From pig to plate: Learning the fine art of meat-cutting

07/15/2013 9:46 AM

07/17/2013 1:44 PM

Picture a quiet Tuesday afternoon in uptown Charlotte. Traffic swishes by on North Tryon Street. A police siren whoops.

In a second-floor room at the Dunhill Hotel, four men in white aprons and disposable gloves gather at a steel table with knives and a saw.

A carcass is stretched out on the table. The organs are gone, and the white ridges of ribs are exposed in the midsection. The men are ready to cut up the carcass.

Then they will eat the evidence.

“Every single piece of this is going to become something delicious,” says Harvest Moon Grille charcuterie chef John Stapleton.

The subject on the table is a pig, raised at Grateful Growers Farm to become food at its partner restaurant, the hotel’s Harvest Moon Grille. The men with Stapleton are students who each paid $695 for a three-day farm-to-kitchen experience with pork.

It’s a small group, but it’s part of something large enough to be a movement – the impulse to get very close and personal with your food.

People can’t get enough

Kari Underly, a third-generation Chicago butcher, came to Chapel Hill in May to lead a two-day workshop on meat-cutting for women. It sold out, with 25 students from as far as Canada.

There’s so much demand, Underly is working on opening a school for butchery.

“Consumers want to know, meatitarians want to know, eaters want to know,” she says.

In Durham, Rose’s Meat Market and Sweet Shop has only been open a few weeks, but butcher Justin Meddis is already so busy, he can’t come to the phone.

“He’s opening a cow right now,” says his wife, baker Katie Meddis. But she’s a witness to the demand for meat-cutting classes. They’re so popular, the Meddises offered them as rewards for their Kickstarter campaign.

For a $75 pledge, you got a chicken class; for $250, you got charcuterie. They sold 29 at those levels. Once they fulfill those, they’ll start classes for the public, including whole-animal butchering.

All kinds of people want classes, Meddis says.

“It ranges from farmers who want to get a better understanding so they can tell their processors what they want, to people at home who want a more cost-effective option so they can buy sides of beef and cut them up.

“And a lot of people just care about what they put in their bodies. They really just want to be in touch with what they’re eating and feel good about it.”

Frank Headen, 71, is a Charlotte retiree who took the Harvest Moon class with his brother Pat, 68.

“There are divers and there are dabblers,” says Frank Headen, who owned a fire and water restoration service. “I’m a diver. If I’m interested, I get into it.”

‘It’s for food’

Harvest Moon Grille has held shorter, one-day classes on meat-cutting and the art of making things like sausage. This time, though, the aim was less about cooking and more about the life of the animal.

The class started on a Sunday at Grateful Growers in Denver, where farmer Natalie Veres showed them what it takes to raise pigs.

The students, including the Headen brothers, tax accountant Joseph Wallace and chef Phil McGrath, helped Veres and her partner, Harvest Moon chef Cassie Parsons, feed pigs and wrangle them onto a trailer for the trip to Mays Meats in Taylorsville.

On Monday at the meat processing plant, the class got a lecture from the USDA inspector and the plant workers, but weren’t allowed to see the actual death of the pigs. Access to the killing floor is restricted.

On Sunday at the farm, though, one of their lessons included killing and skinning a rabbit, one of several kinds of animals raised on the farm.

McGrath admits that he struggled with it. When he was a kid, he once shot a dove.

“My dad made me eat it,” he says. “I had to pluck every feather.”

Stretching the rabbit’s neck and watching the life leave it saddened him, he says.

“Then I realized, it’s for food and that’s what it’s meant to be, and I was OK.”

On Tuesday at the restaurant, they got an intensive workshop on chef knives with Charlotte iron forger Steve Watkins and a lecture on the superiority of naturally raised meat by Carolyn Erickson of the website Nourishing Charlotte.

By lunch, Pat Headen was antsy. He lives on 57 acres near Great Falls, S.C., that was passed down in their family. He hunts deer and wild pigs and already knows a lot of meat-handling.

He took the class to be with his brother, and he’s ready to get on with it.

“Let’s get to the whacky-do,” he jokes, grabbing a chair in front of the table where Stapleton will demonstrate.

‘Worth your time’

Since there is limited space on the steel work table, charcuterie chef John Stapleton used the carcass of a fairly small pig. At around 250 pounds live weight, it is only about 100 pounds dressed.

He works with half at a time, demonstrating on the first half and then letting the class do the second half.

The carcass has no head, because the USDA requires that the skull stay at the processing plant. The skin is pale and creamy, with flecks of pink like brush strokes. The marks were caused by the rollers that scrubbed off its bristles, like a car wash.

Three smudged blue USDA stamps mark the shoulder, mid-section and rump.

Stapleton starts by lifting and trimming away a flap at the neck – the jowl, left when the head was removed. Then he trims away the tenderloin, a tube of meat that runs along the top of the spine.

Farmers who raise local meat joke about customers who only want tenderloin: There are only two on a pig.

“Use the shoulder, use the hams,” Stapleton says. “They take longer to cook, but they’re worth your time.”

Co-workers tease Stapleton about how much he loves pigs. He often hums and pats the carcass while he works.

After starting at a steakhouse in Atlanta, he was so drawn to this art, he would stay after hours to learn.

“The best way to do it is to do it and screw it up,” he says. “You can’t take a picture or use a book and understand it. I have hundreds of books and until I started doing it, I still didn’t understand.”

Cutting away the shoulder, he shows the Boston butt and picnic ham. He cuts with long, smooth strokes, using the tip of his knife to explore.

“Any time you remove meat from the bone, you want your knife on the bone,” he says.

After removing the ham – the rear leg – he turns to the center. He trims away a section of ribs like a pan flute and removes the loin underneath.

The loin, a long rope of lean meat, can be sliced into center-cut, boneless chops. On top of the loin, ribs curl over in a sharp curve. Those are the baby backs. When you saw them away, the bones underneath are left over – spare ribs.

“The words describe what it is,” he says.

When the ribs are gone, what’s left is a sheet of meat and fat – the prized pork belly, ready to be cured and smoked for bacon.

After everything has been separated, the class troops downstairs to the basement kitchen for a final lesson in sausage. After deboning pork shoulder and grinding it with white chunks of pork fat, Stapleton fries up a few sausage patties flavored with a heady mix of ginger and maple syrup.

The students gather around, snatching up hot chunks of pork and wiping the grease from their fingers.

For their three-day investment, they’ll each go home with a 30-pound bag of fresh and cured meats, a T-shirt that says “Farmer – Butcher – Sausage Maker,” and a clear lesson:

Waste nothing. If you raise and kill animals for meat, you shouldn’t waste an ounce of their sacrifice.

“You learn something,” says Frank Headen, “everything you do.”

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