The Origins of Originality

A few weeks ago I took a day “off” to attend a photography workshop. It was billed as a “day of inspiration” and I looked forward to refueling my think tank after a busy season of wedding work.

Much of the discussion centered on our need to be “original” in our vision and our work. The speaker emphasized time and time again that our work matters only to the degree to which it is original. To make his point, he shared the websites of several artists around the world who are successfully chasing after new ideas—and the subsequent recognition and/or jobs they received from their efforts .

But originality has a short shelf-life. It only takes the next guy to build on your idea for the “original” idea to be left as old and forgotten. In today’s social-media world, this creating and building upon can happen in 15 minute cycles. If the value of our work comes merely from it’s level of originality, than our work suffers from a short shelf-life as well. 

So, rather than leaving the workshop inspired to “be more original”, I left discouraged by the enormous amount of attention originality attracts; the high commodity that originality has become in a culture that is always going after something newer and better. It is impossible to keep up.

I’m now reminded of how the goal of This Beautiful Life is anything but original. The core task—learning how to grow, preserve, and cook and share food—is a task that has been central to man’s existence since our beginning. While new technology has certainly changed the way we farm (sometimes for the best, many times for the worse), farming is never about being original. It’s about submitting to the history of the earth and its ability to produce harvest after harvest after harvest. Farming is about letting go of our need to be original—to do things in a way never before done—and agreeing to work in tandem with nature’s course. And most of all, farming forces us to recognize that no matter how much we “do”, how much “originates” from our labor, it is ultimately God who creates.

What’s more, I like knowing that God does not validate me by my ability to come up with next big idea but rather, He is the crazy idea. His Truth is the origin from which all originality results.

And with Him, my value never expires.

Holiday Hog Butchering

cutlets of a pig vintage graphic

A couple Saturdays ago, I made my way out to Primrose Farm to observe a traditional hog butchering. Gruesome? Yes. Interesting? Very. I came away with a great deal of fascinating information and a better understanding (and appreciation) for the just how food gets from the farm to the table.

Pigs (Sus scrofa) originate from Asia, also where the earliest efforts of hog domestication can be found. The pig’s short gestation period (only four months) and high yield of offspring at one time (a sow can produce upwards of 12 pigs in one litter) made the animal a profitable and reliable one for producers. Pigs arrived in America as early as 1539 when early explorers arrived from Europe and quickly flourished amongst the rich vegetation of the new land. Skipping several hundred years ahead,* the pig remains a core component of the American diet because of the pig’s ability to quickly convert corn into meat. In many ways, the American pork industry is tied to America’s love affair with corn, the consumption of which is a topic of recent discussion/debate.

Ideal butcher weight is around 220 pounds—a weight the pig will reach six months after its born, although the subject hog at Primrose Farm weighed in at a very hearty 600+ pounds. For all intensive purposes, the weight of the pig does not necessarily affect the quality of the pork. The 220 pound guideline developed more out of practicality than anything else. For starters, any larger than 220 pounds, and the pig can become too large for a single butcher to handle. Secondly, the pig reaches this weight approximately six months after birth, accounting for the time between the spring birth of the piglets to the November butchering time.

Butchering on an Illinois farm in the 1930s typically occurred in late November and early December on days during which the temperature did not get below freezing or above 40°F.  After scalding and removing of the “awful” (the intestines, organs, etc.) the pig hangs overnight. If it freezes in the night, the meat can be difficult to cut. If the meat gets too warm, cutting a clean, even slice through the flesh can be equally difficult. Seeing as how this temperature range occurs at the end of November through the early parts of December, hog butchering quickly became associated with Christmas and, no doubt, contributes to American’s idea of ham as a traditional yuletide meal.

To actually kill the hog, the butcher marks an X on the back of the hog’s head, behind the eyes and in the middle of the two ears. Shooting the pig just to the right (or left) of the X will immediately kill the pig’s brain. The hog is immediately hung upside-down, held by a pully system attached to a wooden bar that is forced into the heel tendons of the pig for support. As she hangs upside down, the heart continues to pump for a few minutes, draining the blood from the animal. This process is called bleeding the animal and is important to prevent the blood from coagulating in the meat, thereby producing cleaner pork. Some farmers (the wives, really) collected the blood to make blood sausage. With a pig the size of the one at Primrose Farm, there was significantly more blood than could ever be consumed in its short shelf-life

After five minutes or less of bleeding, the pig is ready to be scalded. Scalding is the process of removing the hair and the first layer of skin. A large vat of hot water (not boiling, but in the words of Kirk at Primrose, “hot coffee temperature”) is used to dip the pig. After each dipping, a dull knife is used to scrape the hair from the carcass. In the 1930s, this hair was often collected and used for toothbrushes and other similar household items on the farm. The first layer of the skin is also scraped from the carcass, revealing the white under-layer. Due to the large size of the pig at Primrose, scalding took a great deal longer than it would on a typical butcher-size pig.

After the scalding and scraping, the next step is to remove the head. There is nothing high-tech or fancy about this part, as it simply involves a sharp knife and a bit of “umph”. Cutting from the base of the neck around to the front, the butcher twists the neck until the bone breaks. using an ax on the bone can help created a cleaner break. The head is immediately put in a bucket and will be further disassembled for it’s various parts. One of the easiest food items to make from the head is headcheese, which is literally boiling the entire head in a pot. Once boiled, the natural collagen from the head acts as a gelatin to mold everything together.  Alternatively, the butcher could set aside the jowls for jowl-bacon, as well as the tongue as another source of meat. The eyes are not used, and if boiled as part of the head, simply rise to the top of the pot and dissolve.

