This is a story about a pig that changed my life.
I never knew him as a piglet, never watched him trot through a grassy field or rubbed his belly. He didn't have a name. But he was special.
In a nutshell, our relationship was this: I ate him.
From farm to fork (and freezer)
On a chilly spring day after work, two girlfriends and I loaded up our truck with gear and headed to the Mat-Su. Coolers, cutting boards and a bucket full of knives -- we were ready for anything and everything.
We munched on sliced watermelon and slightly soggy PB&J sandwiches on the drive north, belting out tunes and brainstorming Bolognese recipes.
Our destination? Jillian's garage. She had generously offered to teach us three how to butcher a 200-pound pig.
Our inspiration was another co-worker of mine, who had convinced me with her watercooler descriptions of Alaska pork vindaloo and pulled pork sandwiches. She spearheaded meat logistics for us four months in advance with her farm of choice, the Van Wyhe Family Farm in Copper Center, about 200 miles from Anchorage.
To buy the whole hog, we paid a little less than $3 a pound. For an extra $75, our pig was delivered to the state-run and prison inmate-staffed Mt. McKinley Meat and Sausage in Palmer to be killed, cleaned and cut in half. The organs were taken out (saving the liver and heart for sausage). The head (the head!) was removed and set aside for us in a plastic bag.
The facility is the only slaughterhouse in Southcentral approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to process meat bound for restaurant or retail customers' tables. Our pig's brothers and sisters were feeding diners at local eateries like Spenard Roadhouse and Crush Bistro, filling grocery baskets at New Sagaya in Anchorage, Mat Valley Meats in Wasilla and other shops.
Once we arrived at Jillian's we helped unload the 220-pound pig from the blue tarp laid out in the back of her Subaru.
Each piece took two people to carry, each person grasping a hoof in an awkward line dance, and was placed on the freshly sanitized folding tables. Off came the layers of plastic wrap, which the pig was tightly wound in. Then came the brief moment of horror, a spurt of laughter and an intense curiosity about this animal that was alive just hours before.
Out came our knives and the bone saw. But before we began, I had a gift for everyone.
More than just food
The tank tops read "Badass Bacon Babes." A team of five women, we were brought together by this pink, curly-tailed creature and our hopes of learning new skills and filling our freezers for the year. Although we didn't all know one another when we arrived, by the time we hugged our goodbyes we had an unforgettable connection. The pork sisterhood.
And if you haven't done this before, you'll just have to believe me when I say there is no bond quite like butchering a whole hog with your girlfriends.
We cut, sawed and filleted for over four hours, although it felt like one. There were veteran hunters in our group, but also a woman who'd been a vegetarian for 20 years. And there was me -- I'd never cooked a pork chop before in my life.
The pig carcass was surprisingly clean, devoid of blood and scentless. And somewhere in the midst of filling a 10-pound bucket full of fat to render into lard for baking pies, sawing the leg bone in half and filleting out the ribs, my relationship with meat completely changed.
Instead of seeing pork as a bubblegum-colored, homogenous blob stuck onto a Styrofoam board sold at the grocery store, I began to understand the different cuts and where they came from -- roasts, hams, hocks, belly. Along with sore arm muscles, I found myself with a new appreciation for pigs, butchers and the process of harvesting your own meat.
Our goal was to use as much of the pig as possible. Every scrap of meat went into a bucket to be ground up and later made into treats -- four kinds of sausage, meatballs and maple-caramelized onion breakfast patties. The belly and the jowls were destined to become bacon. The roasts would be smoked or braised in a slow cooker and eaten as pulled pork sandwiches. The leftover fat would be rendered into lard to make delectable baked beans. The bones were set aside for a Thai bone broth stock. The liver was creamed into pate to spread on crusty bread on a cold winter day.
We split the meat, winding the cuts in plastic wrap and then butcher paper, then filled all of our coolers and loaded the truck up again. After waving goodbye we headed into the starry darkness on our way home. Along with salmon and game, the meat would feed our families all summer, maybe even through another winter.
This pig changed my life, yes. Now it's time to make bacon.
Are you looking for Alaska Grown meat this summer?
You can contact a grower directly. Find a list of Alaska Grown meat producers through the Alaska Grown Source Book, available at dnr.alaska.gov/ag. Here are are some of them:
Van Wyhe Family Farm
Delta Meat and Sausage
Mile 1413 Alaska Highway, Delta Junction
6175 E. Palmer-Wasilla Highway
Mt. McKinley Meat & Sausage — USDA processing facility
385 Inner Springer Loop Road, Palmer
Northern Lights Elk Ranch
8850 N. Simineo Circle, Palmer
6505 N. Wolverine Road, Palmer
Alaska Interior Game Ranch
12139 Rapeseed Way, Delta Junction
Circle F Ranch
Mile 14.9 Edgerton Highway (Highway 10)
You can also find Alaska meat at stores and farmers markets:
In Anchorage, visit the Center Market on Wednesdays and Saturdays, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. at the Sears Mall. (thecentermarket.com)
In Palmer, visit Mat Valley Meats on the Palmer-Wasilla Highway. (mvmeat.com)
In Fairbanks, visit Home Grown Market. (alaskahomegrown.com)
Alaska Grown vermicelli salad bowl recipe
By Kate Powers
Note: The beauty of plain grown pork is its versatility and how much flavor the naturally occurring fat adds, especially when compared with beef. The best Bolognese I've ever made was created with only unseasoned pork, no beef or game meat.
Sometimes I'll add pork to caribou burgers to increase fat content. Now, I have vermicelli bowls in heavy rotation because everyone loves them. Now that summer is it's ideal to use local greens, herbs, onions and carrots for this dish.
2 pounds plain ground pork
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon fresh ground ginger
4 cloves minced garlic
Ground toasted peanuts
Sweet chili dipping sauce
1. Heat skillet over medium heat. Add pork and gently break up until pork begins to heat evenly. As pork begins to cook add fish sauce, sugar, ginger and garlic. Continue to heat and stir until pork is thoroughly cooked and the fish sauce loses some of its "fishiness" and the liquid cooks out. The sugar should begin to caramelize a bit.
2. Lay a serving of boiled vermicelli noodles into a large bowl. Add pork to noodles. Top with the many toppings that are key to this dish, including greens and herbs. The last step is to douse the entire bowl in sweet chili dipping sauce and add a squeeze of lime. Stir up the bowl, break out the chopsticks and enjoy!
Shannon Kuhn lives in Anchorage, where she writes about food and culture.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing