustrated at times with the pigs, who will stand stock still, almost stubbornly – you can see where the phrase “stubborn as a pig” comes from – until one or two of them is “encouraged” to move in the direction you want it to. In the ten or fifteen minutes I stood there watching, I indeed saw this woman grab a mechanical (as opposed to electrical) prod stick, with two curved points on the end and jab the pigs in the center of an unmoving group, to get them moving into the elevator.

One can imagine why an animal will balk at entering a new corral, a new run, let alone an elevator, with its metal door raising up, the new floor a surface they’ve yet to test, the enclosed space in general, the strange sounds and smells – other pigs, other people, the clanking and grinding machinery, the moving panels, gates and floors – unnerving for animals who’ve spent their whole existence in a quiet pasture. As Paul Willis told me after he had finished loading his pigs onto their transport trailer, “You’re trying to move them into somewhere they’re not familiar with, and the pigs are scared – it’s a new environment and they’re not used to it.” So, when a group of pigs won’t move; when they seem “stuck” in place, it’s out of fear and anxiety. Pigs will, given time, adjust to a new space; they’re inquisitive by nature and it’s only when they feel forced into a new space too quickly, before being allowed to use their sense of smell, their hearing and in some cases their taste to investigate things to their satisfaction, that they become difficult to handle. Of course a slaughter plant, or a farmer trying load pigs can’t wait all day for pigs to make up their mind – the process would take all day. But I think there’s a middle ground, and it’s supported by Temple Grandin’s work demonstrating that calm, efficient movement of animals is possible when the holding areas, corral walls, runs, and floors are designed in accordance with how an animal naturally moves, sees and thinks. Eliminating distractions (sights, sounds and smells) that an animal may feel instinctually threatened by is indeed possible and one can avoid the violent striking, prodding, poking, arm waving and yelling otherwise required to get animals from one place to another.

Pigs and other livestock aren’t instinctively affected by being in the presence or proximity to another animal being stunned or even bled – neither their body chemistry nor their behavior can be observed to change in a negative way. Cattle for example have been shown to enter an area with visible blood in the immediate area, apparently unaffected by it – fear and stress is not induced. I watched a video of on-farm slaughter of pigs where the pig was shot and bled in the coral with other pigs who besides exhibiting a brief curiosity – sniffing the kicking animal as it bled onto the dirt – showed no signs of stress. However, cattle will resist entering a space with the blood of an animal that was stressed or under anxiety prior or during slaughter – this will induce anxiety and fear and the animal essentially senses danger. It makes sense – animals can smell the chemicals in blood, and blood from a stressed animal is chemically different than that from a calm, unstressed animal. For any animal and certainly any human, blood chemistry changes to provide the energy and enhanced sensory awareness required for the well-known “fight or flight” response.

I consider animal behavior a “gift” to us a this critical point in the food chain. Where a human feels compassion for another living thing being killed, anxiety about the process applied to others and can project into the future and make the mental connections that understand the purpose of the slaughterhouse, the purpose of the place that they’re in, and how it may apply to others and themselves – we can mentally “step outside” of ourselves and observe ourselves objectively (and comprehend the aspect of our own death) – an animal lives entirely in the moment; does not comprehend the totality of the environment other than what it can see, hear, smell and feel, and whether it’s uncomfortable. They indeed feel fear, and anxiety, and stress, but these things are born of a sense of the unknown only when it is forced upon them too quickly, and they don’t have the capacity to create the future in their minds, identify with another animal’s experience, nor piece together the situation of another animal being slaughtered and how they may be “next in line.” They go to their deaths, unknowingly, when they are properly, carefully and humanely handled, even when death is next to them. They have an instinctual urge to live, but they do not comprehend another animal’s death being connected to their own. They comprehend more completely and accurately than a human ever would however, the chemical changes in other animals which they can smell and see and hear. This is their survival instinct. Temple Grandin has referenced studies that show pigs, even in the presence of other pigs being slaughtered, do not show a change in blood chemistry (cite this properly). Using their natural curiosity, which may indeed take a little longer, can be a more efficient and ultimately cost-effective method of handling. For more discussion on human handling and slaughter, see the chapters Reimagining Animals and The Big Half Hour (which includes my Zingerman’s Camp Bacon IV PowerPoint presentation).

Returning to the scene of the slaughter plant, the pigs, still in groups of five or six animals, now enter the elevator, the door closing behind them and they quickly descend twenty-five feet to the subterranean chamber where the atmosphere is saturated with carbon dioxide (CO2) – a concentration that quickly, within moments, renders them unconscious. The elevator ascends, the door on the opposite side of the elevator opens, the floor tilts, and the pigs literally tumble onto a conveyor. An operator quickly secures the hind leg of the nearest animal into a leg ring attached to a chain from an overhead conveyor and the pig is immediately hoisted up, legs and head dangling. The stunned pig is carried approximately ten feet down the line towards the next station where the operator, moving quickly, stabs slender knife blade, about 8-10 inches long, into an area just below the throat and just above the chest of the animal, severing the major arteries near the heart before removing the blade and turning to focus on the next animal. Thick, purplish-black blood spills heavily from the animal’s wound, splashing into a trough beneath the overhead conveyor as the carcass moves inexorably along, out of the kill floor area and into the first stages of butchering. This exsanguination (bleed-out) stage is what technically kills the animal, causing death by loss of blood.

