For the Love of Bacon

On Saturday I ventured into new territory. I posted it to facebook to gauge response. I know I have quite a few readers who are vegetarian and have been vegetarian myself at different points in my life. One thing about eating locally which I think of often is that we eat way more meat than we used to.

In part this is because I’ve done a lot of reading about the ill effects soy can have on us, and especially on small children. I won’t go into that, I’ll leave you to come to terms with eating soy. I refuse to eat it and I won’t let me kids eat it. We do eat other legumes and have meatless meals several times a week but having a freezer full of local beef, pork and chicken just begs you to cook it.

Before finding local sources for pork we weren’t really eating any pork. But now that we have local sources and I have two young bacon lovers demanding it, we are going whole hog. And when I say that, I really mean it. This is the point where I advise you to stop reading now if you are vegetarian or at all squeamish. I’m deliberately not posting any images.

Last Saturday I traveled up to Ebey Farms in Everett with a van full of friends for the day. Our mission: shop for pork. By shop I mean choose, off and prepare a pig, hoof to freezer.

Since reading Omnivore’s Dilemma I’ve felt I need to take more responsibility for my food. I want to see where the animals lived and know the kind of life they led. And if that means learning it’s name then so be it. I used to think buying shrink wrapped packages of meat was more humane than hunting a wild animal. As if animals raised in confinement somehow were better equipped to end their lives so that we could eat meat. I know now there is nothing humane about buying a package at the store with no sense for how that animal lived it’s life.

Did it “express it’s pigness” while alive? Did it live naturally and enjoyably? Was it mistreated? Drugged? Confined? What kind of demise did it have? A terrifying drop to the kill floor or something quick and painless in it’s natural environment (something akin to dying in your sleep in your own bed)?

I’m not knocking anyone for buying meat in packages. I just personally feel the need to do more at this point in my life. If I could raise every meat animal we eat I would do that too. But I can’t given my physical location. My neighbors would surely object to that one! So I left that to Ebey Farm.

Ebey Farm is a very unassuming piece of land on Ebey Island. It’s a fairly new hobby farm started by a very dedicated new breed of farmer. An ex-techie, Bruce King has opted out and thrown his hat into the local food ring. He’s raising lamb, heritage turkeys, chickens and specialty pork breeds on pasture. His concern for the animals shines through when he talks about them and it’s evident in the way they are treated.

While we were there he and his partner Andrea were busy tending to a sow giving birth and Andrea later carried newborn baby pigs in her coat to keep them warm. I also watched her help a grateful pig scratch that hard to reach spot on it’s back.

These are the kinds of people I want raising my food. Practical, caring, knowledgeable. They get my food dollars and those from as many other bacon eaters as I can steer their direction.

I scheduled Saturday with some trepidation. I slept fitfully the night before. When I was a kid I collected pigs. Not because I liked bacon. Because I thought they were cute. And once you tell someone you like something you end up with a million replications of it in various guises – stuffed animals, decorated sweatshirts, slippers, banks. My room looked like a pig shrine. I even named my silver 1970 VW Bug the Silver Sow.

I didn’t eat pork for about 10 years because it would have been like eating dog. But gradually the lure of bacon won me back. Could I tough enough? I have a soft spot for animals but a weak spot where my stomach is.

We got there and Bruce had chosen two pigs for us and not fed them in 24 hours to make our job easier. While the pigs rooted around two of my friends took their positions. J used a 22 to shoot the pig in the head and stun it while L immediately used a knife to slit the jugular and quickly end the pig’s life. I opted to remain on the sidelines and I can’t tell you how glad I am that I did. Pigs are very large animals, very strong and very fast when they feel the need to be.  Good kickers.

Once the pig was down and the blood done draining Bruce used a length of chain to hook the pig’s ankle up to the tractor and lifted it over the fence so that we could process it. We hosed the pig off as thoroughly as possible and began to skin it from the rear hooves down, being careful to avoid the tale and anus.

Once the skin was down to the neck region J sawed off the head. At that point we sliced very carefully into the belly to expose the organs and intestines. J loosened those while L very carefully cut around the tail and anus, loosening it. I tied off the anus with a sacrificed bit of rain coat and another friend pulled gently on the intestines to pull it through the inside of the pig. At that point the guts, anus and organs spilled out into waiting hands since we had no bucket. The last step was sawing the pig in half before putting the halves in hefty bags which Bruce drove up to Silvana Meats for me.

