I’m on Vashon Island, a twenty-minute ferry ride from West Seattle, for a pig slaughter class. I called it a butchery class for most people who asked what I was doing this rainy Saturday, feeling a little shy about spending the day watching men kill pigs. But I’m here, on Vashon, this beautiful little place populated by old hippies and ambitious young farm folk like Brandon and Lauren Sheard, who run Farmstead Meatsmith, a hybrid farm-school-personal butcher, with the help of Andrew Plotsky. I found the place because of Andrew, because NPR’s food blog did a story on him, a vegan turned pork butcher. I find the farm, not even half a block down a dirt—mud—road from a little circle of new-ish houses. I park and meet Andrew, and we walk over to the rest of the group gathered under a massive pine tree rigged with chains, sheltering a metal drum of water. There are five of us; me and one other girl—a farmer just about to relocate to a farm with pigs—and three men, one hoping for home charcuterie, testing his stomach today, and two others who just want to learn how to turn pig into pork. Brandon and Andrew welcome us and we get right at it.
At the pig’s little corral, we learn a little about the pigs—Tamworths—one of the only remaining pure heritage breeds. They look more like boars than pink county fair pigs; they’ve got prickly fur and a little hint of that ridgeback at the top of their necks. “They’re foragers,” Brandon tells us, pointing to the totally bare muddy mess of a plot where they used to call home. He steps over the foot high electric fence powered by a motor boat battery hidden under an overturned plastic box and the three fuzzy pigs flock to him like overgrown puppies; Gary, Sary, Milly, and Dilly, all the size of fat dogs, with bristly golden hair the color of old pennies. They’re more interested in the food he carries in a five gallon bucket than they are in him—a salmon skin flops out of the bucket and the pigs dash for it. Brandon has a matte black Magnum 22 with him—I don’t know a thing about guns but it looks serious, and totally out of place here in the muddy field, in the hands of a bearded guy wearing a wool vest over a long-sleeved flannel. Brandon kneels down in front of the giant slop bowl one pig’s face is buried in and steadies himself on one knee, the gun hiked up to his shoulder. He uses hollow bullets so they explode into the brain the instant the make contact. He looks right at the pig, gets still, and then gets up. “Once you realize you can take your time, it’s the most relaxed process in the world,” he says to us. “It’s more painful for you.” This is true—my whole self is cringing, has been since we walked over to the pigs area with a gun as part of the group. Brandon explains that pigs have thick skulls–miss the right spot and the bullet will just drive into an inch and a half of bone and the pig’ll keep on eating. The sweet spot is right where you’d imagine it to be, just above the middle of the eyes. Just as easily as he bailed the first time, Brandon kneels down again and shoots Dilly, the littlest pig. She doesn’t squeal—but the others do, as Andrew instantly swoops down with knife and shoves it right into the carotid artery, pushing till the tip just touches the spine.
The pig thrashes under his weight like a big mammalian fish, Andrew’s hand massaging the blood out of her neck. The other pigs keep eating, looking over at their dying pen-mate with only mild interest. For maybe three very long minutes Dilly’s legs shake and blood streams continually out of her neck. She finally settles, head in a pool of her own pretty red blood, her ears soaked in it and her tongue hanging out, dipping into it. “Good job,” Brandon says, to Andrew or the pig, I’m not sure. “The pig at the bottom of the hierarchy is always the most personable,” he says. “She’d always come up and lean against your leg,” adds Andrew, a strange farm eulogy. They respect these pigs, view them as creatures to be cared for, but ultimately, pigs are food. Their animalness gets stripped away layer by layer, first with the bullet exploded into the brain, making it a carcass, then the knife to the neck, draining it of its blood and its fullness.
Andrew takes the same bloodletting knife and makes two slits on either side of the tendons at the backs of the ankles, revealing thick ropes that will hold up this pig’s entire weight. The strange metal bar with a dip on each end and a loop in the middle that he’d carried over gets slipped behind the tendons, the pig’s feet resting in the grooves. The two men grab hold of the bar and start dragging the 200-pound body back to the tree where the work will really begin.
