The pig has dainty pink toenails, enormous veined and crinkled ears, and a sweet expression. A woman is struggling to cut off its head with a hacksaw. “It’s about cutting through,” says Ryan Farr. “Follow the line of the ribs.” He takes the hacksaw out of her hand for a moment and adjusts it. A student pulls an iPhone out from underneath his green apron and takes a picture.
It’s a beautiful Sunday afternoon. What compels someone who could be lying in the grass to pay $125 to come and learn how to butcher a pig? Farr is frequently cited in articles with titles like “Rock Star Butchers” and “Celebrity Butchers” and “Sexy Butchers” — articles that began prophesying butchery fatigue, ennui and backlash months ago. But today in La Cocina, the nonprofit kitchen space where Farr occasionally works, the carcass fascination appears sincere and unjaded.
“My father was a butcher,” says a dark-haired woman named Monica as she cuts through a section of rump. “I never got to work there. Because I was a girl. And so my boyfriend bought me this class.”
“It’s a good thing to know,” says Arsie, a slight, cheerful woman who is absorbed in trying to pull the flesh off the pig’s skull. “You can kind of see how people fit together.” A few feet away, a man is staring, goggle-eyed, at the pig knee he has defleshed. “Ooooooooo” he says, swinging it back and forth. The ball of the joint is as smooth and white as a cue ball, and it moves soundlessly. The aura is not unlike that of a science class, but without the smell of formaldehyde, and with the promise of sausage at the end.
“Are you done with the face?” Farr asks Arsie. “Or do you want to keep working on it?”
“I think I’m done,” says Arsie.
“Anyone want to trade for face?” Farr yells. People glance up from legs, sections of midriff. A hand goes up, a bit uncertainly.
“There’s going to be no way to equally break up a face,” Farr tells the new volunteer, reassuringly. Evenness is part of the order of the day. Each student will take home 1/14th of the pig — about 10-12 pounds. But there are only four feet, two ears, etc. Compromises will have to be made.
Marissa still has a foot left over from the last time she took the class, in January. Marissa is the first repeat: The pig in front of us is $350, wholesale, and too large to fit comfortably in most kitchens, let alone a tiny San Francisco one. Without taking the class again, chances to cut up a whole pig will be few and far between for today’s graduates, other than the occasional pig roast, no matter how familiar they become with the NAMP guidelines for meat cuts. But, Marissa says, “I’ve learned how to prep and cook vegetables. Why not meat?”
After the first few classes, people started showing up who clearly had registered on a whim, and hadn’t thought through the implications of spending three hours sawing through a carcass (as in: It can get tedious for the easily distracted). So Farr made getting into the class slightly less easy. Instead of just registering online, now people have to phone in during a two-hour window on a specific date. It seems to have worked: This is a serious crowd. Everyone is staring at their hunk of carcass like it’s a particularly vexing trigonometry problem.
“I know we’re all fingering the pork here,” says Farr. “But that’s how you know where to cut. You want to slide between the muscles. The good news is, all of this is edible.” Farr got started with carcasses back when he worked at local restaurants like Orson and Fifth Floor, learning by trial and error. Eventually the carcasses took over his life: He makes a living now through a variety of meat-related enterprises. It takes him 45 minutes to break down a carcass like the one that is taking 12 students to dismantle, and he just got back from a butchery tour. But when he started, he says, he truly was making it up as he went along. “If I made a mistake, well, I made up a few cuts.”
“If I’d learned in a butcher shop,” Farr says, “I would have learned about how to make exact cuts and not much else. Instead I learned how to maximize everything and how to use it so that everything ran out at the same time. That’s how I got started making salami and hams. And that’s how I learned about things like shoulder chops. They’d never sell in a butcher shop because they don’t look good. But they taste delicious.”
“Just take your thumb and work the brains out,” says Farr. The class is almost over. The pig’s skull has been cracked open and an assistant is standing nearby with a bowl of icewater, to make the blood clot and come off the brain easily. The brain is then fried up with a little white flour, butter and salt, and handed out on toothpicks like tiny meatballs, which people accept gingerly. Cutting open the carcass is one thing; eating it is another.
Meanwhile, Farr is busily dealing out bundles of meat onto butcher paper and passing them along to be labeled and loaded into paper Safeway bags. A few parts are still recognizable: nose, feet, ears. He keeps up a running patter as each new bundle is passed along. “These chops and leg meat — don’t freeze them. They’re good for cooking now. The face and trotters you definitely can freeze. Same with the shoulder and belly — those are good for sausage, or carnitas. If you are going to be making skin pasta, or serving it over rice, you’re going to want to include a lot of fat in there.”
The bags fill up. The class looks slightly dazed, like a crowd of preschoolers desperately in need of a nap. They wander out of La Cocina into the late afternoon sunshine carrying their Safeway bags, and drift away. The pig has officially left the building.