To my father, a “vegetarian diet” is what you feed a cow. Hence, I was reared on animal protein. Though I had a very brief stint in the meatless world, I am of the conscientious omnivore persuasion. As part of that adjective, it’s important to come to terms with what it means to eat meat. Once one takes the slightest peek into the meat industry, a priority on local food sourcing is a very logical next step.
In addition to my interests in new local food scenes, one of my food goals for the year is to better understand cuts of meat. Fortunately, Pittsburgh Chef Justin Severino provided me with an opportunity to eat local food and learn more about the food I was eating! As part of the ever creative line up of Sunday events, Justin offered a Hog Butchering Demo.
Before a cleaver was ever raised, there was a charcuterie spread to remind us of why we had gathered and beer from East End Brewing Company because sometimes the good people want to drink before watching a pig cut into pieces!
One way to get the attention of a large group of eaters and minglers is to drop a huge hog onto a metal table. You will have the entire room’s attention!
The story of hog butchering began with Justin’s own story. Growing up in an Italian family fostered a love of food and gathering around the table. When it was time for him to enter the big, wide world, a career related to food was an obvious choice. His love of cooking first took him to the Pittsburgh Culinary Institute. Then he made the logical foodie mecca to California, where he worked under several great chefs all the while absorbing the culture of sustainable food sourcing. As Justin said, “Californians care about local food like Pittsburghers care about the Steelers.”
Justin’s curiosity about food and sourcing led him to read the standard library and view all the documentaries revealing the truth about mega food industries. Buying food for the various restaurants where he worked meant trips to farmers markets and farms, where he saw a more humane and sustainable system.
Wanting to forge his own path in the food world and support the positive systems he had seen, he opened up his own butcher shop- Severinos Community Butcher, where he butchered whole hogs from local farms. After successfully running the butcher shop, Justin decided to return home to Pittsburgh, and the steel town food scene is ever so grateful for his return!
Why does Justin butcher his own hogs? A few reasons…
First, Justin butchers whole hogs because no one else is. Much like a painter who stretches his own canvas to enable the vision in his head, Justin takes the time and care to butcher whole hogs so he can cut very specifically for the meats he wants to cure and the meals he wants to create.
Another reason he controls so much of the food process is just that- control. The butchering demo is worth viewing for various reasons, but more than anything, it made me appreciate Justin’s extreme attention to detail. He cuts away any piece that potentially could have come into contact with other hogs or surfaces at the USDA facility (all slaughtered animals must go to a USDA facility first). He does not trust the mega food industry and takes great care to guard the benefits of a selecting a local hog.
The Bonus Reason?
Have you ever lifted a pig? It’s a really great workout!
What does Justin look for in a hog?
Color: Caged, factory-raised pigs will be paler unlike their free-roaming counterparts who will tan in the sun.
Nose ring: Justin looks for pigs that have not been ringed. Pigs are natural foragers. They root into the ground with their noses to search for food. Factory farms pierce pigs’ noses with metal rings to prevent this habit, since rooting in the unsanitary factory farm environment could lead to illness and disease. This practice causes the animal pain when it tries to perform one of its natural, ingrained tendencies.
Ears: Factory farms clips pigs’ ears to identify them. Free range pigs do not require this cruel practice.
A Tail: In confined spaces, pigs will bite on each other’s tails. This can lead to infection. To prevent the confrontations, factory farms cut off piglets’ tails.
There are various ways to butcher a hog, and as Justin said, his way is dictated by what he aims to prepare at the restaurant. This is the point in this post in which my butchering insights stop for two reasons:
1. If you live in Pittsburgh, you should attend yourself! Justin’s demo offers an incredible chance to understand our food and food sources better. We even met the farmer from Clarion River Organics who supplied the demo hog. I’m sure he would have had a lot more tidbits to add, but we all excused him early, as he was a very proud new father and needed to be with his brand new baby!
2. I am still very far from being an expert! I wouldn’t mind attending another butchering demo, since Justin offers a wealth of knowledge. I also would attend another butchering demo because of the meal that followed…
Behold the pork belly! It was a work of art!
(Charred radicchio, cherry custard, cherries, lovage)
With fresh, seasonal ingredients, a simple salad begins to compete with the main courses for space on a plate!
Spaghetti Bolognese with Mint
“We’re going to have spaghetti because it’s Sunday,” Justin said, and not a one complained. This was the first time I had mint in my spaghetti, but it will not be the last!
Pork Roast & Green Beans
Zucchini and a healthy serving of taleggio cheese
How often does your meal begin with the farmer who raised your food? How often does the chef take time to prove his food convictions? As always, I’m grateful to Justin for his commitment to creating a food community. We all walked away from our Sunday dinner with a better understanding of the care and detail behind each course. It’s important for chefs like Justin to foster the local food dialogue, but it’s also important for us, as patrons, to vote with our forks and dollars! If you live in Pittsburgh, a visit to Cure not only results in a fantastic meal, but your money feeds into the local economy and supports a more human treatment of the main course. Let me know what you learn!