I am an aspiring vegetarian for reasons that are both health and ethics related. Truth be told, I am not very good at it. Generally, I can go about four days without giving meat a thought and then the carnivore in me regains control and I’m heading for a huge, dripping, melt-in-your-mouth burger from Flip Side (I am equally partial to Swenson’s in this scenario).
We’re often pressured to define or label things about our lives, including how we eat. While, eventually, I’d love to say I’m a proud card-carrying vegetarian, for now I’ll accept that I am best defined as a sustainably-minded locavore. I value food produced sustainably and I’m increasingly interested in how our food choices affect the planet. I am a conscious eater in that I pay attention to what I eat and how it will affect my health. I am a locavore at heart, preferring to scour farm markets and have a conversation with the people who made, raised, or grew my food.
I also really love animals, and I think factory farming is one of the worst inventions of mankind. For the last few years, I’ve drawn an ethical line and I’ve purchased pork and other meats locally from Brunty Farms or Fresh Fork Market. But damn, bacon is really good and sometimes I backslide and I buy it wherever I am. I’m not proud of it, but it happens. One vegan I knew would bluntly tell people “I don’t eat anything with a face.” I’ve thought about that often and wondered how I seem to be able to do it (although I don’t do it nearly as often) and what that says about me.
I think the idea of seeing, confronting, what our meat looks like before it gets wrapped in neat little packages is important. I wanted to challenge myself to stare the whole hog in the face, literally. And that I did. So when I had the chance to attend a hog butchering workshop, sponsored by the Cleveland Chapter of the American Culinary Foundation at Cuyahoga Community College, I knew I had to see it for myself, especially since it was being taught by the pioneering “lady butchers” Melissa Khoury and Penny Barend of Saucisson. I appreciate and understand that butchering is a craft. Spend a little time with these gals and you get that this is a passion for them; maybe even a calling.
Saucisson sources their meat at local farms, including New Creation Farm, where we are assured the pigs are pasture raised in a truly humane environment with no antibiotics or hormones in their diet. Melissa explained they generally work with a heritage animal that is a Berkshire Duroc cross (two breeds of pig) which have great marbling and fat, which as we know results in some of the tastiest stuff.
While I wouldn’t want to dive hands first into a whole animal myself, I did find the process interesting. Using a few knives and a bone saw, Melissa systematically removed what she called “the moneymakers,” the primals like tenderloin, ribs, the ham, the copa muscle, which is popular for making charcuterie, and the belly fat (bacon). She explained that when she’s done, there might be only about 1 pound of actual waste. Fat is rendered into a whipped lardo spread, the jowls into guanciale, and the ears and skin have found their way back onto plates in restaurants as porchetta.
Melissa broke down a whole half pig in about 90 minutes, laying out every piece and explaining the process and the importance of using the animal to the fullest. She said that an average size hog is between 200-250 pounds. Butchery is both simple and complex; it’s a very old trade that is being reimagined in creative ways. There is some knowledge of biology and anatomy required to do it safely, cleanly and economically.
While Melissa did the cutting Penny offered some play by play and background on Saucisson’s latest business ventures, including their plans to take over a former meat market in Slavic Village. Their friendship started years ago when they were line cooks at a Florida restaurant. They share an unusual passion for butchering, and are fantastic advocates for the craft. “It’s like my zen, I am completely mesmerized by what we get to do,” Melissa says.
At the start of class we enjoyed a pork-centric buffet prepared by Tri-C culinary students that included head cheese, cracklins, a crispy ear salad, pork loin, spare ribs, sausages, jerky, and mac and cheese (with sausage). Saucisson brought a few signature sausages, terrines, and some deliciously seasoned chicharron, otherwise known as pork rinds. With a “When in Rome” attitude, I tried it all.
It would have been easy for them to skip over any talk of the slaughtering process but that part was addressed with honest, frank conversation. Both Melissa and Penny have participated in that end of things and the fact is locally-raised farmed animals have a different experience than animals that have been commercially produced. In this situation, I think it is important to be aware of that difference and then shop according to your conscience. I try to do that, but it is not always easy and it is definitely not the least expensive option.
Sauscisson products are found in many local restaurants and can be purchased at select North Union Farm Markets, The Grocery and The Market at the Fig in Ohio City. They duo is refurbishing the former space of Jaworski Meats, at 5324 Fleet Avenue in Slavic Village, to open a production and retail store sometime in 2016.