If you missed part one of my story, catch up here before continuing on below.
Our 3 year old didn't mind that the face of our dead pig was staring back at her and even accepted that it gave up its life for the food that would soon be on her plate.
At first I was taken aback by the site of a pig’s face, snout and all, skittering across the gravel path in front of me. It was a graphic reminder that the animal that was rutting through a wooded ridge just 24 hours ago was destined for my freezer, plate and belly in just a few short hours. I think every meat eater should have to come to grips with that sight, or something similar, instead of blindly buying conveniently packaged meat from a gleaming refrigerator case in the local supermarket.
My repulsion quickly turned into laughter when I realized two small beagle puppies were tussling over my dead swine’s face and in the process of carrying it off to another barn to enjoy their morning snack. Yes, I thought, I am indeed in the right place. Walking around the back of the barn and through a steady stream of wood smoke, I was greeted by a pleasant Amish woman who is farmer Ben’s wife. She looked busy, commanding three separate fires beneath three cast iron pots big enough to bathe in. She also kept a steady pace in and out of the back of the barn, assisting with the butchering inside and shuttling the necessary tools and byproducts back and forth.
A friend of ours was already at a long folding table in the barn, donning a bloody apron and taking careful meat cutting lessons from farmer Ben’s teenage son and daughter. He wanted to get down and dirty, learning the process, and that he did. Ben, standing casually at the head of the table, seemed to be reading the side of pork before him like a braille book. He felt for bones, analyzed the grain of the meat and plotted his next cut as he and his family whittled a whole hog down to a variety of pork cuts. He flashed a warm smile and greeted me with his quiet, Dutchy voice. He had a twinkle in his eyes like he was on stage, displaying his sustainable skills for all of us to see. Ben apologized for not shaking my hand. He was gloved up and bloody after all. I felt compelled to pat him on the back and told him with a laugh that it was understandable. I immediately felt like we were in the company of lifelong friends.
The first hog took about two hours to butcher and wrap. Meanwhile we poked in and out of Ben’s barns, taking the girls to visit the draft horses and dairy cows who were tucked away all warm and toasty from the chilly December rain falling outside. Everly, our three year old daughter, didn’t shy away from the mess that was butchering. She was intrigued by the process and didn’t avoid chasing after those two beagle pups and soon a whole flock of kittens who were taking turns nibbling on that pig’s face.
Once the butcher table was cleaned, Ben’s son lowered our hog from its spot hanging in their buggyport and wheeled it into the back of the butchering barn. They wrestled the hog onto a large scale, took careful measurements and then hefted the 300 pounds of beast onto the table in front of us. I was ready for them to dig in with the butchering but farmer Ben wasn’t. For the next 30 minutes or so he carried on a slow meaningful conversation while he methodically sharpened every knife, using his finger to prick the edge of the blade until it was honed just right.
Finally it was time to dig in. Ben encouraged us to ask questions and reminded us that even though we were paying him, he and his family were there to teach and share their skills with the rest of us. They worked the carcass down to manageable pieces, filling a number of plastic tubs with fat and trimmings, feet, and a variety of other pieces parts that would eventually go into the making of all those “value added” products like stock, lard, sausage and liverwurst. Since I was green on the butchering lingo, Ben discussed each cut with me and ran through the options and uses of each. It was a lot like sitting down to buy a brand new car and choosing each and every bell and whistle you wanted added. By walking us through each cut during the butcher, he dispelled any worries we might have had about not being happy with the outcome of what would soon fill our freezer.
The first round of pork cuts drained while we ate lunch. Clockwise from top left are the Boston butts and picnic roasts, two pork loins, sides of bacon, and pork chops.
About 30 minutes into the butchering, Ben began to get a little twitchy. He finally inquired what time it was. I felt awkward yanking my cell phone out of my pocket to tell the time but knew what was up as soon as I saw it was 11:30am. I rattled off the time, quickly sliding my phone back in to my pocket.
“Ah, almost time for lunch,” Ben quipped. It was then I realized that his wife and daughter had disappeared. With lunch approaching and two toddlers already getting fussy after just two hours, I could tell this process was not going to move quickly. A few minutes later, I could hear a rattling noise grow louder and louder as it approached the barn from their house on the hill. Lydia and Suzie ducked into the back of the barn, pulling behind them a wooden wagon piled high with steaming pots and stack of mismatched dishes and tumblers. With that, Ben and his son Joseph stopped their butchering. Lydia pulled a steaming pot of water and began wiping down a table in the center of the barn to serve as the lunch buffet. The women quickly laid out an unbelievable spread of food: a container with stacks of fresh grilled cheese sandwiches, a steaming hot pot of vegetable soup, a hot pan of liverwurst and several steel tumblers filled with fresh milk.