The six of us trail behind quietly, gawking at her bloody head, her comically piggy nostrils leaking strands of gummy blood. I remember Wilbur, fainting at the very mention of bacon. We come back to the tree where we met and they start adjusting the chains rigged around the sturdiest branch, getting ready for the next step. Brandon explains that while cows and other ruminants have hides, pigs just have skin, like us. This means that skinning them—which is the way they’re processed on most industrial farms—means losing edibles. The skin can become cracklins’ or chicharrones, depending what continent you’re on, and the fat just under the skin is precious flavor. So instead of skinning the pigs, they “scald and scrape”—scald the pig then scrape off the fur.
Andrew lights the little propane burner under the giant 55-gallon drum filled with water—a farm-ified lab setup, thermometers tucked into the two men’s vest pockets. While the water warms, Andrew and Brandon hook a sturdy chain into the loop on the metal bar still held by the pig’s tendons. They hoist her up, Andrew pulling on the other end of the chain, Brandon holding her front feet as she swings up into the air. We’re waiting for the water to reach 145 degrees—the perfect temperature to scald the pig for five minutes, just long enough and just hot enough to loosen the top layer of pigmented skin and the bristly hairs. A shoddy scald means impossibly sealed-on hair and a bad tasting outer layer of skin left on the pig. So there’s definitely a sense of urgency as they dip her in, doing “the pig waltz” with her hind feel that stick out of the top of the barrel. Brandon’s watch calls time and they start reeling her out, scraping every inch that emerges from the water with an aptly named “hogscraper,” a shallow metal bowl with sharpened edges, a wood handle emerging from the middle of the convex side, like a flattened bell. The thick bristles come off in reddish clumps along with thin sheets of skin. Brandon takes her feet, yanking off her toenails with another well-named tool: a “nail puller,” then scrapes between her toes and around the bumpy backs of her ankles while Andrew tackles the head. There are a few pig processing places that employ this method, but it’s done mechanically, the pigs’ bodies dunked in massive tanks then tumbled around in giant nubbly cylinders to burnish all the fur off.
After they’ve scraped this end clean, the let her down, hook into the tendon of one of the front feet, nd do the whole process over again on the other end. When they’re done the pig is mostly bare and the men’s forearms are speckled with blood, their chests matted with pig fur. They get out their knives and start shaving the tricky spots. Brandon buys almost all antique knives, prowling eBay for sturdy cleavers and beaver skinning knives that have been used for half a century or more. “New ones are more expensive, and they don’t work as well,” Brandon says. There’s clearly a dogma of nostalgia at Farmstead Meatsmith—when one onlooker, a mostly silent maybe-Russian, asks if its possible to kill a pig without a gun Andrew cites a book published in 1833. They wear wool vests and flannels—and they’re killing pigs by hand. These are not modern men, in the city-dwelling, suit wearing-sense at least. But I’m thinking that maybe they are a super accurate reflection of something we’re collectively pining for in this moment. The world keeps on getting more complicated—and the old school keeps on getting hipper. DIY is cool, riding single speeds is cool. Farmers markets and patio gardens are cools. We love “artisans.” Southern food, the staples of a place that has long been the least progressive part of the nation, is cool. Menus are stuffed with fancy comfort food—mac and cheese, burgers—and restaurants are full of exposed beams and mismatched silverware and mason jar glasses. This, raising and killing and eating pigs, is cool. Andrew has a blog, Farmrun, that often showcases Farmstead, that’s designer-y and cool, with lots of white space and well-chosen pig photos. But I’m having a hard time imagining him hunched over a MacBook now, as he shaves bristles from bloody pig cheeks.
Soon enough, the pig is bare, spare a few stubborn bristles. Next up is the head. The line where the cut will be made was started with Andrew’s stab this morning—Brandon takes that mark and follows it around the neck, cutting through all the different tissues in the head. The head comes off without much of a fight, and Andrew grabs it by the ear and sprays the bloody side down with a hose. The anatomical-cut-away side gets hidden, the head plopped onto a cafeteria lunch tray, and the barber shop routine continues, Andrew puling the flesh taught to finish the shave.