A hair before sunrise found me shivering in the heavy, damp cold of early morning at a tidy farm in the vine-covered hills above Napa Valley.
My pig already chosen for me, One-Shot John put her down quickly; quietly, even. Captain of the last mobile slaughter unit in Sonoma and well deserving of his humane moniker, One-Shot John services small farms in northern California. His custom-built truck of doom negates the need for cows, sheep, goats and pigs to be herded long distances to a slaughterhouse, which causes great stress to the animal; a tragedy for both soulful beast and its meat. While putting stress on a vine produces exceptional wine grapes, the same cannot be said for the pig’s pork loin, the cow’s hanger steak, or the lamb’s rib rack.
One-Shot John washed the porcine’s 250-pound body in a large, mobile tub and shaved her clean; the skin pinkish and glistening. Hoisting the massive girth over his shoulders, he strung up the beast on an old iron gambrel, steam rising from thick haunches now aglow in the first rays of sunrise.
Cursing my decision to wear a sweater instead of one of my many bedraggled sweatshirts, I busied myself collecting the pig’s blood for boudin noir, bagging the heart and liver for frying, and crudely rinsing the endless rope of intestine for sausage.
Before the sun had even shown its warmth to the valley before us, the pig was eviscerated, cleaned, and split in half. She hung for two days in the farmer’s walk-in refrigerator, amidst iron baskets overflowing with green and blue-hued eggs laid by fancy, heirloom chickens, and flats of just-picked lettuces, their ruffled leaves begging to be nibbled naked.
While the pig aged in the chiller, we prepared for the days of work ahead. Spices were purchased from a tiny, specialty shop in Berkeley, its hippie vibe exemplified by the braless chick with dreads who weighed out my first-rate peppers, powders, and seeds. The casings were packed in salt and shipped from upstate New York. Our knives and cleavers were honed on Japanese stones of varying textures, and plywood boards were bleached and laid on top of the marble kitchen island where we’d butcher. A thick stack of clean towels was at the ready and the cool of the porch would serve as refrigeration.
Both enormous halves of the beast, now solidified from the cold, traveled from farm to table in my butchering partner’s white Lexus SUV. We started early and finished late, studying porcine butchering charts, and pouring over blood and grease-spattered cookbooks for spice mixtures, weighing out ingredients on an ancient scale. We listened to bluegrass, drank green tea and smoked hash. But mostly, we butchered; fingers numbed from the frigid meat, we barely made out the muscled edges of each cut. Measure twice, cut once. My antique meat saw, with its fine walnut handle, was outvoted in favor of an electric hand-held, its whirring noise and splattering of bone shards disconcerting.
Roasts, ribs, and loins were vacuum-sealed and labeled. Bones, ears, trotters and tails were kept for stock and soup. Chunks of pork and fat were separated and bagged for making sausage later in the winter. The belly and cheeks were slathered with spices and curing salt to rest for a couple of weeks before being hung to dry, alongside the two thick hind legs. Heartbroken in prior years by mysterious cases of ravaging molds, or from a heavy-handed salting, we decided to once again attempt to create the perfect prosciutto-style ham, a year plus in the making.
My feet hurt and my arms ached. The floor was greasy and flecked with pieces of meat and bone. I glanced down at my bloodied apron and flashed on the thick-necked butchers I’d seen in New York’s Little Italy, who’d step outside for a smoke and gawk at women on their lunch breaks.
After scouring most of the grime from the kitchen, we wearily sat and enjoyed the fruits of our labors. Bitter greens from the garden were wilted with garlic and fresh pork fat. Finger-sized slices of pork loin were quickly fried in a hot pan and dressed with nothing more than flaky salt. The cork was pulled from a 1990 Barolo, its dusty rose and cranberry acid a perfect foil to the richness of the farm fresh meat.