Words by Jeb Gavin
Photos by Nicholas Karlin
Recent newcomers to DC have fostered a sense of uncertainty of late- the sort of uncertainty that requires the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Science and Security Board to adjust the doomsday clock ever closer to midnight. Coincidentally, those same newcomers have “temporarily” halted new regulation- even at places like the USDA. In both cases, the result is the same: it’s more important than ever to know what you’re eating (and from whence it came.) Wednesday night a group of around two dozen gathered at Mess Hall in Northeast DC to eat Sloppy Mama’s barbecue, drink DC Brau, and learn “how a pig goes from loving life to [their] fork and knife.”
Andrew Crush of Spring House Farm in Lovettsville, VA provided the pig- a beautiful Large Black/Berkshire hybrid, partially dressed and hung for 10 days. Contrary to the belief that all meat is best eaten as close to slaughter as possible, animals go through rigor mortis. At that point it’s still a dead animal, and the muscles are tensed. Quick, humane slaughter is best for the animal and also for the consumer as its leads to less stress hormones in the meat. (Crush shared with us his method of keeping his stock calm on the way to slaughter, including how his butcher has a dirt floor holding pen to keep the animals calm to the very end.) As it is, a pig still needs to hang for a few days for muscles to relax and fluid to drain from the carcass.
About midway through the butchery demonstration (to which I will circle back,) Crush detailed both the breed and their feeding habits. Most commercial pork is raised to be lean and uniform in flavor. Heritage breeds like the Large Black and Mulefoot raised at Spring House are foraging pigs.And it’s important to note how vital foraging is to flavor.
Understand: you are what you eat eats. Rooting around eating acorns, grass, nuts, seeds, bugs, “the occasional snake” as Crush noted- the result is a deep, complex, porky flavor. Pigs raised solely on grain end up tasting as flat and as bland as the grain on which they were raised. Mixtures of corn, wheat, and soy are cheaper, and have a place finishing or fattening a pig well towards the end of their life. But over the entire life of the animal they don’t hold a candle to the flavor developed by eating roots and wild mushrooms and clover in pastures and sparsely wooded areas.
As butcher Greg Herring of The Organic Butcher of McLean took the pig on the counter from carcass to primal (large portions like the front shoulder) to retail cuts like chops and steaks, he detailed the process while fielding questions about technique and knife safety. Starting with the anatomy, he worked through the pig detailing the most effective way to cut the meat, pointing out where muscles met and could best be separated. Working through the loin he removed belly and skirt, and used a hacksaw to trim ribs into the rib rack people are used to seeing. Boning out a leg he explained the synovial fluid draining from a socket and the differences and many (possibly disturbing) similarities between porcine and human anatomy. In taking apart a shoulder he explained how to deal with broken bones (in this case a shattered shoulder blade) and how best to make stew from trimming, bones, and trotters (the feets. That should be obvious but for some reason people are willfully ignorant that their ham did not hover above the ground while alive only to arrive, plump and brined at the butcher’s counter.)
Towards the end of the demonstration Joe Neuman of Sloppy Mama’s walked us through making sausage with the trimmings. While we disagree on fat ratios, I liked his use of pickle brine in the sausage. Likewise I was particularly happy he noted to the assembled crowd about the importance of ice in making sausage- a fact lost on many home sausage makers. Sausage is about using odd bits of meat and redistribution of fat, which is solid only when cold. Putting fat through a warm machine (even something just barely above refrigerated temperatures) results in an unpleasant goo, easily separated from the meat. When working at home, you leave any part of the grinder that touches meat in the freezer for as long as possible before grinding, you ice the meat itself, and if you’re making a fine enough grind you might even add ice to the mixture to ensure everything stays mostly solid and uniform.
While none of the cuts or sausage from the demonstration pig were cooked then and there, Sloppy Mama’s came prepared with pulled pork, barbecue and some of the best cornbread I’ve had in DC. Served alongside their beans and coleslaw and pickles, no one seemed to mind eating before, during, and after the proceedings. I’m sure the iced bucked of DC Brau helped.
Personally, as a kid growing up on a farm there was never any mystery to how animals became meat. And as an adult in the food industry (full disclosure: I make sausages and salamis for a living) part of the job is educating people on from where their meat comes. Without delving too deep into hippie gibberish, we live on sunlight and water. It’s of vital importance to know how the plants we eat, and the plants the animals we eat eat sustain us. Butchery may seem grim to some, and ignored by most, but it’s a necessary skill. More people should understand that.
[Whew, made it through without a single congress/how the sausage is made joke. I’m gonna treat myself to a Pils.]