At butchery class, ‘conscious carnivores’ learn to break down a pig to better understand the ethics of eating meat. By Karen Pakula.
Classes for conscious carnivores
There is no easy way to say this. The carcass that rolls into view is hoisted, legs up, her pink body taut, her long, porcine lashes beneath eyes at rest forever more. A young, calm, trim man with a handsaw slices her vertically in two. It is intense and brutal but nobody flinches. We are all carnivores. We are here to spend a pleasant Saturday afternoon among deceased animals and tubs of viscera. We are here to learn how to butcher a pig.
That the pig lived well and on healthy soil is critical to our hosts at Feather and Bone, an ethically minded providore in Marrickville, Sydney, that sources its meat from small producers who practise regenerative farming and raise their animals on pasture. In 2020, owners Grant Hilliard and Laura Dalrymple published an acclaimed book, The Ethical Omnivore, which merged recipes with an examination of the sustainable food industry and argued, remarkably for butchers, that we should eat less meat. Their classes are for conscious carnivores.
Hilliard is the master of today’s ceremonies, which begin in the hanging room, an austere refrigerated chamber populated with up to 30 tonnes of animal pieces destined to be tomorrow’s T-bones and bacon. He stands beside a half-body of wagyu as big as a child and begins a dissertation on the process of dry-ageing, which leads him to the impact on our beef of a commodities-driven market (“We’re essentially eating teenagers”). That leads, as these things must, to the abattoir.
“The pigs that have come out of the intensive industry, they’ve never seen the outside of a shed,” he says. “They get put on a truck and taken to an abattoir and they are freaked out. They are screaming.” Such a dismal scenario, he says, “breaches our obligations to the animals in our care”, but it also affects the end product: a freaked-out animal means tougher meat.
“There but for about 2.3 per cent DNA go you or me on that hook,” he says solemnly, motioning to a bouquet of pigs’ legs. “It’s important to realise that, because it gives you a sense of responsibility when you’re cutting it up. This is A-class protein. I think it’s a very good way to feed people, but not if you take it lightly.”
His talk has struck a nerve with some in the class. “Why do we hear so much about battery chickens but nothing about pigs? It horrifies me,” says Penny York, a non-profit consultant. “We’re forgetting about how we farm our meat.” It is a big oversight. According to Australian Pork Limited, the industry’s main governing body, the gross value of Australian pork production in 2020-21 was estimated at $5.3 billion. Only about 5 per cent of Australian sows are free-range.
We are ushered into the clinical production room and our demonstration pig arrives hanging feet up. Hilliard gives us the specs: 63 kilograms, female and, though now pink and smooth, she was a black-haired beauty, a Berkshire or Hampshire, from a farm called Stockinpiggle near Cootamundra in New South Wales. Head butcher Baharudin “Din” Aldan gets to work: soft, belly-side first, some vigorous sawing along the ridge of the spine, and the pig is sliced in two in less time than it takes to boil a kettle. After that, the head is removed.
With a battery of knives in his belt, Aldan deftly breaks down the half-pig into a slab of loin, a barrel of ribs, a disembodied leg. It is an anatomy lesson that circles back to food. We are shown the cheek muscle that is cured to make guanciale for carbonara sauce, the eye fillet sitting inside the rump, the trotter that will go into soup.
A three-kilogram slab of pork banjo – the whole shoulder with the hock attached – appears on our work benches. We are to trim and debone it before rolling it into a cylinder to make a roast. I grope around trying to make out the scapula, a flat, wing-shaped bone buried below the surface. It resists discovery. My strokes are too tentative; my grip on the knife is wrong. Aldan comes to my rescue. I persevere, carving flesh from bone until it is released and begin work on the humerus. I trim the edges, shape it and tie it with string.
The young butcher has the poise of a sensei and the sensibility of a craftsman. “It’s an energy thing, the way the knife goes through to meat,” he says. “When you have the prosciutto and you have to have knife control and have to shape it, it makes you focus and be in the moment.”
Aldan, who grew up in Borneo and is Muslim, doesn’t eat pork. “It’s ironic because, in a way, I’m really good at it – not many people want to do pigs,” he says. “But I have respect for the pig and what I’m doing. It didn’t just die for nothing. The Muslim way has to be halal. It’s about respect, saying a prayer for the animal. And that’s why, when I butcher every day, I’m so passionate because it’s a living, powerful thing.”
A living thing. By slipping into the present tense, Aldan demonstrates how difficult it is to divorce the carcass from its sentient state. It’s an uncomfortable thought we avoid when buying prepackaged cuts at the supermarket. As a society, we have developed a cold calculation: an animal is no longer regarded as an animal when it is at the end of the “kill chain” at the abattoir, the precise moment an inspector plants a stamp on its rump approving it for human consumption. “Until that point, it is not meat. It is still animal,” says Hilliard. “It also means GST is no longer applicable because animals attract GST and food does not. So that’s the point where it ceases to be.”
Our pig had a short but happy life at Stockinpiggle, the 50-hectare farm run by Jason and Sam Bates. “Piglets are like puppies,” Jason says. “They’re up from daylight and play around while it’s cool, then they go and have a lay down, and in the afternoon they come out and play again till about six.”
The purebred pigs are distributed among one-hectare paddocks and are regularly rotated to different ground. It is better for the soil – “pig poo is awesome but it can be too rich” – and ensures the pigs roam on fresh, unsoiled grass, which is a way to control internal parasites. They are acclimatised to the trip to the abattoir by being placed in a separate yard once a week for four weeks, while the trip itself is made in the cool early morning when they’re relaxed.
Sceptical about standards, the Bates family have opted out of the free-range labelling provided by Australian Pork Limited. Although a spokesman says the industry body operates above international standards, and is working on a five-year plan to improve practices, it still only issues guidelines for welfare processes. Instead, the pig farmers hold open days and use social media to broadcast the farm’s operations.
Sustainably grown, free-range meat is expensive but there is an appetite for transparency about the origins of our food. Whether that always translates into action is another proposition. Class colleague Matt Peacock, a schoolteacher, has just read Richard Flanagan’s Toxic: The Rotting Underbelly of the Tasmanian Salmon Industry and was horrified by its revelations. But he has a trip to Bruny Island planned for July and suspects his resolve will waiver. “I definitely don’t like the idea of animals being treated cruelly just so I can get something cheap. But you have to have a balance. If it tastes good, I’m willing to look the other way on some occasions.”
Half my family doesn’t eat red meat. The ethically grown roast I laboured over is in the freezer, ready to share with a friend.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 5, 2022 as "Kill the pig".
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