“The Day”: From pig to pork
There was a moment of clarity a few days before retrieving our friend, and butcher, from the airport. I’d spent the morning sitting with our pig, Carnitas, crying whilst my body lay against hers. As I embraced her, reaching my arms around her 59-inch girth, I apologized for what I knew would come.
You see, this was always the plan – from where she was born to why we brought her to our homestead. This is what I signed up for.
Wiping my eyes, I stood up and brushed myself off.
An honest account of the day I would be butchering a pig, 6 months overdue, for the first item ever.
Is there a fine line between right and wrong? Maybe we all attempt to balance on that line until we slip and fall to one side or the other. Clarity appeared as I reminded myself why we do this on the farm. Raising a happy animal that occupied a life full of land to root and love to receive has been one of my greatest joys.
This was my commitment. I had plans to butcher my first pig ever, 6 months past the planned butcher date.
Monday: Preparing to butcher
William flew in a day before, on Monday, to assess the situation and prepare. Tuesday, August 27, 2019 would be forever known as “The day” on my homestead.
We didn’t have to do much the night before besides hang the come-along and set up the gambrel. William inspected our knives and the meat grinder. I made sure the food saver was in proper working condition.
It was rewarding to learn I‘d prepared for a task I’d never done. Weeks leading up to The Day, I was a complete train-wreck, to put it lightly. Months of reading, watching videos, and asking questions had passed and the assignment was quickly approaching.
It felt surreal paired with, to my surprise, a very small dose of excitement. Of course, I wouldn’t acknowledge it was excitement until later. At the present time, it felt like sheer terror.
We spent the rest of the day visiting with each other and talking about what to expect. William graciously answered all my questions, which were far from far and few between.
Tuesday: “The day”
I was up long after the house went down and awake before the house would rise the next morning. Terrifying images from the videos I watched in preparation were lingering in my thoughts.
William woke around 6:00 am and we sat together. Chatting, drinking coffee, and sharpening knives. After spending enough time ignoring the elephant in the room, he finally asked if I was ready. “Yes” left my mouth before I could think to respond.
I was surprised to discover I woke feeling calm and completely ready to butcher my first pig, and thankful I had William as my guide.
By 7:00 am we were out at the old pine. The hanging come-along was swaying gently and the wind dried the sweat on my brow. After preparing our workstation with a battery-powered hand-saw, knives, and large black trash bags, we walked to the pen.
There she was — 6 months past the 275 lb mark and larger than life (400 lbs large to be exact).
Sticking with the program
Every morning for a whole year I walked into her pen, hollered out “Good morning Carnitas!” and fed her breakfast. But this morning was different.
With no bright orange home-depot bucket of feed and corn kernels, she knew something was off. Immediate regret overtook me as I realized the lack of routine I’d introduced to the morning. William was there, gun in hand, but the bucket was not.
Carnitas was wary of him. Not quite scared or frightened, but suspicious as any animal would be around someone they don’t know.
I realized at that moment my feeling of calm and readiness was completely mental and barely emotional. But I approached her with every ounce of normalcy and confidence I could muster, all the same.
We moved around in her generous parcel of land a few times, calmly following her lead in the effort to mollify our alliance, like a last dance. Carnitas finally settled to lay down. I knelt to the ground and folded my body over hers.
So many times before, I’d embraced her in that way. But today, we were right under that pine where she’d soon be hoisted.
I wanted her to feel love and joy in her last moments. She deserved to feel love and joy. As I felt her breath deepen and slow, her heartbeat grew steady and I knew she felt safe under the weight of my body.
William gracefully slid in to switch spots with me. Positioning the barrel directly behind her right ear, he pulled the trigger.
The pop was so loud all I could focus on was the ringing in my ears and the blank realm I’d slipped into. I remember opening my eyes and seeing white nothingness. Within seconds, she was gone.
The shot was clean, and couldn’t have been more perfectly taken.
We knelt there for a moment, allowing our hearts to grow heavy and minds to process the choice we’d made together. After our own breath deepened and slowed, it was time to move forward.
There are a certain density and depth to the feeling you experience after taking an animal’s life. William asked if I was okay, and there was that unfamiliar voice again – “Yes”.
What were my options? The clock was ticking and our next mission was to harvest this meat so it wasn’t all for nothing. Mentally, the perspective went from pig to pork within minutes.
He stuck a sharp knife into the throat, severing the main arteries, and thrust down, allowing the body to drain and cool as we prepared for the next steps.
Butchering your pig
We were two people so moving a 400lb pig was no easy feat. William slit a hole between the tendons on the trotters, slid the gambrel through and we pulled the heavy weight over to the come-along.
When butchering a pig on the homestead, you have to decide between skinning or scalding. Since scalding meant preparing a large tub of very hot water and a little extra time, we decided that skinning was the best option under our circumstances.
Pigs are typically butchered in late winter/ early spring or, at the very least, when the weather is still cool enough to discourage fly activity. Carnitas was not only 6 months past butcher weight, but it was also August in Florida. Luck was on our side and the morning was pleasantly mild so flies were never a nuisance, but I wouldn’t bet on those chances again.
We hoisted this 400lb animal up with the come-along, which I recommend using if you don’t have a tractor. William started the skinning and walked me through each step so I could learn as much as possible while racing time and the Florida heat.
Protip: I highly suggest hiring someone who will educate you on the process instead of just doing it for you.
She was skinned and gutted within a few hours and no longer looked like the pig I raised. From this moment forward, everything was a little easier. I briefly forgot this hanging entity had once been a living animal I loved. And it helped to have a grounded, patient and kind mentor leading the way.
