Farmers Diary: Pig to Portion


Truth be told, my wife and I live in a rather small suburban community north of Boston. In fact we live in the center of a village that is actually very small. It is one of those ‘don’t blink or you’ll miss it’ villages. In town, the quadruped of choice is usually a horse (right after a dog or cat). There are a few goats and the occasional cow.

Over the years we have lived in our rural-esque antique version of a subdivision (we have close neighbors), we’ve raised a variety of livestock in our back yard. We’ve raised them for eggs, meat, landscape management, the pleasure of their company—all depending upon the sociability of the creature and our ultimate intention. God knows, no one loves slaughtering anything but we are more than skeptical of the quality of the meats in the groceries that we frequent. In my head, at least, I would rather do it myself and know the provenance of each animal. I did grown up hunting and fishing and we are not vegetarians. I have always cleaned and plucked the furred, finned and feathered game I have killed. But, honestly, I have not slaughtered or butchered a mammal that we have raised in over fifty years. Nor was such my intention.

This winter, our neighbor sent several pigs he had raised to slaughter. We were familiar with them but they were not quite "family," having sojourned in our backyard only briefly before the lambs arrived. He asked if we would like half a pig for the freezer and if so, would we be interested in doing the butchering? How could we refuse? And why? This was a clear case of putting your money where your mouth is, walking the walk, really knowing what it means to be ‘from here’ (i.e. local). Of course we jumped at the opportunity with only a hint of trepidation.

On a cold, wintry morning, several couples convened in a neighbor’s open garage to meet our pigs fresh from a USDA slaughterhouse that morning. The carcasses had been cleaned, cut into sides, and were laid out on long tables. We were armed with cleavers, boning knives, saws, and reverent curiosity as we admired the revealed skeletal architecture of each side and wondered just how we would break it down, how this handsome beast would be artfully carved into meal-sized portions with familiar names. Almost none of us had the faintest idea of how we were to go about it. Did we want chops, cutlets, roasts, ribs (short, spare, St Louis?); how much, and how many? But we were all ready to forge ahead with guidance from an experienced butcher who explained which muscle groups made the best roasts, how to bone the shoulder and to save all the scraps for sausage (did anyone need a recipe?).

For most of us, meat of one sort or another is our primary source of protein supplemented by legumes. Almost none of us know the difference between a rib chop and a loin chop, between the top round and the bottom round, between a shoulder roast and a rump roast. A lot of us do not want to know. Some may take their meats for granted—they are just part of the meal. But there is an increasing interest in knowing not just that today’s meat is sustainably raised, but raised by whom, how it was killed and how it was butchered. Some also want to have responsibility for the entire process, if possible. We are not talking about the effete of “Portlandia” here. These folks are earnest, honest and capable. They come armed with the right tools and intention to insure that what they undertake will be done safely and with respect for the life that was and the lives that this morning’s handiwork will sustain. We appreciate knowing that when we look in the freezer for a dinner and find the cut we want, we can tell our guests how we found that muscle group, separated it and then respectfully turned it into something sumptuous and worthy of its origins.

John Lee is the manager of Allandale Farm (Boston’s last working farm), which specializes in naturally grown local produce. Each summer, John manages an outdoor children’s program on the farm. He writes for local news outlets and is deeply involved with farming and locally grown issues in Massachusetts.