Nose-to-Tail: An Eater's Guide to Going Whole Hog
In the belly of Lincoln’s Single Barrel Restaurant, Chef Brandon Harpster and his 13-year-old son, Braeden, hoist one-half of a Red Wattle pig carcass onto a large table in the center of the room. The heritage breed is prized for its marbling and was harvested six days earlier from the TD Niche pig farm in Elk Creek, Nebraska.
This is the second class offered by Lincoln Secret Supper, a food and drink community created by co-founders Sunny Parsons (managing partner) and Dan Parsons, CEO of Parson Public Relations. For $299, each participant leaves with an apron, a knife, approximately 25 to 30 pounds of pork, a gift bag of pork-branded items, a cookbook and firsthand knowledge of how to break down a whole hog. A class like this is the exact opposite of shrink- wrapped, Styrofoam-plated chops.
Moments later, four women and two men file downstairs to see the headless, bilaterally sliced pig. They stand wide-eyed and adorned in black aprons. Some awkwardly grip a 6-inch boning knife; others leave cutting instruments on a stainless-steel table at their backs while Brandon introduces them to the art of whole hog butchering. It’s a Sunday afternoon and the very beginning of a multi-hour class that ends with each student going home with a freezer’s worth of fresh pork, but most importantly, today’s students will leave knowing how to answer the question asked when going whole hog, “How do you want it?”
You can pick the turn of phrase—nose-to-tail, farm-to-table, pasture-to- plate—most of us don’t know what to do with a whole anything, let alone an animal. We are solidly planted into a multigenerational, prepackaged, food-buying phenomenon, which has left us with little animal breakdown knowledge and limited understanding in cookery. Our modern culinary repertoire is built on popular supermarket cuts, not on how to make the most of what we have—a core component of buying a whole animal.
“I’m not sure if I want to see this or not,” says Mandy Hatcher, a 20-something brunette from Gering, Nebraska. “It looks like an animal now, but very quickly it will look like a piece of meat,” assures Brandon. “You should also know, I’m very passionate about pork.”
And so the class begins. Brandon puts his tools on the table—a cleaver, a mallet and a sharpener—explains what they are and when he will use them. Then he puts them aside and retrieves his wooden-handled boning knife from the scabbard, a metal pouch hanging from a chain wrapped around his waist. He breaks down one-half of the pig into five primal cuts—ham (hind leg), loin, belly, shoulder and ribs, explaining the cuts he prefers and why and then steps aside to let Mandy try it for herself.
It’s doubtful these students will break down a whole pig again, but that’s not really the point of the class. While they all have different reasons for spending the afternoon in the basement of a restaurant, one thing they have in common is the desire to be better, more knowledgeable consumers.
THE FARMER AND THE PROCESSOR
The first step in buying a whole animal is finding a farmer whose product you trust. The second step is contacting the processor with cutting instructions.
￼A good place to start on your quest for a farmer is your area farmers markets, the Edible Omaha directory or the Buy Fresh, Buy Local Food Guide booklet, produced by the University of Nebraska– Lincoln. Once you find your farmer and select your pig, you will pay for the animal. This is usually done by the pound and can be by live weight or carcass weight.
According to Dennis Schaardt of Den’s Country Meats, a meat processor in Table Rock, Nebraska, you can pay anywhere from $170 for a modern crossbred pig to $350 for heritage breed like the Red Wattle that Brandon uses in his class. Once you purchase the pig, the farmer delivers it to a processor like Dennis.
The processor is the closest thing we have today to the old-world concept of butchers. A meat processor receives the live animal, kills it, skins it, eviscerates it, breaks it down into primal cuts, and from there it becomes your dinner. Pork doesn’t hang and age for weeks like beef, so it’s critical that you contact your processor as soon as you purchase your pig to let him know how you like your pork. He will ask you, “How do you want it?” and you will need to tell him. This is typically where Dennis hears crickets from your end of the line until he helps you understand the anatomy of the pig and your own eating habits.
“People know they want bacon and pork chops, and that’s about it. They don’t know what to do with the rest of the pig,” says Dennis.
Depending on the price you are willing to pay, processors grind sausage, cure, smoke, precook and shred and package the meat based on the needs of you and your family. It’s important to understand you will write two checks: The first to the farmer for the animal and the second to the processor for the service he provides. If you paid the farmer $300 for the carcass weight of a 160-pound heritage breed pig and the processor $170 for breaking down and packaging your pork, you will spend $470 total or about $2.90 per pound.
Understanding your eating habits and being realistic about the space you have to store meat and the number of mouths you feed go a long way toward making your animal-buying experience a positive one.
“Less than half of the people [who aren’t chefs] who buy a pig from me come back,” says Travis Dunekacke, owner of TD Niche Pork. “It’s not because of the quality of the products. As far as the price goes, I don’t think they passed up on a heritage pig and are going to go buy a cheaper pig out of confinement. The reason is they just don’t eat it. They just don’t find a way to make it work.”
Typically pork meat should be consumed within six to nine months of purchase, even when stored in a deep freezer. It’s still edible a year later, but the flavor will likely be compromised. If you only have the freezer attached to your refrigerator, it is probably best to share the cost of the animal and its meat with a friend or two. Pork is good, but you probably don’t want to eat it every day. Plus, you will need some room in that freezer for ice cream. At least I do.
The other important aspect to consider is what your life is really like. Are you a heat and serve eater? Then be honest with yourself and have the pork packaged in a way that honors how you eat. If you don’t think you will roast an entire ham, have it sliced for sandwiches and packaged by the pound instead. Shoulder roast, also known as a Boston butt, tastes great rubbed with spices and roasted in the oven for a couple of hours or dropped into a slow cooker before you leave for work, but if that’s not you, have the processor smoke, shred and package it to meet your needs. If you notice after buying your first whole or half hog that you really didn’t eat a certain cut, ask the processor or the farmer for alternatives the next time you order.
The last task is to pick up your meat and stock your freezer. In my house I have a freezer inventory list. I have a stand-up deep freezer in my garage currently stuffed with wild pork, deer and a few dwindling packages of ground beef from our share of a quarter cow we purchased with some friends. The point is to make cooking easier, not more difficult. It’s worth the few minutes it takes to write out a freezer inventory list to help with planning meals. Jot down what you have—sausages, pork chops, bacon, shoulder, hams, loins and how much, then tape it inside one of your cupboards. When you use it, cross it off. When you are changing your lifestyle from multiple trips to the store to multiple trips to your freezer, it’s nice to have a plan, especially if you are cooking for a family.
Going whole hog is, for many, a new way to eat. It takes time to change habits, so be patient and realistic about what and how you are going to cook. Know that you are learning something new, and give yourself time to make the necessary adjustments. Just like the students in the belly of the restaurant, once you get into it, it’s not as difficult as it first seems. You might even like it.