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Whole hog butchering class

11

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.

pen-cooler

Left: holding pen; Right: carcasses hanging in the cooler

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.

Top: splitting loin from spareribs/bacon; Bottom: shaping ham

Top: splitting loin from spareribs/bacon; Bottom: shaping ham

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

24 comments Add your comment

M.Johnson

September 7th, 2011
7:15 am

Very interesting experience and a smart way for Happy Valley to promote it’s product. Looking forward to LOTS of pork recipes.

Thanks, Gene!

Robert

September 7th, 2011
8:41 am

In looking at the Happy Valley website I believe Donald is the owner. Looks like an interesting class. Maybe they should offer the option of seeing the whole process, including the killing of the animal. As hard as it would be to watch I think it would be necessary for a total understanding of where this meat we eat comes from (this is why I respect hunters who hunt only for food). I don’t know if you watched the most recent Anthony Bourdain “No Reservations” about cajun country but they butchered a whole hog. Bourdain actually pulled the trigger and they showed the poor animal in its death throes. Gruesome and ugly but real. It appeared that there was also an appreciation for the animal, hence the locals reciting the lord’s prayer before the slaughter. It may not mean anything to that hog but I think the scene underscores that we should not take for granted these animals. Buying meat in the store really disassociates us from the whole process. All that being said, I’m glad that I have the option to go to Harry’s and buy my already processed meat. What a wuss!

Thanks for the article.
Robert

PeTa L pusher

September 7th, 2011
8:44 am

If you knew what kind of pain and the inhumane way God’s creations were treated/then dispatched, you would never eat pork again.

^^^^^^^^

September 7th, 2011
9:31 am

If you knew what kind of pain your post put me through, you would never type again.

Mr. Ed

September 7th, 2011
9:49 am

“Buying meat in the store really disassociates us from the whole process.”

I’ve never killed an animal myself. Animal products have always come from the local grocery store neatly wrapped in cellophane, ready to be cooked or stored.

My grandmother told that growing up her family raised chckens in the yard. When they wanted to eat chicken, the process started with wringing the chicken’s neck and would continue from there.

I doubt very much that many of us have ever slaughtered an animal for consumption.

carla roqs

September 7th, 2011
10:01 am

nor do we desire to mr ed…with the exception of robert, apparently.

carla roqs

September 7th, 2011
10:02 am

gene, love the article–you are soooo cool. and here come the vegitarians (sp?)

carla roqs

September 7th, 2011
10:03 am

vegetarians???

PTC DAWG

September 7th, 2011
10:12 am

Thanks for the story…..As someone who enjoys good meats…I found it interesting.

Lady Progressive Fascist

September 7th, 2011
10:26 am

The evil capitalists kept it clean?.. I don’t believe you. Their evil profit making motives deny them any humanity. They even torture the pigs before they kill them via electric shock and waterboarding. That’s how eviiiilllll they are.

But thanks for the behind-the-scenes look. I’m sure some heartless rethuglicons will find it of interest.

carla roqs

September 7th, 2011
10:34 am

Galveston

September 7th, 2011
10:45 am

HAHA…Evil profit making motives??? How about you go to work everyday and work for free. Get a life

Jim R

September 7th, 2011
10:53 am

Thaaaaaaaaaaats All Folks!

FoodFan

September 7th, 2011
11:24 am

There’s a Tony Bourdain “No Reservations” that just aired from Cajun Country. Bourdain personally shoots a hog twice in the head with a handgun, then they go through the whole process above with rinsing in hot water, scraping the hair, and then divvying up each parcel of meat (organs & the regular bits) to about 15 different people who are creating their own dishes with it to be shared at the end by the group. Cool to see how much reverance they had for the pig (prayed over it before killing, did not let any piece go to waste, etc.) If you can catch it, I’d reccomend watching it.

NascarDawg

September 7th, 2011
11:36 am

I know this business cause we were in the same business in the general area growing up. I found this story very interesting cause it sounded like what I growed up doing. People say if they worked in it they couldn’t eat any. I made sausage all of my life growing up until early adulthood and I can eat a pound of sausage or BBQ anytime someone wants to eat it. It is hard to beat good pork or beef.

carla roqs

September 7th, 2011
11:57 am

@nascardawg–add in BACON, BACON, BACON and i will give you an amen to great taste.

Rodney

September 7th, 2011
12:45 pm

Yep. Not a big deal for me. I grew up with animals raised for food and subsequently slaughtered and hearing my Grandmother tell stories of how they slaughtered a hog each fall (complete with her step by step detailed instructions on cleaning the “chitlings”). Even now, my Mom has 10 or so hens (for eggs), but during those few weeks when they aren’t laying as much my Grandma has gone out to the pen and warned ‘em all … “Girls, y’all don’t start laying some of you will be in the pot!”

My father hunted deer nearly every other weekend – in season, of course – for about 15 years when I was growing up. The only animal I’ve ever killed was on one of those hunting trips, and I only did it because my Dad wanted me to. I cried afterwards. A lot.

I don’t want to kill it. I don’t want to see it killed; I cringe at the thought. But, after it’s killed I’m all in. :) Cleaning, butchering, cooking, and most importantly, eating. I’m not sure why I’m able to draw such a distinct line between the slaughter part and the cleaning/butchering part but, it’s there.

I think I would really enjoy a butchering class!

MLBDolie

September 7th, 2011
1:10 pm

That would be west of Augusta. East of Augusta is South Carolina.

Gene Lee

September 7th, 2011
1:22 pm

@MLBDolie – Indeed. Thanks for the catch.

wtk

September 7th, 2011
3:57 pm

as the oldest of 13 I killed most of what we ate (starting at 13 years old) until i when to college. Hogs, cows, goats, rabbits , chickens, turkeys, etc. I did as many as 50 rabbits at a time. (they are a great source of meat-gestation is 31 days = many rabbits quickly)

I would not say it was fun–I know it was necessary.

Fernand Point

September 7th, 2011
8:09 pm

You can buy the episode of No Reservations on I-Tunes

Kar

September 8th, 2011
1:43 pm

Somewhere, Bill Buford is smiling and having another serving of bacon.

1164mgc

September 8th, 2011
3:23 pm

As a vegEtarian, I found this article interesting. I’d never take a class such as this, but I think it’s good for people to be educated about where their food comes from. Whether it’s meat or veggies or whatever. While I realize this is a butchering class, I think they also should have shown you the whole process, from “dispatch” to table.

Baltisraul

September 8th, 2011
4:48 pm

Sounds like a real interesting class. I see no reason for me to take it. Will just load up on St. Louis style ribs, thick cut bacon and pork chops at Sam’s club. Pork is big in our home. The Weber and the smoker are getting a workout this summer.