It takes a village to kill a pig.
This happened ages ago, back in September, and Kevin has long since posted a fantastic video about it, but I want to write about a pork butchery workshop that took place out in Sangudo, Alberta. The workshop was put together by Kevin Kossowan, and hosted by Jeff Senger of Sangudo Custom Meats. The day started with the killing and processing of one of Jeff’s own pigs. Since it was Saturday and there were no inspectors present, the kill took place on Jeff’s farm, then the pig was processed at Sangudo Meats. The day continued with a hands-on meat-cutting class, and finally some demonstrations of sausage-making and other charcuterie preparations. I’d like to tell you about how the actual kill happens, and how a pig becomes two sides of pork. I’ve spent a bit of time with the pigs at Tipi Creek, and I’ve cut more than a few sides of pork, but this was a part of the cycle that I knew very little about.
All my culinary references tell me that animals are stunned either by electric shock or a captive bolt. This may be true in larger abattoirs, but in smaller operations the pig is stunned by a rifle shot to the forehead. I knew this before visiting Sangudo because a few times I’ve found the bullet in the side of pork I purchased. Once it was lodged in the atlas joint, where the head meets the neck. Another time there was a trail of bloody, damaged meat running through the head, shoulder, and into the belly. The skin of the belly had stopped the bullet, and it lay in the fatty meat.
Immediately after Jeff shot the pig, it fell and started writhing violently. Two men held it down, one kneeling on the neck, the other where the belly meets the leg, near the groin. A third man wielding a boning knife cut the pig’s throat, just above the heart, severing the major aorta. Blood ran like water from a tap. The kicking subsided after half a minute or so.
The pig was taken into the abattoir, dragged by a hook in its mouth, and hoisted by the same hook into a scalding tub, which was steaming generously, but not boiling. The pig wanted to float, so a stiff rod was used to keep it submerged. Jeff occasionally let the pig bob to the surface so that he could pull at the hair. After about thirty seconds the hair came off easily, at which point a large basket transferred the pig from the scalding tank to the debristler.
The debristler rapidly rolled the pig so that its flesh rubbed against a grate, pulling off hair and the first few layers of skin. As the pig spun, Jeff directed a large blowtorch that singed hairs that could not be reached by the debristler, especially around the head and legs.
The debristler was stopped so that the trotters could be singed to remove hair and loosen the toenails, which were then removed with a special hook. Attached to the hook was a bell-shaped scraper that was used to clean burnt debris from the skin.
An incision was made in each foot, between the bone and the Achilles tendon. The two ends of a special, curved bar were slid into the incisions and the pig was hoisted so that it was hanging by its feet.
Jeff made a circular cut around the anus, then sliced towards the belly, around the genitals. The end of the bowel was tucked into the guts to prevent spillage, though this shouldn’t have been a huge issue, as the pig was starved for a day before being killed.
The organs were removed more or less in one piece, following the digestive tract from the rectum, past the kidneys to the intestines and stomach, pulling out the nearby liver, heart, and lungs, and finally the esophagus and tongue. These organs are inspected by the government employee who is present for the kill and evisceration of every animal that will be sold to the public.
With the organs removed, the carcass was washed with a spray hose, inside and out. The carcass, still suspended by the feet, was cut with a huge saw hanging from the ceiling. The pig was broken into two halves along the spine, but remained connected at the head. The hanging carcass was then slid along a track to the weigh station, then into the drip cooler to chill.
Over the next few hours rigor mortis sets in and the muscles stiffen. It takes a couple days for the muscles to soften again. This is mostly through enzymatic activity. The pig is now familiar to any meat-cutter, and ready to be broken into primals.
This was an experience. Thinking ahead to the day, I was sure that the evisceration would be the most difficult part to handle, but in actuality it was the kill itself. As when watching Kevin’s other videos about abattoirs, I found myself nervous or maybe anxious in the few minutes immediately before the kill, but once the animal had died and was still, the feeling left. After that there was no anxiety or revulsion at all, just a profound interest in what Jeff was doing to transform the animal into meat.
I’m hugely appreciative to have been invited to Sangudo that morning, and very grateful to Jeff and others like him who do this work every day with diligence and respect. It’s not pleasant by any means, but God is it important.