I could have chosen to put it in coolers and finish the process at home but I felt like I had journeyed far enough for one day and chose to head to the van driver’s house to help him process his whole pig. My pig would be expertly butchered to my specifications for fifty-three cents a pound. I feel like that was a wise investment. In fact, I could have chosen to have someone from the butchers come do what is called a “farm kill” for about $60. Then I wouldn’t have needed to be there at all. I could have simply picked up my bundles of meat from the butcher. I will be doing that next time.

Once we got back to L&J’s we set up assembly lines. L carved up packages of ribs, tenderloin roasts and loin steaks which we wrapped in freezer paper. He set the hams, jowels and bacon into salt brine to begin the curing process and set aside the picnic ham and shoulder for smoking. We pulled as much meat off any bones as possible and filled up 3 bowls of trimmings which would become sausage after cooling overnight. L put the bones on to make broth with them for savory bean soups.

Then he grilled up some loin medallions since none of us had eaten since breakfast and it was now about 5 p.m. The whole ride up I had this fear that I would have a freezer full of pork and lose my desire to eat it after going through the process. It couldn’t have been further from the truth. That pork tasted amazing. And while the whole process was something I likely won’t repeat again for lack of time, it was not the soul wrenching, self loathing, deliverance kind of day I had anticipated.

I’m looking forward to picking up my pig from Silvana Meats later this week so that I can get it home and cure my own ham, Canadian bacon, maple bacon and season and stuff sausages. I’m planning on Teriyaki, Brats, lil’ smokies and Kielbasa if I can bum some other sized casings from Silvana while I’m there. I’ll also be mixing quite a bit of sausage with Italian and breakfast flavors which I won’t stuff since we use those in patties, meatloaf, chili, pasta and on pizzas.

Even with the butcher fees my pig will cost me about $2.43 per pound. For naturally raised, pastured local pork. $2.43 per pound for bacon, ribs, achingly tender smoked pork butt and Christmas ham. And you can bet I’ll think of Bruce, Andrea and Chubby every time I serve my pork.

30 Responses to For the Love of Bacon

  1. Wow! What an experience. I applaud you for going the extra step to insure that your food was raised and killed humanely.
    When we visited our beef and pork farm, I was wondering if it would feel sad to see the animals and then take home a bag full of meat… but it really didn’t make me sad. It made me happy for the animals that they had lived such a good life.
    I’d love to hear about how you’re going to cure the pork. Our farmer doesn’t offer cured bacons or hams so I’d love to learn to do it myself.

  2. Great post. Decades ago I saw this done in a very humane way and didn’t find it upsetting either. Actually, it was very interesting to see how the two men managed to kill, clean and butcher the animal in such a neat way. That pig was going to be roasted whole two days later, for a New Year’s feast.

    Are you getting the organs, as well? I’ve never tried pork liver.

  3. Matt Sullenbrand

    Thank you so very much for your thoughtful post. It is good to see folks making the hard choices that better things beyond them. I did have one thought, and I apologize if I seem preachy.

    I feel like one of the problems with many movements is that people indicate that they do what they do only because they feel it to be right for them, rather than they just feel it to be right. Feeling it to be right means that if others did the same they would be better off. It does not mean that you require others to do it, or expect some overarching body to require it, but it does mean that you do what you do because it is right beyond you, that you have nothing to do about its rightness. So when you make a concession like “I am not knocking anyone for buying meat in packages” you are basically saying that is right for me and that packaged meat is just as right. But I do not think you have chosen to eat how you do because it is all about you. I simply think that you cannot, in essense, apologize for your choices because others dont agree with them. If you feel them to be the best choice, then other choices have to be less right, or heaven forbid, wrong! Don’t apologize for doing what is right, what you know to be right!
    That is my two cents.

  4. When I learned about the dangers of soy, I FREAKED! Did you know that ALL vegetable oils sold in the United States are 100% soybean oil? That’s right–there’s nothing “vegetable” about it–it is purely soybean oil (just look under the “ingredient” section on the bottle). Talk about misleading labels! We switched to Canola and Olive oil immediately after we learned about it!

  5. This is so great!! Thanks for sharing!

    I was hoping to buy a turkey this past Thanksgiving (and slaughter it myself) from Ebey farm, but when I contacted Bruce it sounded like he was having a rough time having enough turkeys. I’m hoping I’ll luck out next year.

    I’m not a total vegetarian–but I haven’t felt like I can ethically eat animals that don’t have the best life possible before they become food for me. Since storage is a problem and so we can’t really buy a whole cow or pig, it’s just too expensive to eat a lot of meat. I’m ok with that trade-off (although I’ve got to get my hands on some pork soon to start learning charcuterie)

    The next step (hence wanting to buy a turkey and slaughter it at Ebey) is that if I feel like if I can’t put my big girl panties on and slaughter the animal, I got no business eating it. I just feel a need to be a part of that final process to see how I deal.

