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Zen and the Art of Cutting Backfat

If you’ve ever spent any significant time in a kitchen, home or professional, then you’ve likely done some pretty mundane, repetitive tasks that just needed to be done.  In a commercial environment, the need for large volumes of ingredients is more typical and you may find yourself pondering the meaning of life while picking a quart of thyme leaves.  These types of tasks give your mind the luxury of travelling to far away places that you may not have had the time to visit in normal time.

I had such an opportunity to mentally travel today while I was given the task of trimming one hundred pounds of pork backfat.  It comes in pieces about three feet long by a foot wide and about an inch thick.  My task was to break it down into approximately 4″ by 4″ pieces which will be rendered into lard tomorrow (sure to be on the ‘What I Accomplished Today‘ list).

While rendering lard may not be exciting to you I am actually looking forward to it as I’ve never done it before.  If I’ve learned anything in the past week+ it’s that the use of rendered fat in cooking is compulsory in charcuterie.  Whether it’s rillettes, confit, or ciccioli – it makes so many things that much better.  I have resolved to make a good amount when I return home for use in my kitchen.


What I Accomplished Today

Monday, Monday – today brought the return of jerky to my life.  And, as in recent days past, I actually enjoyed taking my time to lay out 21 trays of the stuff.  Again, it helped set my day in motion and brought me one step closer to more exciting tasks.

Once I finished my jerky duties I was on to tying brined picnic hams.  Simple three string tie.  Once I finished this I trimmed and brined about a dozen hams for curing over the next 7 days.  I also put several trimmed out lamb bellies in brine which will become bacon in the near future.

Then I pulled both the petit sec and fegatelli from the drying rack, brushed off any furry mold, cut the links and then stacked them in lexans.  All in all there were probably about 150 of each.

Next up – trimming four bottom round which I then cured for bresaola.  I was pretty adept at this and did a nice job trimming off the fat and silver skin.  I then stabbed them with a chocolate chipper about 50 times each and applied a 3% dry cure for 14 days.

Moving on, I salted 24 duck legs for confit.  Apparently duck confit flies off the shelf at The Fatted Calf during the holiday season and they are now in full production mode to gear up for the rush. I’ve never seen so much duck in my life.

And last, but most certainly not least, I was given the opportunity to trim the aforementioned backfat.  It gave me time and space to think about a number of things including the recent closure of 7 butcher shops in Seattle over the span of the last 2 months.  Does this mean opportunity is knocking?  Or does it mean that there were just too many specialty butcher shops in Seattle?  More to ponder…


Siddhartha and Pork

Today reminded me of one of my favorite books I read in high school and again later in life; Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse is a well-known classic.  And I highly recommend reading it every 5-10 years to remind you of what truly makes you happy.

So what does a Zen master have in common with the simple pig?  Well, both are perfect in their simplicity.  They are uncomplicated and are both capable of incredible transformation into a higher state of being.  Siddhartha was a man who attained the fabled state of nirvana through his enlightened understanding of being.  The pig can be transformed into many different creations giving it’s life to others to help them achieve a higher state of happiness through food.

While the pig may not transform the human that consumes it into Gautama Buddha – it may bring them one step closer to understanding that happiness is relative and can be defined by appreciation of simple things. Those things we see or experience every day.  Taking the time granted to us through tasks which we see as menial – whether they be picking thyme, commuting, typing email, or cutting up 100 pounds of backfat – we can hopefully find a moment of inner peace and understanding that life is good.  And so are piggies.

To read from the beginning of my journey as a stagiaire at The Fatted Calf click here.

For Day 5 – click here

For Day 7 – click here