Before we begin let me disclaim a bit...If you are a vegetarian, or someone who eats meat but would prefer to remain detached from the form that meat took while it was alive, or if you have a pig as a pet, you may want to not continue reading. (also, if you don't like long entries save yourself now.)
Personally, I feel that if I'm going to eat meat I better be willing to confront where it comes from. I'm someone who has struggled with being a meat-eater and even wandered into vegetarian territory for a few years. But I think, with responsible choices and some knowledge and perspective and a sense of proportion, I've come to terms with the fact that I, at times, consume other animals. And enjoy it tremendously.
All this is to say that a couple weekends ago, we cooked a pig. A WHOLE pig. In our apartment. Why, you might ask, did we do such a thing? Well, mostly I wanted to do this because I knew it would be tasty, but also because I thought, given the above, this experience of seeing an animal from slaughter (well, almost) to plate would bring me one educational step closer to taking full responsibility for what I put in my mouth. Of course feeling the little hooves paw at my chest as I slid across the cab seat after purchasing it, made me wonder if I could even look this pig in the snout, let alone eat it.
Here's where it all started. My old high school friend, Jake, has his own organic and local meat company called Dickson Farmstand Meats which is totally f-ing cool if you ask me. Recently I got an email from him about the fact that one of his pig farmers had a customer who had ordered about 70 pigs and then fell through at the 11th hour leaving them with quite a few little piggies to find homes for, so to speak. The Boyfriend also happens to love everything pig. And we missed our invitation about a year ago to a whole pig roast party which he has yet to forgive me for. So, when this pitch found its way into my inbox, I forwarded it to the Boyfriend and the resident Chef friend (Josh) and said, we have to do this.
I wasn't free to pick up my pig at the arranged time, so Jake told me to come to his apartment later that night and he'd take me down the block to his truck where the pigs were. Now, to be honest, I don't have a lot of experience buying drugs. But I can say with a lot of assurance that if drug dealers accepted checks, this whole situation taking place on a dark city corner would bear a striking resemblance to an illegal exchange of that kind. Of course, instead of a duffel bag full of coke (in my fantasy I'm big time), I left with a plastic bag-wrapped whole pig, and a purse full of two porterhouse steaks, lamb shanks and a package of breakfast sausages.
After bidding Jake adieu I lumbered awkwardly down the street carrying what probably looked like a small dead body. Since my arm is still technically injured and the pig was oh 20+ pounds, I had to carry it hugged to my chest like a baby bjorn. I was desperate for a cab to save my aching arms and the bizarre sense of shame I felt when anyone passed me looking suspiciously at my bundle. Well not ANYONE--down the block, a guy working at a warehouse (actually, a meat market, ironically enough) said "Hey, baby, you lookin good" and then "are you single?" Seriously. I WAS CARRYING A PIG, LADIES. pretty sexy. Note from the Boo: Well, he works at a meat market...
At home, I threw the pig in the fridge and shut the door quickly. I would wait until the Boyfriend was home before I attempted to unwrap the pig as I had been instructed. And by "I attempted", I mean of course, I would make the Boyfriend do it. Bravely, with only a few squeals and moments of reassurance about the pig's happy life (from both of us), we unwrapped the pig and laid it on the fridge shelf with a paper towel laid over its face. I wasn't ready yet to take in the whole thing at once. Are you? Okay, ready? Here it is:
One of these things is not like the other....
Now I've seen suckling pigs before and they all look kind of like they're sleeping, with a sort of sweet grin on their faces like they're dreaming of being 3 inches deep in warm soggy mud. Not ours. Ours looked kind of shocked and dare I say, a little accusatory. I resolved to keep the paper towel on until we were ready for the big day.
I had asked Chef Josh to help with the pig part of the dinner as I didn't know the first thing about what to do with our new addition. I'm sure I could have pulled something off, but it all just seemed too daunting to do alone. Also, what a gastronomic opportunity. I didn't want to blow it. Josh quickly agreed. Actually, what I think he said was, "We shall call him Hamlet." Done.
Josh and Kate arrived at 9am on Sunday, the Day of the Pig. Josh came pushing a granny cart with a standing mixer (in case we wanted to "take some of Hamlet's extra meat and make a sausage to stuff him with") and a fancy knife kit. Kate came bearing her laptop, the Times, and some breakfast goods to sustain us in our task.
First on order for the day was butchering the pig. Boo: Goodnight, Sweet Prince!!!!!!Still in my pjs, we began the arduous task of removing the head. Yes, a risky move right after breakfast but to be honest, I really wasn't disgusted as I had anticipated. Maybe it was from having grown accustomed to the pig in our fridge over the past few days (every time we'd open it in the morning we'd exclaim, "OH my god there's a pig in our fridge!!"), but it all seemed rather natural to me. I mean, I've dealt with raw meat thousands of time in my life, so why should this be any different? Kate, the resident vegetarian who was taking all this rather well, turned up the music to drown out the hacking noises.