    I’m so glad you were able to go!

  6. Wish I had known you were at Ebey Island farm – I live a mile or so from there, it would have been nice to meet you. Good for you for making a choice in your meat. I grew up on a meat farm similar to Ebey Island Farm and find that the closer you are to your food, the better it is. And I agree, the fresh pork you enjoyed at the end of the day is some of the best you will ever have. We just bought some chicks for meat, a good experience for the whole family to see how much work and love it takes to grow good food. And Silvana meats is a good place to go – we have used them for years.

  7. Becky, I’ll be starting my cures tomorrow night so it should be up soon!
    Auburn, wish I had done this decades ago.
    Matt, I am not at all saying packaged meat is just as right. I’m saying we are all doing the best we can given other constraints in our lives. I think it took Michael Polan so long to catch on to mainstream because people didn’t know and weren’t prepared to know everything. That would require immediate and drastic changes (like I made overnight) that the food system and most folks are ill equipped to make. How do you find new sources for everything in your diet overnight? Or learn to cook with them? You have to pick and choose what progression and items to start with so it’s about concessions we make while we bide our time. I doubt that anyone reading this blog thinks packaged meat is preferable to happy, healthy meat. I would have lost those readers long ago. :p Your post really made me think.
    Muffin Mom, I did NOT know that but since I don’t buy commodity food I hadn’t considered it. Yuck!
    Jo, Thundering hooves is going to partner with PCC. You can find their meat at the Fremont store now and hopefully soon all PCCs, or you can meet the meat truck when it comes to town once a week. That is a great option to buying a share in a whole animal. And I had to continuously hike up my big girl panties Sat.
    Beth, I would have loved to meet you as well but I was up to my elbows in lard (literally) so it probably wouldn’t have been the best of circumstances. :)

  8. I felt the same way when I gave up vegetarianism so I raised a batch of chickens and processed the males myself. We also worried it would be weird to eat them later, but they were delicious. I still make comments to our hens once in a while that one day they will be delicious – it’s some sort of gallows humor to deal with the fact that I eat creatures that were once alive.

    I think facing the consequences of our decisions is a grown up act. I highly recommend Lierre Kieth’s book “The Vegetarian Myth” because it has a lot of philosophical ideas about how we view animals and plants in relation to how like us they are. A tree wants to live just as much as any animal and we’re all part of the carbon, nitrogen, and water cycles we learned about it high school biology.

  9. When I was small we lived on a small farm. The annual chicken killing/processing and the butchering of the steer and pig were something that just happened. I was too young to be much involved, but I did do the chicken catching and carrying to the kill area.

    I applaud you for facing up to and understanding – where your food comes from.

  10. Great post and good for you! If I lived in the area I would love to buy pork from Bruce! We bought a half a pig locally last year and have enjoyed it. I like knowing where the pig was raised and that it is local and grass fed when possible. However, the hams a chalked full of red dye and nitrate goodness. It just ocurred to me for the first time that instead of picking up a pre boxed half pig, to see if I can pick up fresh hams to cure and meat to grind myself etc. That would make me feel a whole lot better. We’d raise our own pigs if my husband would let me. Although I do worry we’d end up with a pet pig. For now turkeys, ducks, chickens and goats will have to suffice.

  11. Good for you and good for your kids. My grandparents always had a pig and a cow. My husbands parents were the same. I wasn’t involved in how they got turned into food but I always knew that was happening. It doesn’t help us as a culture to hide that part of life from 98% percent of us. In my family, wild game is part of our diet. There is elk and venison in my freezer. I didn’t kill them, but I touched their ear and did a litle elk prayer, then immediately started planning how I would cook them. Self reliance is an important value in my family. That may mean fewer trips to Starbucks and the mall than the average person, but we deal with it somehow.

  12. Marcy, that is a good point. I’d love to understand how a vegetarian who eats fish makes a decision about which life forms to eat and which ones not to. Is it higher thought? So fish seem lower? Trust and companionship so dogs are out? I am really curious. That pig looked just as grateful to have her back scratched as my dog does.
    KFG I remember being 3 and going out in the chicken yard with my Grandma. She said “what should we have for supper?” and I said “fried chicken.” She grabbed the nearest hen by the head and swung it in the air in a circle, neck broken. I was aghast. But I never spoke back to her again.

