“I’m a vegetarian,” Jan Buhrman told me last Tuesday, only minutes after I watched her swallow a cut of pork tenderloin. She savored my puzzled expression a moment, then added “…unless I know where my meat is coming from.”
I met the chef and caterer in the kitchen of Edgartown’s Harbor View Hotel, where she and chef Nathan Gould had just de-assembled half a Tamworth pig — and cooked the tenderloin for lunch — in less than two hours. The rest of the meat is curing, ready to feed to a crowd of 150 at this Saturday’s “Swine and Dine: A Celebration of Heritage Pigs” tasting at the Harbor View. But when we met, Chef Buhrman and Chef Gould were just getting started. They had four more 200-pound pigs to slaughter and break down before the event. Luckily, they would have some help.
This week, four students from Martha’s Vineyard, New York, and Hawaii took on the five-day endeavor of bringing four pigs from Beetlebung Farm in Chilmark and The FARM Institute in Edgartown to the table. “Porks and Knives,” the class by chefs Buhrman and Gould, submerges chefs in the transition between raising an animal and transforming that livestock into a meal. Chef Buhrman taught herself the process 16 years ago, when she and her husband began raising pigs to consume her kitchen scraps. Now, using her Masters degree in education and more than 25 years of Vineyard culinary experience, she’s passing on that knowledge.
“Not many people get the hands-on experience of breaking down the whole animal,” Ms. Buhrman said. “It’s not necessarily something you learn in culinary school.”
The holistic approach has its perks. “The group experience allows us to discuss and ask questions about the best way to do things, and the best way to use this meat,” she said. “Using all of the meat gives us an opportunity to learn world recipes.”
But most importantly, Ms. Buhrman said, it’s a way of honoring the animal. “My classes always have a foundation in local foods and why they are important,” she said. “When you buy a local pig, it supports the local economy and it supports your own body health. A pig at the supermarket has been government subsidized, so there’s no way of knowing the true cost. A local farm pig that’s outside in the sunshine eating an organic diet not only has a true cost, it has omega 3s and omega 6s that a pig raised on corn does not have.”
“And,” Chef Gould chimed in, “there’s a huge taste difference.”
So, on day one, the students were brought to the pigs’ slaughter. They learned how to bleed, gut, and process the animals properly, taking care to preserve the blood and remove the offal (organ meat) for later use. No part of the pig would go to waste.
The second day, the pigs were broken down further from the four primal cuts (head, shoulder, ham, and middle) into smaller cuts, and deboned. The bones would be used for stock, while the other pig parts would become varieties of salumi (cured pork).
“It’s the stocks and rendering of the secondary by-products of using whole animals that separates the amateur [chef] from the professional,” the curriculum for “Porks and Knives” states. So on day three, students were initiated in the rite of passage of rendering lard and curing in salt.
The last two days of the class were devoted to salumi, including, but not limited to, fresh and fermented sausage, country paté, and rillettes.
Remember how no part of the pig was wasted? The head was used for something called head cheese, a sort of meat jelly more appetizingly known as coppa di testa. The feet — the chefs call them trotters — were stuffed with sausage. There’s even a rarely used, lacy membrane of “caul fat” surrounding the belly organs that the chefs harvested for sausage casing.
By Thursday, the chefs were scheduled to prepare the menu for Saturday’s tasting, making sure to maintain a balance of flavors and techniques. The Swine and Dine event at the Harbor View will use two pigs from the Grey Barn and The Good Earth, not the practice pigs the students slaughtered in class. Guests will get a chance to sample classic cuts like ham, as well as some of the more unique pig dishes: head cheese, anyone? Fare will include four and a half pigs worth of hors d’oeuvres, carnitas, local oysters with pork, scallops in lardo, spicy pork ramen, and more.
Prior to the dinner event, guests can join a farm tour with Ms. Buhrman on Saturday morning to meet Heritage pigs and farmers. On Saturday night, guests will hear about the chefs’ experiences during the week while they learn about different types of pigs and their diets. There will be a slideshow of the pig breakdown and preparation, plus a demonstration in cracklings: the crisp, fatty skin of roast pork. “We hope this teaches the public the responsibility to research where their meat is coming from,” Chef Gould said. And like all great celebrations, the event will conclude with ice cream. Bacon ice cream, of course.
Swine and Dine: A Celebration of Heritage Pigs, Saturday, Nov. 9, 6:30–9 pm, Harbor View Hotel, Edgartown. Tickets start at $56. Farm tours run from 9 am to 12 pm on Saturday, Nov. 9. $45. For more information or to RSVP, call 508-645-5000 or visit kitchenporch.com.
Editor’s Note: This article has been edited to clarify that the pigs served at the Swine and Dine tasting on Saturday are not the same pigs the students slaughtered and worked with in the class.