[This guest post comes from Debby Intemann, our school chef and educator. Thank you for taking the time to write this moving piece Ms. Debby.]
There had been a “buzz” building for days. The seventh and eighth grade students were, as part of their science classes, going to participate in the butchering of a hog. In Ms. Chris’s room, the red letter day was marked simply on the calendar with the notation “The Pig”. As it turned out, the pig in question, with the help of some brave and inspired teachers and community members, turned itself into one of the most multi-faceted and engaging learning experiences I have ever participated in.
When we arrived the hog had already been dispatched, and yes, as the butchering process began there was plenty of “eww” and “gross” to be heard. These are middle school students after all. But there was something else too. There was curiosity and there were questions. As Josh skinned the pig, he explained the process. We talked about what pigs eat. What they cost. Why they stink. What this particular pig was fed. Where it came from—it was raised locally by one of our families at school. We talked about the need to acknowledge that all the meat we eat was once a live animal and that it had to be killed and butchered, just like this hog. Meat, even from the grocery store, does not begin as neat, bloodless cuts on white Styrofoam.
As the process continued another adult and one of the students stepped in to help. Butchering animals was traditionally not a one-person job. It takes many hands. Community members pitched in, helped one another. Josh mentions that as recently as maybe fifty years ago, folks in this area still raised and butchered their own meat and much of that was pork. Maybe not even that long, I add. When I came here as a girl in the mid-seventies, it was still very much part of the culture. I can remember people in my community waiting on “hog-butchering weather” in the fall.
The hide is carefully peeled down. We don’t want the outside of the animal to contaminate the meat, Josh explains. Bacteria, if there is any, will be on the outside. Food safety questions pop up. What bacteria is most associated with pork? Trichinosis.
The hog is beginning to look less like a barnyard animal and more like meat. We discuss the carcass in terms of musculature. Adam points out and names some of the specific muscles. And we also discuss it in terms of cuts of meat. The students say it looks like bacon to them now. No, it isn’t all bacon. If you eat a ham it is this part. I point out the large back thigh sections. Bacon comes from here, on the side. The top cuts along the back of the hog are the best—thus the saying “eating high on the hog”. What’s the white stuff? It is fat, lard. It was used as cooking fat. Also it can be rendered and used in soap making.
The skinning is complete. The students are each given clipboards with diagrams of internal structures they are to label. It is time to eviscerate the carcass, and I hold my breath a little. If anyone is going to get sick, it will probably be now. But no one is sick. Clipboards in hand, a tight knot of students leans in to observe. Colon, small intestine, liver, spleen…
It is time for me to get back to school. I pull myself away and leave reluctantly because, I too, am engaged, am learning. I am amazed at the range of topics covered during this one morning’s event—anatomy, sure, and in way that I am certain will be remembered, but also local culture, food, community, respect, death, life. I am certain that a morning with a textbook would never have yielded such richness. A textbook could never compete with a pig.