    Emily, I saw Bruce has you on his blog bar. You definitely could cure and smoke it all yourself if you have a smoker. Bacon you can do in the oven even though. Right now I’m doing the sausages and will get to the curing and post next week. Tomorrow I stuff!

    LeAnn, I’d so love to swap you something for your elk and venison! I don’t even think you can buy that anywhere. I’ve never seen it at a butcher’s. Less trips to the mall and Starbucks would do us all good.

  13. can’t wait to see your bacon post (Since I’m wanting to start my bacon project in the next few weeks!) I don’t have a smoker and was just going to use the oven. If you are doing the same, it’ll be nice to see how it turned out for someone!

  14. Jo, Julia just did that and seemed pretty happy about it.: http://whatjuliaate.blogspot.com/2010/01/home-cured-bacon.html

    I will be smoking mine though.

  15. Thanks for this honest post. Hope you enjoy every last part of your animal. Pastured pork is amazing food.

  16. As a 4th generation vegetarian, I was raised eating no soy. Soy was something new I ran into when I was in my mid teens. We ate wheat gluten, fruit, veggies, grain, nuts, seeds, dairy, eggs, but not too often and beans (mostly lentils). I do serve some soy products to my family, but it is very rare. Most tofu products are gross, and that goes for many soy products as well.

    I love pigs, but more on the live variety. Good job with getting all of that work done though. I do appreciate that the animal seemed to have a nice life.

  17. Audrey – I stuffed sausages today and ate fresh brats for dinner. It was so fun to have that big old string of sausage!
    Suzanne that is really interesting. One thing I struggle with is the price of local legumes and dairy. I still find it odd that I can buy local meat so cheaply but the organic legumes at the farmer’s market are $8/# and the next best I can get are “sustainably grown” from Central Bean which I’m not so impressed with for credentials. I really wish I had known you could have a goat in the city before I landscaped the backyard and we built a huge play structure for the kids. Once that’s gone it’s goat central. :)

  18. Pingback: Makin’ Bacon

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  20. As a small-scale farmer that would like to find support for more organic ways of farming, I’d like to challenge you, according to the “rules of your experiment,” on your source of pork. (But if you’re going to cave in, I can very much sympathize with a choice of bacon.) Technically, if pork falls under the “meat rule,” then you’d be left searching for “grass-fed” pork, which is probably impossible and certainly not for sale anywhere. (Grass-fed surely shouldn’t mean being fed mainly other stuff — for which there are no rules — while being kept on grass.) I would probably suggest you go by your poultry rule (“pastured, fed an organic diet”), but that’s where your source comes up short, and that’s where I object on the basis of your rules. Now, as an aside, I appreciate the value of turning the waste products of conventional agriculture into good instead of landfill, but your rules focus instead on the value of local and organic, and those are goals that are very deserving of some focus, goals that define your experiment by your own rules. Dumpster-diving might be one way to avoid supporting conventional agriculture, but at some point the “organic movement” needs to stand on its own feet and actually build some constructive alternatives, which is what I would like to see experiments like yours lead to. My understanding is that the pork you bought is the product of agriculture (by which I mean narrowly the actual management of soils and photosynthesis that produces food, or in this case feed — which the farmer you bought from is outsourcing) that’s in no way especially organic (or local.) How are we ever going to develop real local-organic alternatives, particularly for pork, if some of us don’t hold ourselves to some local-organic rules? I can’t offer you any easy answers at any price, but I think therein lies the catch 22: there’s no void for local-organic farmers to fill until consumers object to the compromises, and until that happens, I don’t think we’ll see any real answers at all. I think experiments like yours should at least shine a spotlight on the void, raise awareness of the weaknesses of the local-organic system, and hopefully inspire some people to address those weaknesses with real-world clarity and develop some deep alternatives.

  21. Annette Cottrell

    Hi Eric,
    You are correct – the pigs I got from Bruce are not organic but they do at least live lives with family members, are treated with care and get a varied and not just steady organic soy diet. Pastured Sensations also has pork locally that is fed a not completely organic diet but the pigs are on grass and living in wonderful conditions. Pigs don’t naturally eat grass though – they eat tree roots, nuts, insects and whatever else they can find.

    What I’m doing instead is trying to eat less pork. Until I looked into it though I had no idea how difficult it was to sustain a pig – it’s just another case where our food perceptions have been altered by industrial raising methods. We’ve come to expect cheap chicken and pork and in reality healthy pork and healthy chicken is just not cheap. Once we all begin to pay non-subsidized food costs it will soon become apparent what is truly easy to grow/raise, plentiful locally and therefore inexpensive to eat. Thanks so much for commenting!