Stabbing and cutting the arteries is also referred to as “sticking.” As the carcass makes its way out of this area, blood continues to drain from the carcass into the collection trough below but, as Tom pointed out, clotting begins very soon after “sticking” and can prevent effective bleeding. To prevent the wound from clotting and the carcass from retaining blood the carcass, it passes slowly across a series of two horizontal metal bars designed to tilt the head, essentially reopening the wound and allowing the blood to continue to drain. In all, the process of moving pigs from the lairage, through the CO2 chamber, through the sticking and exsanguination process, and on to the next stage in processing (scalding) takes approximately ten minutes to complete.

It’s impossible not to be unsettled by observing the kill floor in action. These pigs have come from their farms and fields to an overnight stay in this strange environment, experiencing their last moments of life before being stunned and bled, all for the purpose of becoming our food, and it is here that the transition from life to death occurs. I can’t imagine anyone – from butchers to office workers, farmers to surgeons, not being affected by this mechanized taking of life, at least the first time they see it. I was not shocked by the experience of this room, maybe in part because the tour through the butchering process has desensitized me somewhat to the blood, bones, knives and otherwise mechanized “disassembly” of the animals, but I was not prepared, even after all of my research – including written descriptions, videos and photographs – for the arresting experience of being on the kill floor. The pigs, obviously scared and disoriented, entered the CO2 elevator alive and only moments later, tumbled, inanimate, along the moving conveyor. They were hung by a hind leg, stuck and bled with the chilling mechanical efficiency of an automobile assembly line. I was forced, at that moment, to decide once and for all why I choose to eat meat – here was the taking of animal’s lives in order to better my own. It reinforced my commitment to them, to the respectful husbandry of them, and the humane handling of them in their final moments. To me, the ethical responsibility that we have towards the animals we consume for food cannot be questioned.

It is unfortunate then, that it is here where our ethics can still fail us. Working in this environment will involve becoming desensitized. In the fifteen minutes I stood in the center of the kill floor – live animals moving along the run on my left, bleeding carcasses dangling overhead on my right – I overcame the initial shock of the scene and was able to observe the process more analytically. One of the handlers, whose job it was to ensure that the pigs moved quickly forward through the run, minimizing their tendency to turn around towards the direction they came, or to challenge the inexorable movement of the herding panel, approached me and pointed to a dusty, unwieldy piece of equipment behind me saying “We used to use that, but things are lot better now, we can move the pigs through a lot faster and easier.” He was pointing to a double-conveyor device used to restrain pigs during electrical stunning – the slaughterhouse no longer used it, but it remained behind as a grisly reminder of more difficult times. It was about ten feet long, with two opposing conveyors configured in a “v” shape, designed to cradle the pig and move it down to the end of the device where the electrical stun would be applied. I could see that it might involve some room for error and that it would certainly take longer to process the hogs from the lairage in this one-at-a-time manner. I could also sense that using this device had been much more stressful, not only for the hogs, but for handling personnel like himself. “Sometimes the shock wouldn’t stun ‘em, and they’d wake up before we could stick them.” He said it matter-of-factly, but I could see that the memories weren’t pleasant – there’s no reason to think that folks who work in slaughterhouses are heartless and cruel, they’re just working for the best pay that they can find in the area. Like John said, they are paid better here than most other places that employ unskilled workers.

My tour was almost over. We now moved into an office area near the lairages, where John introduced me to two of his administrative employees. It was then that I looked at my watch and realized that I was due for my next appointment and facility tour at the packing plant in Sioux City, and forty-five minute drive south from Sioux Center in about an hour – I would have to hustle to get there in time. John sensed the urgency and helped out by having an administrative person call the other plant and let my host there, Jim Malek, VP of Sales, know that I might be running a little late. My tour ended where it began, in the lobby of the facility, where John graciously shook hands with me, took my hard hat, disposable coveralls and boot covers, and said goodbye.

Out of the Abattoir

Almost every part of the pig is marketable. Items like chitterlings (small intestine), stomachs, and blood have long appealed to ethnic populations, and other offal such as livers, hearts, ears, trotters – even tails and rectums, have appeared on the tables of restaurant chefs and home cooks. Lard from pigs is available in several forms – see the chapter entitled Lard. The bones of butchered pigs are “squeezed” to remove remaining meat, which is used in processed pork products like sausages (requires reference). In addition to food, pigs provide ingredients used in our pharmaceuticals, medical products, and personal care products.


[1] Blokland, Eric, “Porkopolis,” Portland Monthly, October 2010 print issue, September 13, 2010 web version.

[2] Lupercal. London: Faber & Faber, 1960.