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BY MONICA ENG
"I hope you have a plan. Because if you don't, that half hog can kick your (butt)."
Thus came the warning from food writer Michael Ruhlman when I told him that, inspired by his new book, I planned to buy and butcher my first half hog.
In "Salumi: The Craft of Italian Cured Meat," Ruhlman and co-author chef Brian Polcyn insist that great cured meat must start with the finest pork--preferably from heritage breeds that live outdoors--a product that costs up to $10 a pound.
Acknowledging the hefty price, the authors suggest buying a half (or whole) hog and butchering it yourself. They even include a chapter on how to do it, what equipment to buy and how and where to slice.
Days before interviewing the "Salumi" authors I'd, coincidentally, ordered my first half hog from farmer Kim Snyder of Faith's Farm near Kankakee, Ill.
Could she deliver it intact? "Yes," she said, noting that I would save some money on butchering fees.
Snyder also knew a Chicago chef, Bernie Laskowski, who would help me through process. I signed on immediately.
Meanwhile, skeptical friends warned me that this escapade would likely result in disaster, not to mention digit loss. "There's a reason why we have professional butchers," one said, "because this isn't something you can just decide to do yourself."
But Ruhlman and Polcyn's words echoed in my ears: Americans, they said, have lost touch with many of our hands-on food traditions and culinary skills--skills that were commonplace only a few generations ago.
Butchering and curing one's own meat, they argue, could bring folks back in touch with some of those traditions, give them a better appreciation for their meat and even save some money.
I planned to test all of these assumptions when I met up with Snyder, Laskowski and the half hog in the kitchen of Cuzins Tavern & Pizza in Tinley Park on a recent frigid morning for a crash course in hog butchering.
Over the years, I'd heard macho chefs brag about breaking down a half a pig in 30 minutes flat. Based on these tales, I'd assumed that a neophyte like me could do it in three hours or so, right?
Prep time: 1 hour 15 minutes
2 pounds pork butt, diced
3. Mix thoroughly with spices and knead with hands.
Hoof weight: 155 pounds x $2.65 equals $410.75 Slaughter: $35 Chilling fees: $22.40 Total: $468.15 Final product (without head or kidneys): 110 pounds of packaged meat and organs for $4.25 per pound Price if processing house had done everything: $4.80 per pound. Savings for doing my own work: $60 Savings for buying a half hog (already packaged, cured and smoked): $572 EXTRAS Zip-close bags and or vacuum seal machine: $30 for zip-seal bags; $150-$180 for a vacuum seal machine plus extra roll of bags, $12 Butchering knife set from Cabela's: $59.99 (you can also probably use large butcher knives and boning knives you already own and simply add a meat hack saw for $39.99) Meat grinders, from hand-cranked to electric on amazon.com, for example: $20 to $200 Curing salts, pepper, spices and herbs: $20