A lot of us these days are curious not just about what we eat, but about who produces it. Farmers markets are like a family reunion where we get together to shake the hands that pulled our radishes from the ground. It’s a big, warm, fuzzy feeling until we get to the protein course of our next meal. The production chain for meat, after all, goes a little farther back than a tidy paper package. And some folks are quite content not thinking about the fact that their locally grown dinner was walking around a few days ago.
But my wife and I were prepared to go deeper. She wasn’t ready to journey all the way to the “harvesting” part, but when we got the chance to attend a hog-butchering class put on by Lincoln Secret Supper, she jumped at it. So on a Sunday afternoon, we stand with eight other foodies in the prep kitchen at the Single Barrel restaurant in Lincoln, Nebraska, ready to learn from chef/butcher Brandon Harpster. Before us are two giant slabs of pork—a whole Red Wattle hog from TD Niche Pork split in half and reduced to neat slabs of meat and bones. We pause only briefly on the fact that we probably met this pig back in August when we visited Travis Dunekacke’s farm for lunch (seen in the photo below).
Brandon opens with, “People ask me what my favorite cut is, and I honestly can’t answer. I love every single part. At most, we’re going to throw away 1-2 pounds of meat.” As the class progresses, it seems like he wastes even less than that. Excess fat will go into pastries. Bones will help make stock. Brandon works the knife to save the tiniest morsel, “so I can get that three or four extra bites of greatness.”
Leaning into his work, the chef educates us on the core principles of butchering. Pull things apart whenever possible; knife work has the potential to damage more meat. Look for the natural seams, such as the spots where a ham can be reduced to four separate roasts. Know how the use of a muscle affects its cooking quality. Pork shoulder, famous for use as pulled pork, for example, is less appealing as a cut of meat because it bears most of the hog’s weight, making it tough and overly lean.
When we get to the pork belly section, Brandon lays a big, marbled chunk on the cutting board and admires the future bacon. “That’s the stuff dreams are made of,” he says.
After three hours, our hog has morphed into dozens of vacuum-sealed bags of chops, ribs, roasts, ground pork and lard. The five teams divvy up the meat and lug our boxes to the car, ready to hit the grill and complete the farm-to-fork journey.
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