After quartering the pig with the battery-powered reciprocating saw I was thankful I’d spent $60.00 on, it was finally time for a break. I don’t remember how many trash bags we’d filled with pork cuts.
For a rough guess, I’d say at least 8. I remember thinking it looked like a scene from Dexter when he’d throw bags into the ocean to hide the evidence of his crime.
We buried the head, hung the hide and quickly ran the large bags of pork to my in-law’s house. The majority of folks typically want freshly slaughtered hogs to hang, age and cool for at least a week. Since time wasn’t in our good graces, overnight in an empty fridge would have to do.
We were done for the day and I couldn’t be more relieved.
That evening was filled with good food and great company as we pulled out our guitars, mandolins and fiddles as if the day had been like any other.
Wednesday: Panic, butcher, package, preserve
I woke up feeling strange Wednesday, but quickly pushed any doubt or regret to the back of my mind. There was an overwhelming amount of pork sitting in a fridge that needed to be processed into cuts of chops, loins, and roasts. After coffee and a quick bite of breakfast, we loaded the first crate of raw meat and fired up the food saver.
At some point, I received a phone call from my mother in law with slight panic in her voice. The fridge had been pushed open for an unknown amount of time and the meat was no longer cooling at the proper rate.
It doesn’t take long for raw, lukewarm meat to spoil in the heat of August in Florida, so panic is truly an understatement. And not to mention, to quote my dear William, “Raw chicken will make you sick. Raw pork will kill ya.” so I naturally had no interest in saving spoiled pork. After finishing our current crate of cuts, we rushed back to the meat fridge to assess any damage.
In the end, we didn’t lose any meat solely because William knew what he was doing. Since time wasn’t on our side, we finished the last large cuts and started to grind pork.
We decided to package most of it into 1lb freezer bags, leaving some out to experiment with flavors the next day. To no one’s surprise, this was also a suggestion of William’s and, boy howdy, was it a good one.
By the time all the trash bags were emptied, our deep freezer was over half full and I thought maybe we’d run out of room. But, alas, the day yet again comes to completion and I was content with letting my mind rest and worry about that tomorrow.
Upon waking, I realized my feet were on fire. I immediately regretted standing barefoot in the kitchen for the better duration of yesterday. All the same, it was sausage seasoning day and I was pleasantly excited. I’ve always loved sausage and always wanted to learn to make it myself. Had it been a bucket list item, I could have checked it off twice.
William loves sage in his sausage so we stocked up the night before as to make sure we had enough (don’t worry, we did). We set up the grinder and prepared to create some of the best ground pork sausage a kitchen could produce.
I was thankful we’d kept this day aside for the finale as it was rather uneventful…and I was event-ed out by that time.
With the cast iron heating and my dear friend explaining the art of seasoning ground pork, all was well in my world. A year’s worth of love, early morning feedings, water days and frozen banana treats had flown by. Within 4 days, my freezer was stocked with sustenance enough to nourish my family for at least a year.
The journey of butchering a pig
I can only believe Carnita’s last moments here were filled with love and an all-surrounding notion of safety.
Though the piece of land where she once lived is now uninhabited, I still recall her running to me at feed time and drinking from the hose as pigs do. I’ll hold those memories carefully in my heart for the rest of my being.
It’s, in many ways, unexplainable why one would choose to raise an animal just to end its life. To give life, then take it away. But as the pan sizzles with sausage and the oven bakes with chops, I remind myself of this:
I may have taken a life that day, but I also saved others from a much less humane slaughter and existence than hers.
Maybe my memories of these accounts are skewed, or maybe I’ve managed to remember every moment in factuality. Weeks later I would break down in tears, finally allowing myself to submit to the emotional weight of the decision I made. Thankfully, regret was never something I encountered.
As for William, our last day together was also filled with all-encompassing love, happiness and a fierce notion of safety. Butchering a pig wasn’t something I thought I’d experience so soon, and I’ve him to thank for the experience it turned out to be.
If you’re looking to raise a meat pig for the first time, and butcher it yourself, here are my best suggestions and recommendations.
- Find a butcher you trust and one who’s trustworthy – and have a solid plan of action (and a plan B, just in case).
- Buy a battery-powered reciprocating saw. The money is worth it and saves time and energy.
- Make sure your cooling mechanism stays closed – this will cut down on an immense amount of stress. Better yet, plan to not butcher your pig in August…in Florida.
- Don’t break routine the morning of butcher day. For both you, and your animal.
- And finally, love your animals fiercely. Provide them with all the love factory animals are deprived of. I promise this will make your experience fully worth it in the end.
I look forward to experiencing the joy of raising happy pigs again one day. Until then, I hope you’ll enjoy this slideshow of images taken throughout Carnita’s time with us.
If you'd like to know more about William and why he was the perfect human to help me on this wild journey, check out his own homestead, The 144 Farm, where he and his family purchased 144-acres of eastern Kentucky farmland and woodlands.
Over the years, they've been restoring their beautiful land and carving out a sustainable and self-sufficient living for themselves.
If you'd like to read more about my journey through raising Carnitas, read these:
An honest and poignant reality of butchering. I’ve always believed if I am to consume meat product, it would be hypocritical of me not to know exactly what it takes. I always have mantras and prayers to help with closure as well. Thank you for your honesty of what it takes to bring meat to the table.
Well put, Suzan. I think it’s crucial to acknowledge that food, no matter meat, fruit or vegetable, does not come easily. Thank you for reading my account.