WARNING: This post contains graphic images and descriptions of a recent hog butchering experience at an animal processing plant. If you find this subject matter offensive, please discontinue reading.
One hour into my drive on what seems like the hottest day of the year, I’m already drenched with sweat because my car air conditioner stops working. I’m on my way to Dearing, Georgia — a small town west of Augusta — where I signed up for a hog butchering class with Happy Valley Processing. (And yes, I understand the irony in its business name.)
I’m sticky and miserable, and the thought of getting myself all gooed up with animal fat and other pig parts is no longer as appealing when I initially signed up for the class. I walk into the processing plant and I spot a familiar face who also signed up, and everybody that works there drips in small town friendliness. But most importantly — it’s cool inside. An hour ago I was in a heat-induced grumpiness, and now I am ready for Happy Valley to bring on the pig.
Call my desire to take this class part primordial to break down an animal and part curiosity to know where all those cuts I had eaten my whole life come from. I arrive a little late and Donald, the Happy Valley owner, is already a few minutes into the background on the processing business. According to Donald, separate licenses are required if you want to sell both the choice cuts most commonly consumed by households (loins, rib cuts, pork belly, ham, etc. as in Happy Valley’s case) and the lesser desirable ones (organs, blood, etc.). He also shows us detailed logs that are kept daily to ensure their product is processed safely and cleanly, which are reviewed by inspectors who are required to be on site every day.
It smells a little musky in the main processing room and the equipment is worn, but everything is freakishly clean. Donald then leads us on a quick walk-through of the plant’s meat coolers, and into the room where cattle and pigs are dispatched by a .25 caliber stun bolt gun and bleeding. I had seen this room only in animal rights documentaries and gotten the chills while watching them, but at the moment I’m not squeamish. I’m sure it’s because on those documentaries, you actually watch animals being stunned, hung by their hind legs and bled until their life slowly extinguishes. But today, nothing but another freakishly clean room to the point where it’s almost improbable that on any other day blood and guts carpet its pristine floor.
Donald shows us the narrow metallic holding pen used to hold an animal while being stunned, and the hooks and rail-like system attached to the plant’s ceiling used to hoist an animal and transport it around the processing plant. In the case of a pig, its carcass has to go through a scalding (hot water tub used to soften the skin) and de-hairing process that I had seen chilling Youtube videos of.
For the class, a 200 pound hog was already processed, sliced lengthwise in half — literally from nose to tail — and hanging in a cooler waiting for us to get to work on. In other words, most of the dirty work had been done. Three major sections are derived by making two cuts with a hacksaw to separate the front leg/shoulder from the main elongated loin, followed by the removal of the leg or ham.
Then the hacksaw is taken to the middle loin section where we are instructed on how to remove the spareribs (aka St. Louis style) and bacon slab from the loin section where most choice cuts like pork chops, top loin and sirloin are taken from.
Thereafter, Donald walks us through how the ham is rounded into that familiar shape for selling, and shows us how most everything else is cut by an electric table saw into cuts of a customer’s asking. After Donald slices our pork into our requested cuts, another employee takes them and packages them into containers with the help of an industrial vacuum sealer.
While breaking down the pig, we accumulate a lot of extraneous parts which we chop into sizes fit for sausage grinding. Fat is also saved and extracted from skin, which will be part of a 75/25 ratio of meat to fat for sausage. Frankly, that saying, “everybody likes sausage but don’t want to know how it’s made,” is a bit melodramatic. If you handle raw meat or poultry, this is not that far from handling parts used for sausage. I would probably modify that popular saying to specify blood sausage, Scottish haggis or something real funky on the tubed-meat food chain.
Around 30 pounds of meat and fat are added to a grinding machine where for about five minutes, the meat and fat are mixed and then it comes oozing out of the base of the machine through a larger grinder plate. After all the meat pushes through, a grinder plate with a finer setting replaces the larger one, and the processed meat runs through the mixing/grinding process once again. All this ground meat is then dumped into a machine powered by water pressure. Water fills into the machine that pushes a platform upwards, which ultimately forces the meat through a long tube that has been fixed with animal casing for link sausage. There is a touch involved in getting this part down.
The class is not cheap ($175), but I walked away with firsthand knowledge on how to break down a hog and a greater appreciation on how pork is made. And everyone walks out of there with A LOT of pork (around 20lbs each) depending on how many students sign up.
by Gene Lee, Food and More blog