How a whole-hog workshop forced me to confront life, death and all the blood and guts in between

Photography by Tyler Shane.

For this section of the magazine, I typically embrace the gluttonous task of dining out on the magazine’s dime to help determine where you, dear reader, should spend your hard-earned cash. I chose to waive that privilege this time around so I could attend an intensive whole-hog workshop in March.

The three-day event consisted of a ten-person group taking part in the hands-on process of bringing a pig from pasture to table. To clarify, on the first day, I saw the pig wiggle its nose and sniff the air as we approached it with a loaded rifle. Two days later, we were tearing meat off its boiled head to make carnitas tacos.

Photography by Zach Bauman.

I experienced shock, fascination, horror, community, blood, guts and adventure. And, yes, I would do it all over again. In a heartbeat. 

Consider this your official trigger warning. If the grisly details of disemboweling a pig carcass are not in your personal book of curiosities, feel free to skip to the next article. Maybe you’re a vegan or just willfully ignorant to the particulars of killing animals for food. I don’t blame you. But this essay is not for you. 

Before I began writing about food, I was making it in kitchens around KC for nearly a decade. Most notably, I worked a long stint as a chocolatier at Christopher Elbow Chocolates. When the pandemic hit, like others, I challenged myself to break up my usual industry work with culinary projects that emphasized buying local.

Instead of buying packs of chicken parts from the grocery store, I bought whole ones from the farmers market and butchered them for meals. Over time, being more involved in the preparation of my food became a deeply satisfying practice of prioritizing new skills and self-sufficiency over convenience. 

As it turns out, when you regularly purchase anomalies like chicken feet, bone marrow and beef suet, conversation is bound to strike. I developed a relationship with the Price family of Five Mile Farm, a vendor at the Overland Park Farmers Market. After an inspiring tour of their regenerative family-run farm, I confessed to Lucas, husband and father of the Price family, that the thrill of breaking down whole chickens, tenderloins and pork sides had subsided and I was aiming for bigger game.

I was struck by a newfound desire to connect to the animals I was eating, but as a lifelong city girl, I wasn’t sure where to start. As fate would have it, Lucas was hosting Andy Lane and Doug Wharton of Ohio-based Hand Hewn Farm to teach “the entire process of how to efficiently, beautifully and practically take a hog from pasture to plate ethically and humanly,” as described on the farm’s website.

I have never wanted to be part of an animal’s death. But as I thought more about the animals I was consuming, I became aware that the animal’s health and life are connected to my wellbeing. This realization brought about a near-spiritual call to confront the truth behind the food I was eating—even if it meant witnessing death. 

I wondered if I could view a pork chop the same if I had seen it as part of a whole, living creature just days earlier. It was a challenge I chose to embrace, and on the first day of the workshop, I gathered on Five Mile Farm with ten other strangers to kill a hog. 

Lane and Wharton began their introduction with a speech that immediately put my nerves at ease. “This is a very serious thing,” Lane said in a calm but firm tone. “We do not enjoy killing animals.”

Photography by Zach Bauman.

The workshop’s intention is to teach people how to feed their families with efficient nose-to-tail butchery. It was an act of homesteading, a common practice before the days of supermarkets and factory farming. Lane and Wharton’s spiel ended with them reading the poem “For the Hog Killing” by environmental activist, farmer and writer Wendell Berry.

Walking not-so-bravely toward our future meal 

Here’s how it would go. Lucas Price would shoot the pig between the eyes. Wharton would then immediately knife its jugular to drain the blood while a third person would collect the pig’s vital fluid in a bowl for blood sausage. It would all happen within seconds. 

The death was instantaneous. The next thing I knew, I was being handed a bowl of blood to stir so it wouldn’t coagulate. In my nervousness, I spilled some on my hand. I gazed at my crimson-covered wedding ring and felt a surge of vitality course through me. The communal act of hard, dirty, gory work had awakened something metaphysical in me. Any doubts I had just moments ago were gone. I was alive.

Photography by Tyler Shane.

The men hoisted the pig in the barn and lowered its body in a barrel of one hundred and fifty-degree water to scald the first layer of skin. After peeling off the skin and popping the toenails off, the pig began to slowly transform from livestock to its culinary alias of pork.

After a few tedious knife cuts, Lane began to slice down the belly and a labyrinth of innards spilled out. Our group marveled at the macabre spectacle like the Rembrandt painting, “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.” 

Photography by Tyler Shane.

Lane removed the entrails, and Wharton began cleaning the organs we planned to use for culinary purposes (the heart, liver, kidneys, intestines and bladder). It took multiple men to saw the pig in half. 

During the remaining two days, everyone took turns quartering the pig into shoulder, ham, loin and belly sections. We broke those cuts down into pork chops, spare ribs, bacon and pork butt  and the hind legs into prosciutto. We cured jowls and bacon and vacuum-sealed them to age. We made chicharrones from the skin, lard from the fat and stock from the head, hocks and trotters. Liverwurst was stuffed and cooked inside the bladder sack, links of blood sausage were stuffed in the intestines, and offal patties were wrapped in the caul fat. Every bit of the pig that could provide purpose did. 

Photography by Tyler Shane.

We couldn’t enjoy the cured meats (one attendee bought the whole pig and took the parts home with him), but Lane and Wharton had brought along meats they cured on their farm, including prosciutto, capicola and speck. At the very end of the workshop, everyone pitched in to create a massive charcuterie board with the ready-to-eat foods from the weekend along with Lane and Wharton’s cured meats. Finally, we feasted, and I have never eaten a more well-deserved meal. 

Photography by Tyler Shane.Tyler Shane

It has always felt honorable and honest to work with my hands. There’s fulfillment in laborious creation. But to learn a craft that results in nourishment might be some of the most honorable work of all. And, simply put, there is an unparalleled camaraderie in coming together to embrace work that others shy away from. As I reflect, it makes sense that I sought out the Price family. I was searching for connection, community and security during the chaos of the pandemic. 

Photography by Tyler Shane.Tyler Shane

You may wonder why. Why risk replacing a restaurant review to tell a niche and gruesome tale? Admittedly, as a culinarian, it was a selfish endeavor to satisfy my curiosity, deepen my knowledge and connect more with my food’s ecosystem. But I’d also like to think it was to shine a light on the people who do the hard work.

Farmers are constantly confronting nature’s brutal cycles. Because of this, small family farms like Five Mile Farm know they cannot operate without community. During the workshop, fellow farmers market vendor Taco Naco catered several of the meals, and the pig was a Meishan from Odd Bird Farm in Weston. Farmers know they cannot operate without the help of others.

Lane and Wharton led us with finesse and honor, and the hospitality the Price family gave us on their farm was like a scene out of The Andy Griffith Show. They graciously let me peek into their world for the weekend, and I am left with an abundance and wealth that no tablecloth dinner can replicate. 

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