Over the course of the next couple of hours, Josh (with an occasional flick of the wrist from me) removed the head which we decided not to use as it's a lot of work for not that much meat (also, um, gross), then removed the hind quarters which he split apart into the two legs, and the same for the front legs. Then, putting his knife skills to use, he deboned the center portion (I guess this would be the loin?) removing the ribcage. What you're left with is one large rectangle, which is perfect for stuffing the rest of the meat from the legs, shoulder, neck, cheeks, etc, in to create one nice neat pig package. The meat was seasoned with salt and pepper, some blackening seasoning and perhaps some garlic powder, then stuffed and rolled like so:
The various bones which had been scraped clean ended up in a stock pot for the gravy. To accompany the piece de la resistance, my plan was to make some macaroni and cheese with the honkin piece of cheddar our uncle had brought me from Vermont, and some sweet potatoes glazed with maple syrup also from the uncle, and some roasted brussels sprouts with shallots. I had made a couple of apple crisps from Ina Garten's recipe the night before so dessert was covered. Of course, this couldn't possibly be it. On Sunday Josh mentioned casually, "So maybe we should make some more greens in addition to the brussels sprouts. Like collard greens? And I was thinking we could make some red beans and rice. Is that cool?" IS THAT COOL?! why yes.
For the next 4 or so hours my kitchen and apartment smelled like heaven with the pig roasting, the cheese sauce melting for the macaroni, the stock pot simmering (I only freaked once when I stirred it and a tail curled out over the edge of the pot), and the red beans and rice with andouille thickening deliciously on the stove.
Somehow, miraculously, Josh managed to coordinate things so everything came out of my tiny, impossible kitchen at the right time. Oh, and did I mention it was enough to feed a small army? We had to buy those disposable aluminum trays to put everything out because literally nothing I had was large enough for the quantity of food we'd made. The place looked like a church potluck.
Note from Boo: It was awesome. And may I say that I timed my arrival for about this point... ie, after all unpleasant hacking and butchering. Good work there.
Before we ate, we all joined hands and the Boyfriend said a few words of thanks to Hamlet and everyone along the way who had contributed to his life and its celebration in the form of our feast. He could not have fed a more appreciative group of folks. Truly an amazing experience. I'll let the pictures Iracel took speak for themselves....
Boo: OMG the Mac and Chee:
Boo: Loaves by the GC ( hey my notes are rhyming):
Boo: Ahem. Lucky, lucky, lucky ME! (and you guys. but, the rhyme).
I think I speak for everyone including you, Boo, when I say it ROCKED. And also that I needed like a full 24 hours to recover. Josh, having worked late the night before and worked his ass off at our place all day, upon putting out all the food, had a glass of bourbon, laid down on the floor and managed to sleep through most of the rest of the party.
Rather than give you a recipe, since I can't decide which one, and let's be honest, this post is already wearing out its welcome, I give you instead, a list of everything I know I learned from cooking and eating Hamlet.
TIP #1: If you make a pig, they will come. Expect a 100% rsvp rate.
TIP #2: Best to leave your pig uncovered, on a dry surface in the fridge. If left to stew in its own moisture it can go bad quickly. Also a good idea to turn him over every so often.
TIP #3: when hacking with a cleaver, position the meat near the leg of the table you're working on. If you whack in the middle of the table, the give will absorb most of the shock and make your cut less precise and forceful.
TIP #4: Stevie Ray Vaughn is good pork eating music.
TIP #5: When roasting brussels sprouts (or any such veggie) you'll get the max crispiness for your buck if you put the empty pans in your hot oven til they get scorching hot before tossing the veggies in.
TIP #6: Maple syrup and cayenne pepper make for a good flavor combo on sweet potatoes.
TIP #7: Homemade bread is the perfect contribution to a friend's dinner party. Thank you to the Boo's Gentleman Caller for his gorgeous loaves. that sounded dirty. tee hee.
TIP #8: Something tangy like a dash of hot sauce added to bechamel sauce (for the mac & cheese) really gives a great depth of flavor and cuts the creaminess a bit.
TIP #9: Say yes to your friends when they offer to make something. Thanks to Iracel for her kickass spinach salad (with bacon of course), and Jeremy and Abby for the black bottoms--mini chocolate cakes with a cream cheese center. mmm.
TIP #10: Get to know your meat supplier. It feels good to know the animal you're eating was treated with respesct, love, and care to keep it healthy.
TIP #12: Go to http://www.dicksonsfarmstand.com/ to read up about where you can get some delicious meat from this awesome company.
TIP #13: It's okay to use paper plates sometimes. At least you're saving water by not washing 87 dishes.
TIP #14: No matter your intentions, if you let a chef into your kitchen, he will end up doing most of the work (bless him). Just do your best, ask questions, and take notes. You'll learn a lot.