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Watching as a Whole Hog Becomes Bacon and Ribs and Everything Else

Just before entering the boning room, I was handed a lab coat and a hairnet. I was about to see the next step of the transformation from pig to pork chop. Yesterday, I watched them die. Today, the carcasses are going to be butchered and packed -- a much less gruesome task. 

It was chilly as I entered through the large swinging door. The room is kept at a constant 40 degrees to prohibit the growth of bacteria on the meat. As cold as it was for me, I could see the guys building up a sweat. They were standing between two tables cutting, trimming, and sawing different cuts of meat. I walked over to Keith, the number two at Palmetto Creek Farms, to find out what he was doing. He was the one who would be giving me 

the rundown on the art of butchering meat.

He ran me through the order of the day. "Usually on Tuesdays, we are in the boning room putting orders together. First we process orders for Tampa and Sarasota. We finish Orlando and Miami orders later in the morning. Once the orders are done, we clean up and feed the herd." 

Keith pulls out an order sheet. Each customer is given multiple options. These range from whole hog to heads to fatback to sausage. If a whole hog is ordered, the head is included. With a half hog, you get everything minus the head. Chefs can choose from whole loin to chops ranging in size and thickness according to personal preference.

He pulls half a hog off a hook hanging from the ceiling to illustrate the process. First, using a meat fan saw, the back legs (consisting of the shanks and trotter) are cut off and placed in a white container marked edible. Using the saw again, the ham is removed. In case you don't know, the ham is actually the upper part of the leg and butt. Until today, I thought that was the cut referred to as Boston butt. More on that later.

The carcass is then flipped around. The front legs are sawed off and thrown into the container with the others. Just above the leg, the shoulder, otherwise referred to as the picnic ham, is separated. Then comes the Boston butt. According to Keith, "In the early days of New England, the Boston butt was the most desirable piece of meat. That's where the saying 'high off the hog' came from. The upper class didn't want to eat anything near the feet." Turns out the term butt is actually a misnomer. 

After both ends are detached, the side is still intact. This includes the more popular cuts: loin, tenderloin, belly, ribs. The ribs attached to the loin are the portion referred to as baby back. If so desired, Keith and his boys will debone the loins. According to Keith, "The ribs usually come with the loin. Many chefs will French-trim the baby backs or just bone them themselves."

Next, the belly is separated from the loin. The belly is most obviously served as pork belly, but bacon comes from this section as well. The spare ribs are then sawed off the loin. The baby backs can be removed or left in tact. After that, the chine bone (vertebra) is sawed from the loin. If the chef wants chops, the loins will be run through the saw for the last time. With each order, the chef will receive one bag including 11 Cryovaced packages containing two pork chops, for a total of 22 chops per loin.

Just like the chops, each piece of meat ordered is Cryovaced. The packages are placed in a box, and a Palmetto Creek sticker is affixed, with a handwritten notation of the final destination. Just another step in the process transforming of pig to pork dish.

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Sara Ventiera

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