The end of summer is the culmination of our warm weather projects. Here in the inland northwest it is a time of processing and storing foods for winter. One of our projects is butchering the pigs, it is a big job that calls for helpful and skilled hands.
Late October, when the days grow cool, our close friends visit the farm to help us with the pigs. Animal harvest is a solemn anchor to the season, yet a time of celebrating another year with our friends who have been joining us in this fall ritual for fourteen years.
Ten years ago Chef Greg Johnson came along for the autumn pig butchery. Greg has generously shared his story with us. Lucky for us the weekend was also documented by Gary Moogk.
The Farm Virgin
I hadn’t known Karl for very long when he invited me out to this farm in Eastern Washington. We had similar chef jobs and there were very few people on the planet with jobs like ours so we had this sort of a weird bond from the start.
“Come on out. We are going to butcher some pigs and make some food.” He said.
I am always up for anything so, with some rare time off work, I took the six-hour drive up to Quillisascut Farm. As I rolled down the long dirt driveway I could see right away that this was a real fucking farm. No pony rides or petting zoo’s here. It was late October and it was cold. Snow was already on the ground and you could feel the air in your lungs. I brushed the city dust off my pants and stared at my shoes. They were the same black Chuck Taylor All-stars that I had been wearing for 25 years but here, on this farm, they seemed…well…wrong. And as the cold wet snow instantly soaked through to my socks I knew I had made my first city boy error. Fuck.
I had never met anyone like the farm owners, Rick and Lora Lea Misterly. Rick was one of those guys where you can actually see the years of hard work on his face and hands. And, while a nice guy, was the type where you felt you had to earn his respect. He wasn’t just going to give it up without seeing what you were about first. I always liked guys like this. Lora Lea was the opposite. She seemed to instantly be your friend in a motherly sort of way and I felt welcomed into their home with the kind of Southern hospitality charm I had only read about in books. That first night was a blur. I am sure we had some food and some wine and I remember people slept all over. In their cars, tents, outbuildings and guest rooms. (This was before the farm schoolhouse had been built.)
The next morning I got a look at the pigs. Two big ones just bopping and snorting around with no idea that this was their last hour alive. They were a bit agitated so Karl and I were off on a beer run. Apparently, pigs will chill out with a couple beers just like us. Karl and I pulled up to a small country store in his black Range Rover and plowed inside. I swear the old man behind the counter looked straight at my shoes (fucking shoes!) as we bee-lined for the beer cooler. We clunked four of the biggest, cheapest, most highly alcoholic malt liquors on the counter and pulled out our wallets. I looked at the clock. It was 8:00 a.m. The man looked at the beer, looked at us, and said in a perfect slow country deep voice,
I hadn’t thought all this would look weird until that moment and before I could say anything Karl jumped in,
“Just killin’ some pigs!”
We jumped in the Rover and sped off to go kill some pigs. Next thing I know I am staring into the eyes of a drunk and happy pig surrounded by Karl, a couple other guys, and Rick, who is now holding a rifle. I jump as the gun goes off and the pig flops down without a twitch. No suffering here. My blood is pumping with adrenalin as the pig’s throat is sliced with a machete and the blood is gathered, steaming, a perfect Martha Stewart burgundy, into a vat that is to become blood sausage tomorrow. The filmmaker in me instantly wished I was making a documentary and I could hear Tom Waits “Murder in the Red Barn” as the soundtrack. The pig was hoisted up on the tractor, fell off once, which, literally, made me gasp, I think, for the first time in my life, and then re-tied and driven across the farm. There was no redneck pride of “look what we just killed” at all. It was total respect of here is the proper way to do what everyone who eats meat likes to ignore. I was right in the thick of it and loving every second. We came up to a big vat of water warmed over a fire and checked the temperature. I am sure Karl knew exactly what that temperature should be and like a hot towel wrapped around your chin at the barber shop the pig was dunked into the water to loosen up the hair follicles to make it easier for us to shave off it’s hair. Well, it wasn’t easy and 4 or 5 of us worked on it using different knives and razors. Oh, and it smelled exactly like you think a tepid dead animal would smell. As we finally got all the hair off, I found out what my job would be. Not sure if it was because I was the farm virgin or not, but I was in charge of the head. Yes, you guessed it, prepping and making dinner, for everyone, with the fucking head. No worries I got this. (Do I?)
Before that we had to get the second pig that, unbelievably, walked right into the spot where he just saw his friend meet his demise. Note to self. Never drink 40’s of malt liquor. It causes you to make bad decisions. Anyway, this shot did not hit direct and the pig jumped back and bucked like a rodeo bull into the pen right where Karl was for some reason. You know how people can do super-human feats under extreme stress? Well, Karl jumped a 5-foot fence, I swear, without even touching it. I have never seen anything like it. We eventually got that pig down and shaved and there I was, freezing (mostly my feet), outside, with knife in hand and two pig heads in front of me.
Like Hannibal Lecter, I skinned the faces off those pigs and cleaned them up good. I got a huge pot going with chilies, onion, garlic, and herbs and braised the head for hours. My idea was I was going to make enchiladas from the cheeks, brains and whatever else seemed edible. I rooted around and found boxes of late season tomatoes, chilies, onions, and garlic and was able to make a respectable enchilada sauce. I put a little cinnamon in it to offset the gaminess of the head meat. I could tell Karl thought this was a little weird but it worked for me. Then came a problem.
“Lora Lea, do you have any corn tortillas?” I asked.
“No,” she said.
“Oh Man, is there a grocery store near by?” I stupidly asked.
“No, but we could make tortillas.” She hinted.
“Ah, okay. Do you have any masa?” I ask, still not getting it.
She didn’t have any masa but she did have corn she had dried from last years crop that we ground up in an old grinder and made our own masa which then became our own tortillas which then gave me my first lesson in what slow food is all about. (Not that I knew that term at the time.) The enchiladas were a hit, mostly due to them being smothered in the goat cheese that, at that time, was Rick and Lora Lea’s main source of income. And I was a new man. Something shifted in me as all of us chefs, our families, and Rick and Lora Lea’s family and neighbors all sat around a huge table and ate, drank (yes, homemade wine,) and told stories. Something awoke inside of me that night and still burns inside of me to this day.
The rest of the trip we were back in time. Everywhere you looked food was being harvested, prepped, cooked, and preserved. Cheese was being made. Apple pies were cooked and eaten for breakfast with perfect French press coffee. There were no trashcans and you were conscience of everything you did and how it affected the farm….and the planet really. Everyone was working hard and there was this sense of, I don’t know, community I guess that you just don’t get in the city. Most of us came from the city but our instincts were different here. What was it about this place? Our only hope, and Rick and Lora Lea’s main purpose I think, was to take a bit of that back to the city with us.
Since then I have been out to Quillisascut farm several times. I have killed more pigs, helped make many a meal, produced videos, seen would be tough chefs break down and cry cause they are so affected by the experience, watched the farm grow, made bread, and bought a proper pair of boots.
And now, 8 years later, this farm virgin has a 3 acre farm of his own and hopes to help change the world by living the life Rick and Lora Lea Misterly live so naturally….
I am full of gratitude.
Visit Greg’s website Chef and Father