With the head removed, the butcher can now open the carcass to remove the insides, also called the “awful”. A sharp knife is used to cut a shallow trail from the tail all the way down to the breastbone. The butcher then takes an ax to break through the pelvic bone before cutting all the way through the skin down to the neck. With the pelvis broken, the ends of the intestines can be tied close and slowly removed from the inside. As the intestines are removed, the other organs will follow; everything is collected in a large pail and saved for various uses. Most notably, the intestines are painstakingly made into sausage casing—a process that involves turning the entire intestine inside out cleaning off the lard as you go.

At this point, the farmer could continue with the job of cutting the actual meat of the carcass or simply sell the carcass to a third party who could continue the job. If selling the carcass, the butcher leaves both kidneys intact, as this allows the third party to verify the animal was diseased in anyway.

At Primrose Farm, the butchering event took place over two days, the first being the scalding and cleaning portion, the second day being the meat-cutting day. I chose not to attend the second day, mostly to avoid becoming a vegetarian from too much “exposure to reality”. Maybe next year I’ll have more guts (pun intended). In the meantime, you can hop on over to this article (black and white images included) to learn all about the meat-cutting process.

*Additional articles on the history of pork can be found here and here.

Editor’s Note (added January 24, 2012): To learn more about the history and process of pig butchering, check out this article on NPR about artisan butcher, Andrew Plotsky. Be sure to watch the video for an up-close-and-personal encounter!

Community Efforts

I’m continuously amazed (and inspired) by the ways humans increasingly employ the internet to create community. Something that is inherently individualistic and solitary in its success to disengage you from your immediate surroundings and company paradoxically serves to connect us with the global scene and population. As I consider my own efforts to create community, I admit it is much easier for me to create and maintain a website (or a blog) than actually invite a friend over for brunch and let them know the real me.

But the world-wide web is a start, if nothing else, to finding community in the 21st Century. Here is a short list of some interesting cyber-spaces promoting ideas of real-space community. Click on any of the links to learn more about each concept.

WWOOF (or World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) connects farmers with individuals interested in gaining real-world experience on working farms around the globe. Pay $30 and gain access to a complete listing of participating farms all across the United Statess.

Like WWOOF, FarmStayUS connects real farmers with real people interested in experiencing life on a farm. FarmStayUS differs in their appeal to individuals wanting a more relaxing approach to their farmstay, suggesting a new kind of “agritourism” for the adventuresome family.

Looscubes is a good attempt to provide community for solo-preneurs, artists, techies, financiers, and anyone else more accustomed to working at a desk 10 feet away from their bed through it’s database of workspaces around the world available for rent. Complete with the benefits of shared equipment costs and  water-cooler gossip, As someone who personally knows what it’s like to work alone and at home, Loosecubes offers a great alternative to the corner table at Starbucks.

Stonegate Farm, located in the Hudson Valley of New York, is the closest realization I’ve discovered to date of what I dream of creating someday. It’s a family estate farm dedicated to producing fresh salad greens, vegetables, berries and other artisan delicacies. What’s more, the owner is a renowned garden photographer and opens his farm to other artists for gallery shows, workshops, and garden tours.

The (Milk) Bucket List

Last week I accomplished something from my (milk) bucket list: hand-milk a cow.

The St. Charles Park District facilitates Primrose Farm, a full-fledged family farm operating as it did in the 1930s. Milking was a part of the daily chores at Primrose Farm back in the day and the park district offers weekly milking classes for anyone curious enough to attend.

As the lone student the day I chose to attend, I received a personal lesson by one of the farm’s part-time staffers. First matter of business was a brief explanation of the dairy barn’s form and function. Built between 1859 and 1860 in the “English” barn style, the barn was originally used as a threshing barn (threshing is the process of loosening the edible grains of wheat from the chaff). The building measured approximately 30 feet by 40 feet. At both ends, double wagon doors provide a cross-way of ventilation in addition to providing easy access to the adjacent pasture. Windows flank the opposite sides of the barn, increasing air circulation and access to light.

When I arrived at the farm, stanchions secured each cow along the sides of the barn, just as they would have been in the 1930s. A large aisle run lengthwise through the barn. The floor of the aisle is built to peak in the center, allowing for easy run-off of any “messes” into the built-in ditch. This ditch runs just behind the rear of the cow to help with sanitation and clean-up (when the cow relieves herself, her mess is caught in the ditch). Each cows faces toward a trough where she feeds on a diet of oats, corn, and protein-enhance pellets provided by Primrose Farm.

Now for the actual milking! First, use the corners of a towel to wipe each teat with a solution of iodine and water. Express the first bit of milk from each teat to check for mastitis or other irregularities of the milk. If the milk  contains any clumping or is watery, mastitis may be suspected and the cow should receive immediate treatment.

There are two different methods for milking: the stripping method and the full-hand method. Stripping is pulling down and squeezing on the teat using the same pressure at all times. The milker should be careful to never yank on the teat, as this is uncomfortable for the cow and will discourage her from letting her milk down. The full-hand method requires a little more hand coordination by which you curl your fingers from top down around the teat, while applying pressure as you curl. As you curl your fingers around the teat, the cow expresses her milk.

I should note that the milking process stimulates the cow to produce more milk. So while her udder may contain only a few gallons of milk at the start of a milking session, she could produce many gallons more by the end of milking. The total milk yield varies from cow to cow and can fluctuate from day to day depending on environmental conditions. Variations in diet, breed, living conditions, and farmer’s know-how all influence milk production. A cow will produce milk for up to nine months after giving birth.

A good milker can milk a cow by hand in twenty minutes. Milking machines available in the 1930s could milk a cow in five minutes, thereby reducing a dairy farmer’s workload considerably.

I successfully milked half-a-bucket on Friday, which I would estimate to be a approximately two or three gallons…and one check for the bucket list!