    • Hi Annette, I think you make a good point that once we begin to pay non-subsidized food costs (which nowadays would inevitably also mean outside-the-mainstream and therefore also probably much smaller scale production systems) it will soon become apparent that a lot of foods that we currently think of as everyday food are no such thing. A lot of local-organic progress will depend not just on farmers changing how they farm but on consumers changing what they eat (and in what proportions.)

      With regard to “animal welfare,” I really don’t think “animal welfare” should be an excuse for tolerating abuses of local-organic principles; I think we should focus foremost on those local-organic principles, and I think “animal welfare” will be the natural side effect if we do so thoroughly.

      • Eric where are you and what are you farming? I completely agree with you and we are always interested in meeting new farmers whose beliefs line up with ours. I think my readers in your area would like to know you better.

        • Hi Annette,
          I’m in central-western North Carolina. My wife and I sell mostly garden crops. I started out as just a beekeeper, and in good years we still sell a fair amount of honey, at least relative to everything else we do. We also sell some eggs, some cornmeal/grits, occasionally a beef steer… Other things we just do for ourselves, either because selling those things the way we want to produce them doesn’t seem commercially feasible (at any scale), or because we’re just not far enough along yet.

  22. I currently buy my grass fed beef from a friend who raises them less than two miles from me so I get real local and grass fed. I end up paying less per pound for beef than “store bought” when I buy a quarter. Poultry and pork are a different story they would typically cost nearly twice the store price. I have a Homeowners Association where I live and chickens or any outside animals are prohibited. Unfortunately, moving is not possible for us with the housing collapse. However, the more people begin growing their own meat there would be less demand and theoretically prices would decrease. I have had the idea of farming a small patch of someones’ land in exchange for product. Maybe raise chickens and rabbits. As far as violating your own rules,Annette, I think it would be impossible to even know what you would be able to adhere to when you started this whole thing. I guess I see your rules more as guidelines and goals than authoritarian edicts. I mean after all you made them right? :) I guess I am new at all this sustainability stuff and consider this whole business to be breaking the rules :) I guess I’m becoming a rebel by enlarging my gardens and trying to shop locally. Thanks for all the info in your blog it has become one of my favorites!

    • Larry so many people are in your boat with the housing market. I wonder if there was enough pressure on these restrictive homeowners associations that they might relax a little bit. I know people who aren’t even allowed to have a garden but lawn and ornamentals are just fine. Leasing or co-raising is a great idea. Where are you located again – were you up by Monroe with these restrictive covenants?

      When I started I looked at this like a personal challenge for one year. I didn’t realize it would become so ingrained so quickly. I think it’s great to take small steps and start with what is the easiest for you. You don’t have to buy a grain grinder, you could just buy some flour and bake one thing that you used to buy from scratch. And the longer you do it the easier it becomes. Keep being a rebel! We need more of that. :)

  23. Annette,
    Do you go by Ann or Annette? I live in the Monroe city limits. The city actually allows chickens it is my HOA that prohibits them. We seriously considered walking away from our house but I think if we stick it out until our 3 year plan is finished( we will be debt free except for the house in 3 years max) we will be able to either rent this place out or sell. Then we will be free to look for some acreage.
    I keep 3 years in mind because it helps me plan. My wife bought me two beautiful blueberry bushes for my birthday last year. I put them in very large pots so i can take them with me. I am also looking for some very large black nursery pots for my next purchase….some columnar apples.

    • Annette Cottrell

      Usually Annette but either one is better than crazy. I would stick it out and find an egg farmer nearby! You can plant things in the ground and later dig them up so long as there aren’t other things too close to them. I’ve gone back and gotten quite a few things from the old house. :)

      Apple trees do grow fast but you can buy them bareroot this time of year for $20 and get some apples the first year. In fact, I had one columnar apple tree that gave me 15#s of apples the first year! It’s really blueberries that take forever, and currants and quince and figs. I have a hard time growing things in pots but you can put many figs in pots, like Violetta de Bordeaux. Then there are things like raspberries that multiply so quickly you could buy 3 now and take 6 with you when you move in 3 years and there will still be 9 left there. Good luck figuring it all out!

  24. Do you have a suggestion for the where to get the apple trees? You are the second person I talked to who got a good crop their first year with the columnar apples. Now I am even more excited to get one.My blueberries are about 3-4 years old already. I got a decent harvest this year but should do even better next year.

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