“Would you please join us for lunch,” Ben asked as he motioned for us to sit around the table with his family. Without hesitation we agreed and Ben asked that we observe a moment of silence before the meal. Sitting there in the barn, in that moment, I experienced a true moment of zen. The sound of the rain falling on the barn was punctuated by the sounds and smells of the animals out in the pastures surrounding us. Add in the warmth of the Amish family hosting us and for that moment of quiet reflective silence, I felt bathed in the joy of life and the everlasting circle that keeps our world going.
We took turns filling bowls and plates. Ben and his son jumped in first then Lydia motioned for the guests to fill theirs before she and her daughter got a plate. I was hesitatingly excited to try the liverwurst and scooped a large dollop onto the side of my steaming bowl of vegetable soup.
“Oh no, you can’t put your liverwurst in your soup,” Ben snorted. “I like to put my liverwurst on top of my grilled cheese. That’s really good!”
“Now Ben,” Lydia retorted without a second to spare, “let him put his liverwurst wherever he wants it. You know as well as I that it is just as good in your soup as it is on your grilled cheese.”
Like a couple of dueling New York foodies, I was caught in an Amish crossfire of where it was most appropriate to enjoy your liverwurst. This was a true “back to the farm” experience! Ben finally relinquished the argument to his wife and she motioned for me to go ahead and try it mixed in with my soup. I distinctly remembered when I was a kid, the liverwurst my dad used to squeeze out of plastic tubes so our ailing cocker spaniel would take his daily meds. It wasn’t appetizing at all but this was so different. This liverwurst was fresh and flavorful and filled with those nutritious items many would consider castoffs.
Adalyn enjoyed hanging out in one of the Amish buggies parked in Ben's barn where we did the butchering.
After a 30 minute lunch and good conversations about life on the Amish farmstead, there was a renewed energy to finish butchering our hog and send us packing with our coolers full of meat. Pork chops, loins ribs, and roasts were left to drain of blood while we ate lunch. Now that they were fairly dry, I was slapped into action. The buyer has to put in some legwork in the process and that means you wrap your own meat. I think it’s better that way. I got to decide how many pork chops or ribs I wanted in each wrapper and got to work dividing up the portions and wrapping them up. Ben and Joseph worked to cut the hams and bacon while Lydia and Suzie shuttled fat and bones to those giant wood-fired pots outback, rendering our lard and boiling our stock.
Next came grinding and stuffing the sausage. This took all four of them to hook up the gas generator that powered the system of belts and pulleys that powered the sausage grinder. We were again pressed into action stuffing the sausage packages to our desired weights and before we knew it, we had quite the load of fresh pork to transport back to the Half-Acre Homestead. After 30 minutes of knife sharpening, a 30 minute lunch break, and 3 hours of butchering, we were exhausted. I could see that old fashioned farm life is hard work but oh so rewarding.
Lydia and Suzie hustled about cleaning up the butchering space. Ben slide into his dusty desk tucked into a corner of the barn and jotted down various calculations on paper as he wrote up our receipts. Ben packed us up with the tubs of raw butter we also bought and let us see our bacon and hams lowered into their curing tubs before we took off on our two-hour drive back home.
Three weeks later, just like clockwork and exactly when he said he would, we got a phone call from farmer Ben. He excitedly told me our hams and bacon were out of the smoker and ready for pickup. That next weekend we made the two hour trek back to the Amish farm for some of the most coveted pork cuts in our household. Between the four sections of ham, more than 20 pounds in bacon, several jars of pork stock, a half-dozen large tubs of rendered lard and at least 10 pounds of liverwurst in tubs, it was literally like carting home the whole other half of our hog. The challenge was then reorganizing our freezer so it all fit!
We all learned something new in this process: we could handle the sustainability and self-sufficiency of the process of butchering our own meat. It wasn’t as scary and affronting as we thought it was going to be and we attribute a lot of that to who we had leading us through the process. Farmer Ben and his family welcomed us into their life with open arms and we to welcomed them. The meat we all worked on in our freezer may only last us a year, but the friendship we cultivated over a dead hog on that soggy Saturday in December will last us a lifetime.
Everly walks a barn aisle to check on the draft horses tucked in to their stalls to keep out of the cold December rain.
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