Matt Miles is a writer, poet, maker, permaculturist, and ambivalent web developer. His writings have appeared both in print and on the weekly blog of The Dark Mountain Project. Among other topics, Matt is interested in the breakdown of complex societies and their relationships with technology. He currently lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina with Tasha Greer. Together they run the reLuxe Ranch, a small whole systems farmstead on which they attempt to live sustainably while experimenting with appropriate technologies and raising pigs, ducks, chickens and dairy goats. They occasionally blog about their experiences at www.the-way-back.com. Matt enjoys rock climbing, running, fermenting, growing food, building things, and spending time in the natural world, either directly or vicariously through the written word.
This is the second of a three-part series on pig slaughtering and butchering. Photos from the author.
From where we left off at the end of the first post, our pig was hanging away from the scalding vat on the second engine hoist, where it had been weighed on a hanging spring scale. Its head should now be facing down and almost touching the ground. We typically put an old shipping pallet between the ground and the hanging carcass to keep it off of what has usually become at this point a muddy patch, due to water dripping from the vat and the carcass as well as heavy foot traffic.
We remove the head from the body before beginning the evisceration. To do this, we cut around the perimeter of the neck where it meets the shoulder with a long, sharp knife. This usually takes a few tries before all of the flesh is severed. Next, take the head in both hands, holding around the ears, and snap the head briskly. This should crack the neck and separate the head from the carcass. It may take a few tries and a little clean-up work with the knife to completely sever the head. We set it aside after separating it from the carcass and put it in a cooler on ice. Later we will harvest the jowl bacon and cook down the head to make head cheese.
At this point, the pig can be lowered to a comfortable working height where we can begin the process of evisceration by cutting a wide swath of flesh just beneath the pig’s tail and encircling the anus by a comfortable working margin. The goal here is to cut away the end of the intestinal tract from the surrounding flesh so that it may be tied off and then removed in one piece when the abdominal cavity has been cut open. It is very important to avoid severing the intestines while making this cut.
Consequences of nicking or cutting the intestine range from a stinky and unpleasant job of continuing the disembowelment to the potentially serious fecal contamination of the meat. If the intestine is cut, the carcass can be thoroughly hosed out after splitting (a good practice, and one that we follow, in any case). When the rectum has been cut away from the surrounding flesh on all sides, it is important to securely tie it closed with a piece of twine. With this done, it’s time to begin cutting through the abdominal cavity.
Lightly score the skin on the underside of the carcass starting from the point where the intestine has been cut out and tied off downward through the centerline of the abdomen and through to the sternum (breastbone). Using the score mark as a guide, cut through the flesh between the anus and the pelvic girdle. The pelvic girdle is the first bony mass you will encounter working towards the head; it should be carefully split with a hatchet, meat cleaver or bone saw. We prefer to use the bone saw, working the saw as close to the lines of the knife cut as possible (not pushing the saw into the abdominal cavity, if possible).
If the hog is a male, the urethra will appear beneath the skin soon after cutting through the pelvic girdle. Tie this off with a piece of twine or string as you did with the end of the intestinal tract and cut off the penis.
With the pelvic girdle split, we cut through the center of the belly with a knife. To do this without risking a cut to the intestines or organs, some technique is required: hold a knife blade with the tip facing down (in the direction of travel towards the pig’s neck with the blade just inside the skin of the abdominal cavity. With the other hand inside the abdominal cavity between the knife and the internal organs, cup or shield the tip and blade of the knife so that neither will accidentally cut into anything besides the layer of skin, the only thing between you and the knife blade at this point. The action of pushing the knife down the carcass while angled slightly outward facing toward you is a little like unzipping a jacket where the knife is the zipper. If you have a knife with a guthook and are familiar with its use in field dressing an animal in a hunting context, this is the same idea, and a guthook could be used here.
When the abdominal cavity has been cut open down to the breastbone, split the breastbone with a hatchet, cleaver, or bone saw. We prefer the bone saw, though it can be a challenge to make this cut with the saw with the pig in a hanging position.
