April 7, 2011 at 1:10 PM ET
Even though the sound of the bone saw in the classic film "MASH" always makes me go queasy, I found myself not long ago with a hacksaw in hand, being instructed to remove the leg of an animal who had -- as far as I know -- never done me wrong.
To be fair, said animal was already decapitated, lopped in half and cleaned of all organs. He or she … it … the pig … was beyond repair. Yet I still hoped that my small act of violence could be redeemed by a better understanding of the creature, a deeper respect for the "other white meat" that so often finds itself on my dinner plate. Like so many curious foodies across the country, I didn't go to butcher class to become a butcher, I went to become a better meat buyer, and a smarter home cook.
I didn't actually set out to go to butcher class at all. My wife signed us up as a birthday surprise (proving once again she knows me better than I know myself). As fascinated as I was with those cartoony animal parts diagrams you can see in cookbooks and better groceries, showing where each cut of meat comes from on an animal, I still did not know my loin from my tenderloin (different!), let alone which end was the "butt." (The answer may surprise you.)
We arrived at Portland's Culinary Workshop early on a Saturday morning. This wasn't one of those cooking schools that is just an excuse for single people and retirees to mingle and drink free bad wine. The class began with coffee and a lecture, and we were encouraged to take notes. After the instructor went through 33 slides on the overhead projector, including the requisite "pork cuts" parts shot -- out came the carcass.
Among our tools was a sharp scimitar-like blade and a cleaver that would be at home on any horror-film set. However, we mostly relied on the saw and a fairly typical boning knife. Our teacher stressed the key lesson: "Let the meat tell you where it wants to be cut."
Many cuts of meat are bundles of muscles marbled with a little fat, separated from other bundles by a tough silvery wrapper. "Sedentary muscles" -- such as the tenderloin, which is removed with the barest tickle from a knife -- are very tender, and tend to be cooked the shortest amount of time. The most muscly, knotted cuts of meat -- the "motion muscles" -- are those you slow cook, usually those found around the front and rear leg joints.
Some meat cuts are cross sections of larger bundles: A pork chop is a cross section, the finest of which includes a bit of both the tenderloin and the larger loin, along with a little rib bone.
Sure enough, looking past the sheer mass of the pig, you could start to see pork belly, baby back ribs, the ham and of course, the tenderloin.
Little by little, we broke down the pig into about 15 larger cuts, then trimmed them further into segments much like you'd buy in a supermarket. It was surprisingly bloodless, almost clinical in its precision. The sawing of limbs and, later, the rib cage, was not so much reminiscent of major surgery as it was of home carpentry, if a bit gooier. My wife isn't squeamish, but she avoids dirty kitchen work when she can, and even she found it surprisingly straightforward. Still, after a while my iPhone -- the only camera we had on hand -- got slathered by pork fat. Our final task was to "reassemble" the pig, putting the separate parts back in to show just how intuitive the cuts are.
At the end of the class, worn out and well greased, the four students and two teachers divvied up the meat. I took quite a few cuts, among them a side of pork belly I vow to cure and cold smoke for bacon, once I figure out the logistics. As for my limb sawing, the result was a surprisingly perfect "hock," which I smoked immediately, and am saving in my freezer for the next time I make collard greens. I also smoked a half a ham, which was perfect in sandwiches and in a lentil soup.
I'm what you'd call a guilty carnivore. I feel bad about having to do in all those nice critters, but I'm not going to deny my primal urge to enjoy succulent meat. As such, I try my best to increase my meat understanding and awareness. "Where does meat come from?" may have sounded like a silly question in the past, but nowadays, in an age when meat can literally be grown in laboratories, the question is increasingly apropos.
If you’re like-minded in your quest to better understand meat, look to larger cities, where there are wonderful schools that mainly teach professionals but turn out their facilities to interested amateurs on evenings and weekends. I personally recommend the Institute of Culinary Education in New York (where I took Knife Skills, and a few specialty classes) -- they currently offer a "nose to tail" Lamb Butchery class. Le Cordon Bleu has an impressive monthly non-professional curriculum that's available in 17 different cities. I didn't see a butchery lesson in this year's lineup, but there is a June Grilling and Chilling session that seems like a good place to discuss the plight of the carnivore. Perhaps you know of a good school in your area that might have a meat class -- if so, share it in comments.
About that butt, it turns out that it's synonymous with the shoulder. I still don't know which end the rump is on, since I carved up a pig and not a cow. Hopefully that'll be my next surprise birthday present. Too bad those only come but once a year.
Wilson is the deputy tech and science editor for msnbc.com and TODAY.com, but whatever free time is left over after working and raising two kids, he spends in his kitchen. Needless to say, it's never enough. You can catch up with him on Twitter at @wjrothman.
Note: Apologies for the quality of the photos — as mentioned, this class came as a surprise gift to the author, who would surely have brought better camera gear had he known ahead of time what he was getting into.