Joshua and Jessica Applestone, owners of Fleisher’s Grass-Fed & Organic Meats in Kingston, disabused me of my nonchalance during “From Pig to Pork: Fleisher’s Meats’ Master Class in Slaughter and Butchery.” The day-long course, held on a Sunday late last month, offered the opportunity to follow a pig from farm to table — beginning with the morning slaughter of an eleven-month-old, 200-plus-pound heritage-breed beast at a Stone Ridge family farm.
The inaugural class — comprised of approximately 15 food professionals, meat lovers and sustainable agriculture enthusiasts — gathered at Fleisher’s on Wall Street at eight in the morning. Established in 2004, the shop has earned national acclaim for locally sourced, primarily grass-fed, antibiotic- and hormone-free, hand-butchered beef, pork, lamb and poultry. Staff members wear black slogan T-shirts such as “Juicy Loins. Tender Rumps.” and “Bacon, The Gateway Meat.” (The Applestones are an ex-vegan and an ex-vegetarian respectively.)
The room buzzed with coffee and nervous anticipation.
Not knowing how she might react to the sight of a slaughter, one classmate projected her children’s divergent fortunes. “They can either expect pork for dinner tonight...or they’ll never see bacon again,” she said.
At 8:30 a.m. we piled into two vans for the winding drive to the farm. It was raining lightly when we arrived and were introduced to Hans Sebald, German master butcher and retired Culinary Institute of America (CIA) instructor. He succinctly informed us of the slaughter process, which involves a gun, a knife, a scalding vat of water and a metal stretcher. We filled out personal-injury waivers, which always heightens tension.
Wearing a yellow rain coat and wielding a .22 rifle, Sebald approached the wooden cart where the pig was padlocked. He encouraged the class to stay calm.
“It might scream,” Sebald said of the pig. “Usually, I am doing it pretty fast.”
Pretty fast was an understatement. He entered the cart and shot the animal through the thinnest part of its skull.
With some help, Sebald slid it out of its cage and onto the wet grass. Brain-dead, the pig was exsanguinated (bled out) through a slice in its carotid artery and jugular vein. Sebald collected the blood in a bowl to make sausage, stirring the thick red liquid with sea salt to prevent coagulation.
Once the outlet slowed to a trickle, the pig was carried to a large tree, strung up by rope, and lowered into a vat of hot water (a scalder) to loosen its hair. It was then removed to a table, where Sebald, bolder classmates and I used metal bell scrapers to denude the pig of its bristles. The remaining hair was shaved. The pig was rinsed and suspended from its hind legs on a rack. Sebald then proceeded to eviscerate and vertically bisect the carcass.
“We have all the same: liver, heart, stomach, intestines,” said Sebald as he removed the organs. He let us touch a slippery gall bladder, spongy lungs. While not everyone indulged in the tactile experience, as far as I know no one needed to excuse themselves.
We returned to Kingston for lunch at Elephant Wine Bar, crafted by pork-positive chef and Fleisher’s friend Rich Reeve. In the afternoon, Joshua Applestone and Thomas Schneller, author, professor and head of the CIA’s meat room, each performed a pig butchery demonstration: Applestone, the Fleisher’s way; Schneller, an intricate exploration of seam butchery, whereupon the butcher follows the natural lines of an animal’s flesh to produce clean cuts. (“It’s not all about hacking and packing,” Schneller said of the graceful process.) The instructional portion ended with a workshop on quick cures for charcuterie and sausage-making. I especially enjoyed learning from Sebald how to twirl meat-stuffed intestines into links.
As we worked, Fleisher’s staff transformed the front of the store into a dining hall for a family-style dinner of suckling pigs, salad, fat asparagus, wine and cheese. For dessert, gelato and individual cakes iced pink and decorated to resemble pigs.
While I doubt I’ll be butchering my own side of pork any time soon, I thought the class was worthwhile for any meat-eater. It would be hard not to take away a deeper sense of respect for the animals that feed us, and the conscientious butchers who make it possible for us to bring home the bacon. Though I did want to say a little incantation for the departed pig (ashes to ashes, dust to dust, pig to pork), the experience didn’t come close to rendering me vegetarian. It just made me want to eat better meat — less, if necessary, for sustainability and budget’s sake — and never to waste one succulent bit.++