It’s Sunday morning and instead of drinking coffee on my deck, I’m standing at a pig carcass at Portland’s Culinary Workshop, moving a hacksaw blade back and forth, and removing a foot from a pig carcass. This is not how I spend most Sunday mornings, but I’ve looked forward to this for some time.
Melinda Casady and Susan Holloway’s cooking school is housed inside a brick storefront in what used to be industrial Albina. The neighborhood is quickly filling with stores, restaurants and pubs, and the school is another asset.
Inside, the ceilings are high and it’s well lit and open. They sell a few favorite gadgets and there’s a comfy sitting area and cookbook library. Pegboard and shelving line the walls and store’s kitchen wares.
The school’s prep tables were made from salvaged doors by Susana’s father. The professional stainless steel kitchen is in the back, and just outside, in a fenced-in courtyard, they smoke meats in two homemade smokers (one fashioned from a refrigerator that didn’t work and the other from a shop vac). The warm, efficient space is perfect for some serious and not so serious cooking instruction.
Wielding the Knife
Melinda Casady brings passion—and plenty of expertise—to the classes she teaches. Both owners hold the job title, “Teacher and Knife Wielder.” Melinda is an experienced chef and born teacher whose descriptions are easily visualized. She’s got a great laugh and sense of humor. She’s also excited to break in her new electric band saw on our pig carcass and she instructs us to hold our knives in a “Psycho Hold” that would make Norman Bates proud.
The class starts with a slide show and handouts. “Bones act as a road map for dividing cuts on the carcass,” Melinda says. She blames misinformation about low-fat eating for contributing to American obesity and we laugh at her sensuous description of how meat fat “coats our arteries.” She says “yummy” repeatedly and tells us fat on meat is “goodness” that gives meat its wonderful savory taste.
Melinda first got into butchery by working at high-end restaurants, and then through formal training. She talks about prime versus choice meat, and pastured or grass-fed versus grain fed pigs and how you can tell the quality of an animal by the condition and type of its fat. Browning meat, she says, does not seal in the juices, but rather, causes meat proteins and carbohydrates to break down and work together to give meat the color, “mouth feel” and aroma that’s so appealing. She talks about connective tissue, collagen, and elastin and, through her illustrations, we see how we’re going to break down the pig.
Let’s Get to Work: We Have a Pig to Butcher
There are five men and two women students. Three have taken classes at the school; two have restaurant experience, and the rest are here out of curiosity and quirkiness. We pull the two hog halves, each weighing about 80 pounds, from the refrigerator and lay half side-by-side on two tables and pull them from their plastic shrouds.
We divide into teams. Four of us gather around one table and I’m with the remaining two. My teammates include a carpenter who’s adept with the saw and a nurse, who’s also good with the saw. Her grandfather taught her to “let the saw do the work”–not a skill she learned in nursing school.
Her knife skills are clearly superior to mine too. When Melinda instructs us to slice rather than saw, I hear but don’t listen. I’m sawing, back and forth, back and forth; and my cuts are jagged. This doesn’t matter too much in dividing large sections to be ground for sausage, but it does when slicing some of the specialty cuts.
My partner makes clean slices, starting at the top, inserting the tip of the boning knife into the flesh and drawing the blade toward her in a long, clean motion. I try, repeatedly, to mimic her. (I have been cooking regularly for 35 years, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have new things to learn and bad habits to correct. )
We breakdown the pig from end-to- end in primal cuts, sub-primal cuts, and finally finished portions. Classmate Mike, a hunter, has an “aha” moment and realizes he’s been making more work for himself than is necessary when butchering deer.
We saw off the trotters (feet) and hocks. We separate the shoulder from the loin and remove the jowl. We divide the upper and lower parts of the shoulder and, at the back of the pig, separate the pelvis, and ham from the loin.
The middle of the pig—the loin and the side—are where specialty cuts are, including loin chops, crown roast, back ribs, Canadian bacon, tenderloin and more. Melinda shows us how to get our fingers in the tenderloin to feel where the cut truly begins and ends to retain more of the cut. We saw lengthwise through the ribs separating belly from loin, and then the spareribs from the belly. (Belly = bacon!)
Next, we break down larger sections and do some trimming. We have choices to be made: do we want skinny ribs or ribs with the back portion, loin chops or loin roast? Melinda uses her new band saw to remove the chine bone from the loin to make rib chops. We cut the shoulder into smaller chunks and roasts and remove excess fat. We’re reminded that our goal in deboning is to retain as much of the meat as possible. We press our knives into the meat and pull with our free hand in a way that removes the silver skin from the tenderloin. We use a similar technique when removing the skin, which is surprisingly thin.
The Take Away
Mike says it best: “Seeing a pig carcass brings to me the evidence that an animal died to provide me with meat and I should honor that death by using all that I can productively.” This is exactly what a new wave of chefs and home cooks are going for, and there’s a satisfaction and good eating in this way of thinking.
I often buy sub-primal cuts and end up with two or three different cuts and trim the excess fat myself. Now I’ll see what I buy at the butcher or supermarket in a different light. I also have a better idea where each portion cuts come from and why some cuts are better prepared in certain ways.
Assistant Sarah Ruth wraps chunks of ham, shoulder, and butt, a couple of chops, some pork belly, and a trotter or hock for each of us to take home. Those of us who want bones for stock or the dog take those too. The rest will be used for upcoming classes.
Once home, I brown the bones in the oven, add them to boiling water and simmer for four hours with the trotter (rich in collagen which thickens the stock). I’m already looking forward to a killer pot of bean soup, just from these parts that are usually discarded. And what to do with those lean chops, and that chunk of pork belly that will make the most of that delicious crackling? I’m dizzy just thinking about all the possibilities. —Story and photos by Nancy Zaffaro
More Goodness, More Classes
Portland’s Culinary Workshop offers a wide variety of classes, including traditional cooking courses featuring various cuisines, classes for kids and for couples, and classes to improve your overall kitchen knowledge, including Knife Techniques. — Photos and story by Nancy Zaffaro, RFT Contributor
IF YOU GO…
Portland’s Culinary Workshop, 807 N. Russell Street, Portland, OR 97227. www.portlandsculinaryworkshop.com