At any point in this process, the pig’s innards may begin to spill out. We typically place a large plastic tub or “gut bucket” on the pallet near the carcass. This serves as a receptacle in which to place the intestines and organs as the abdominal cavity is opened up. To remove them completely, reach into the carcass and tear away the connective tissue that holds the intestines and organs to the inside of the pelvis, ribs, and chest, beginning with the tied-off end of the intestines and working downward to the stomach, liver, gall bladder, spleen, and kidneys. Avoid puncturing the liver and gall bladder when removing them. Next, remove the heart, lungs and esophagus. When you finished removing viscera, the abdominal cavity of the pig will appear smooth and relatively clean.
The organs of the pig can and should be saved for later use. They can be washed off and iced down to be processed after the pig is split. The liver can be eaten cooked, in pate or ground into an emulsion to make liverwurst. The kidneys can be served fried in butter and seasoned with salt and pepper (as memorably eaten for breakfast by Leopold Bloom in Joyce’s Ullyses) or baked along with beef steak in the traditional British dish of steak and kidney pie. Intestines can be cleaned out and later used for sausage casings. Some also enjoy eating the heart, though the heart and lungs, when we have saved them in the past, have usually ended up as dog food.
Almost every part of the pig, including the blood, can be eaten cooked or prepared as sausage filling. Admittedly, during most pig slaughters, we are usually too time-crunched and lacking in cold storage space to make use of every organ, though we do aspire to use as much of the pig as possible. In practice, though, the intestines and some of the organs tend to end up buried underground due to limited fridge and freezer space and the general rush to process three (or more) pigs in an always too narrow window of time.
Before splitting the carcass, we prefer to remove the tenderloins or “fish,” as they are otherwise known. These two cylindrical, tapering cuts of pork are prized by many above all others, but they can be easily damaged by a bone saw during the process of sawing the carcass in half. They are located within the abdominal cavity towards the middle-back of the pig. These can be removed with a knife or torn away from the carcass. We usually divide these up amongst our team of volunteers as a thank-you gift for their help with the slaughter.
Splitting the carcass from bottom to top through the spine is one of the most labor-intensive parts of the slaughter and entails the use of a manual bone saw or an electric power saw of some variety. In past years, we have attempted to use an electric reciprocating saw (or sawzall) to split the carcass, though this proved difficult to control and somewhat damaging to the meat cuts. In general, I prefer the upper-body workout of using a manually operated bone saw, though an electric jigsaw did come into play cutting through one particularly stubborn section of bone during this year’s slaughter.
To split the carcass, we first score the hide on the back of the hog. This creates a visual reference point for helpers to follow the track of the saw and thus warn the cutter if the saw is straying from the center. We begin by sawing through the middle of the spine where it terminates near the tail. The carcass, since it is hanging, will tend to pull and bind the blade of the saw in one direction or the other, and the cut we made through which we eviscerated (and through which the saw must travel) will close up, if not forcefully held open. For this reason, I like to have a helper on each side holding open the walls of the abdominal cavity, either with boning hooks or bare hands. This gives me room to work and adequate light to judge whether or not the saw is on the right track through the center of the spine.
The intensity of labor involved in cutting through the spine and back varies, as it is thicker and bonier in certain spots, though it generally takes at least a few minutes and a few pauses to realign the saw blade as it veers off center. The precision with which the pig is split is a point of pride for me, though really it is a relatively minor detail that slightly impacts the overall quality of bone-in pork chops and ribs if done poorly; ultimately, however, these are not particularly important cuts for us. While we do like our barbecued ribs, it is country ham, bacon, and sausage that hold the main attraction for us.
With the length of the backbone sawn in half from top to bottom, both sides of pork will separate. As the carcass comes apart, each helper should keep hold of their side, as these will tend to rock back and forth, hanging as they are from the rear leg on a see-sawing gambrel. Depending on the weight of the pig at slaughter, each side may still be quite heavy, well over 100 lb, usually. It’s definitely a good idea to have at least two people on hand to handle or move each side of pork. Halving or splitting the pork carcass is typically the culmination of the day’s process for each particular pig until the meat has had time to cool overnight from body temperature to ambient temperature.
Warm meat is much harder to cut and work with than cold or almost frozen meat. Furthermore, cuts such as bacon and hams won’t absorb curing agents until they have cooled significantly. Before nightfall we hang each side close to our house and securely out of reach of predators. The next morning, after the outside temperature has dropped significantly, the pork will be much easier to work with, when we will break it down into primal cuts and then further into so-called “retail” cuts, the ones most cooks are familiar with, a topic to be covered in the next post in this series.