The guest of honor was also the elephant in the room.
No, it wasn’t an actual pachyderm. It was a magnificent Red Wattle hog.
Well, half of one, anyway; it had been halved from snout to tail, and its left side was laid out, cut side up, awaiting our inspection.
It was a Saturday night hog butchering class at Lowry Hill Meats in Minneapolis. Co-owner Erik Sather and colleague Gabe Carlson were handing out beers, seemingly oblivious to the nearby carnage.
At first, I avoided looking, fearful that the sight might trigger visions of dissections in college biology classes. All I could think was, don’t faint ... don’t faint.
Technically, we were dealing with less than half of an eight-month-old hog. What remained was 180 pounds of muscle, bone and fat (the tongue, the brain and other internal organs — plus the hide and the blood — had been thoughtfully removed at the processing plant), and to be honest, when I ignored the animal’s disembodied head, what remained wasn’t all that different from a more composed version of the chops, ribs and cutlets that were neatly lined up in the shop’s adjacent display cases.
Just as I steeled myself to make a good, long visual assessment, a classmate made a wonderfully clarifying statement.
“Is it wrong of me that everywhere I look, I think ‘bacon’?” she asked.
My thoughts exactly. From that moment on, I was riveted.
Also helpful? Knowing that up until its demise our guest star had, you’ll pardon the expression, lived rather high on the hog.
It had been raised at Pork & Plants in Altura, Minn., and spent its short life doing what comes naturally with swine, namely, grazing, rooting and frolicking in the fresh air and sunshine, feasting upon the grains and grasses a hog should eat.
“That diet, and that activity, affects the taste of the meat,” said Sather. “The more a muscle works, the more blood circulation, which adds flavor in the meat.”
We gathered around the animal, and Sather picked up a hacksaw. I tried not to visibly wince as the blade began to grind against obstinate bones and joints.
“Normally, I would use a band saw,” he said. “But I want to show how you could cut this at home,” he said.
Starting at the jowl and methodically working down to the hefty ham, Sather began the job of separating the carcass into five major sections, which he would eventually further divide into consumer-friendly fabricated cuts.
“There are many ways to break down an animal,” said Sather. “The way we cut meat is based entirely upon how it sells in the case. ”
He likened the process to taking apart a completed puzzle, rather than putting one together.
“That’s why I’m a butcher and not a surgeon,” Sather said with a laugh.
Only his left hand touched the animal, keeping his right hand steady — and grease-free — for holding that saw, and, later, a knife. Sather uses Japanese knives for cooking, but prefers German knives for cutting meat. The former, made of carbon steel, are more brittle; the latter, fashioned from steel, are thicker, harder, more durable. He held up his hands.
“I get cut more often from bones than I do with my knife,” he said.
Nothing goes to waste
The shop routinely receives two hogs each Thursday, and then it’s all hands on deck.
“The moment they arrive, we start breaking them down,” said Carlson. “Within two hours, we’re down to grinding for sausages.”
Red Wattles are noteworthy for their impressive fat cap, which runs about 2 to 3 inches thick under the hide. Sather routes that plentiful resource into many fruitful uses.
The unctuous fatback lard becomes a sausage component. The leaf lard — that’s the firm, knobbly fat that surrounds and protects organs — is rendered and becomes a prized baking staple.
“Gabe uses it to bake our brioche buns on Wednesdays,” said Sather.
Lamb is Sather’s favorite meat to butcher. “The fats feel so different,” he said. “Pork fat gets all over your hands, and your knives. When you’re butchering lamb, or goat, your hands almost feel clean.”
The shop’s work table is a plastic-free zone. Instead, its custom-cut surface (it landed somewhere in the $300 range) is made of a composite of tree materials. It was manufactured by Duluth-based Epicurean, which also produces cutting boards for home cooks.
Three bins were stowed under the table. Bones — for making stock — were tossed into one. A second was the collection point for scraps, which would be placed into sausage. The third (and smallest, by far) was where any waste was routed, including the namesake wattle. It’s a kind of external appendix, which serves no function and is located on the animal’s neck.
“Pretty much all pork is usable,” Sather said. “It’s fun to use everything. And it’s fun to be creative.”
And with that he began to nudge the skin off the hog’s back leg, skillfully paring and pulling until he had created a kind-of sausage casing.
A cooking class, too
One of my fellow classmates was a hunter, another was a smoked-meats hobbyist. Several had taken Sather’s sausage-making class and wanted to continue their education. Some enthusiastically pitched in with knives and saw, while others (like me) were content to observe.
The class’ $169 cost covered three hours of illuminating conversation and demonstration, and participants went home with knowledge and roughly 8 pounds of freshly butchered pork. (Register, and learn more, at lowryhillmeats.com.)
Turns out we were also attending an informal cooking class, with Sather and Carlson doling out one helpful tip after another.
Holding up one of the magnificent bone-in chops, Sather offered a quick tutorial, and it went something like this: Place a skillet (preferably cast iron) on medium-low heat. Season the chop with salt and cook, slowly, until the surfaces are caramelized, the chop’s considerable fat melts and the meat reaches an internal temperature of 135 degrees. (How long on each side? “As long as it takes to drink a beer,” said Sather with a laugh.) That’s it.
“When you put enough effort into sourcing good pork, you don’t need to do any more to it than that,” he said.
Sather’s ode to country-style ribs was particularly memorable (“my new favorite thing in the whole world,” he said), and he talked up a recipe from star chef David Chang.
Sather grew up on a small hog farm south of New Ulm, Minn. When he was in his early teens, his family moved to Lakeville. He’s been butchering, off and on, for 15 years. Shortly after he and his wife, Tiffany, opened Lowry Hill Meats in November 2015, they started offering monthly courses. The reason was simple.
“We want to connect people to the products we sell,” he said. “That connection has been lost to convenience. The more you know about food, the more enjoyable dinner is.”