At last year’s PASA conference, I was handed a sample of mixed salumi from a new business in Elizabethtown, near Lancaster. Being generally skeptical of domestic salumi, I had low expectations but was amazed by the first-rate products. The salumi were made by Tony and Kristina Page, who left a rising career in the restaurant industry about a year ago to found Rooster St. Provisions. That such small businesses dedicated to the highest quality artisan products seem to be popping up everywhere is as good a sign as any that we’re on the cusp of a golden age of artisan foods in the US. Micro-breweries, local vegetables, grass-fed meats, farm to table restaurants, local salumi…this is a great time to be alive!
In addition to making first-rate salumi, Tony and Kristina offer classes on butchery, sausage making, and more. This past weekend I had the pleasure of taking the pig butchery course, in which we processed a half hog and head. With the desire to purchase a half hog this fall, I was motivated to take the class so that I could learn how to process the animal exactly as I wanted, so that I could have control over what cuts are made and how.
Confronting half a hog carcass and head can be a bit unsettling, and only having ever butchered chickens, I was a little nervous. But I was immediately put at ease by the cleanliness and sanitation of the kitchen at Rooster St. and especially by the evident quality of the hog, which seemed to have lived a healthy and happy life. Rooster St. purchases hogs from my good friends Dee and Phil Horst Landis of Sweet Stem Farm, who are passionate about animal welfare. In fact, Tony mentioned that Sweet Stem’s hogs were the only ones he saw in visits to many farms where the pigs seemed genuinely happy, playful, and healthy.
Using a hacksaw and knives as opposed to the bandsaw common in most large-scale butchering, we began by separating the carcass into four “primal” cuts: ham, belly, loin, and shoulder. From their we separated the belly, cut several hams, separated the boston butt from the picnic shoulder, and cuts chops from the loin. Along the way we separated the tenderloin and precious leaf lard which had enclosed the kidneys, which I was able to take home to render for making pie crusts.
After four hours, we were exhausted but satisfied. We’d been involved in something concrete, practical, and basic to human existence. Not having been raised a hunter, I was woefully ignorant of basic animal anatomy and butchering practice. Now I feel ready to get my feet wet with my own half hog, maybe even ready to raise a few hogs someday. The joy of such hands-on work is a result which is immediate, useful, and unquestionable. Unlike so much work which most of us do on a daily basis, in which the results are quite subjective and sometimes quite remote, butchery, as with so much other manual work, offers an antidote to the abstract tasks which most of us are engaged with more often. It’s important to work with both the head and the hands.