Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Pig, Winnie & Me

Devil’s Gulch Ranch in Marin called us last week wondering if we’d like one of their soon-to-be slaughtered pigs, a half that is, 100 pounds plus. These animals are glorious, milk-fed and reared in pastures alongside wine grapes and asparagus. As Bill Niman of BN Ranch says of his animal's charmed lives: they have just one bad day. How could we say no?

I naturally drove the thing straight to Winnie's with an assist from our friend John who helped devise and haul the impromptu body bag. Winnie is pukka when it comes to food and cooking. Forget willowy California cuisine. She was born and raised in Minnesota where she fed a large extended family and worked in restaurants. She also completely restored an old creamery and presided over the lodgings. Her mother opened, ran and cooked at a road-side diner in her 60’s & 70's, for God's sake. 

I have learned crazy things at Winnie’s side in her wide Dutch still-life of a kitchen. How about warm bacon-honey gravy from pan drippings with grained mustard and feisty vinegar poured into bowls of hot potatoes, green onions and raw garlic; wine-infused braised beef with roots, finished with currant jelly, over handmade buttered egg noodles; blistered vinegar-soaked potatoes kilned with olive oil and lard (if we’re lucky) tossed in a grocery bag with rough salt, or tomato-potato gratin packed with rosemary and roasted under the slow pungent drip of a garlic-jabbed leg of lamb? I am not kidding.

Winnie adores all things pig and has a preternatural with with one. You can study the meat charts until you’re blue, but something else altogether is at play in big butchering - a kind of communion with the animal. Winnie is our pig whisperer. 

Our hulking side dwarfs even her ancient butcher shop’s block (so well used that most of its giant surface is concave with knife work).  We circle the thing ceremoniously - our heads bowed in golden light under huge copper pots - wondering where to begin; how to undertake this glistening pig.  We run our hands over it a lot, feel our way in, remove head and ham first so that its core almost fits the block. Winnie finds natural separations of flesh with her fingers and we follow with our scraggy tools (her mother’s tiny black bone saw is surprisingly effective in this). In a few hours the refrigerator is larded with rib rack, porterhouse, picnic roast, shoulder roasts, belly cuts, ham, head, tail. 

I am always amazed at how tiring this work is, at how sobered and awed I am afterwards. The only seemly thing to do, I guess, is to sit-down gratefully with friends to grilled new porterhouse and garlicky fat white beans with fennel, oranges and bitter greens (a version of which is on our new menu). It is a life.

1 comment:

La Ferme de Sourrou said...

I'm amazed you have no comments !!

This is a beautiful post. The photo of Winnie's hand on the meat is exquisite.