Pigs are rear-wheel drive creatures. If you were to watch one scamper through its enclosure — in and out of their pigloos; ‘round and ‘round trees, feeders and waterers — you would notice how their back legs propel them forward. Oftentimes, the power of the pig’s back legs will cause the rear end of the pig to swing out sideways like a rally car taking a corner on a dirt track.
It is likely that the rear-wheel drive nature of pigs is why their butts are so large and why their forelegs are so much smaller than their butts in comparison. The large butt of pigs is what allows for perhaps the most well-known cut of pork in American butchering vernacular: the ham. Oftentimes, the ham steals the culinary glory (for good reason—it’s the largest continuous muscle in the pig, and lends itself well to being dry-cured (prosciutto) or smoked (think Easter)) for pork, leaving other cuts, like the ham’s closely related appendage — the foreleg — to be disregarded and sometimes forgotten, relegated to being chopped up for the sausage grinder.
If you’re Chef Joe Marciano of the Albion Malleable Brewing Company, however, such cuts will hardly go unnoticed, as he is spearheading the brewery’s whole animal butchery operation. On a wintry February afternoon, I joined Chef Joe at the Albion Food Hub for a good ol’ round of pig butchering.
On this afternoon, we were butchering a gilt (a female pig) from Barton’s, a hog farm in Homer, with plans to saw, cut and otherwise carve up the carcass of the gilt into freezer-manageable pieces. By the time I arrived at the Albion Food Hub, the gleaming stainless steel tables were speckled with blood and stray bits of fat. Chef Joe had already removed the jowls (the mixture of meat, fat and glands along a pig’s neck), and had continued on to trim up the foreleg. Slicing up through the ribcage, and then across, underneath the shoulder blade, the foreleg — or as those in the butchering world call it, the “picnic shoulder” — was freed from its fleshy bondage.
Having separated the picnic shoulder from the rest of the body, Chef Joe proceeded to carve off the riblets that remained attached, and then cut along the seam (a butchery term that refers to the way a cut of meat naturally wants to separate from other cuts) to arrive at the finished product: the well-muscled foreleg of a pig, ready to either be cut into steaks and roasts, or to be sent off for some quality time in the smoker.
When I asked Chef Joe how he knew where to make the cuts and follow the seams, he replied, “It’s like following a map.”
Chef Joe learned how to read this porcine map from the time he spent at the Culinary Institute of America in New York City. Before this afternoon’s bout with the cleaver, however, Chef Joe also took a refresher course of sorts in pig butchering at the Grand River Brewery in Jackson, Michigan.
Chef Joe and his wife Kat moved to the town of Homer — just south of Albion — in August of 2017, and —in the spring of 2018 —was brought on board the Albion Malleable team. In that time, Chef Joe has collaborated with the rest of the brewery team to create an innovative dining menu that will feature, among other things, products of a whole animal butchery. One such product is porchetta, or Italian roast pork, that is made by roasting a skin-on, deboned pig carcass, seasoning it with fennel, serving it — juices, fat, skin and all — on a bun or Italian panino, and garnishing it with salt and droplets of your own drool.
If you haven’t heard of porchetta, don’t feel bad—porchetta is hardly as ubiquitous in the states as it is in its native Italy, where porchetta vendors are a commonplace fixture on street-corners and piazzas. Porchetta, because of its intrinsic demand to use a whole carcass — and not just cuts — results in one making an intentional effort to create the dish. Consequently, unless it is known before the pig is butchered that porchetta is the end goal, the pig will almost certainly be divided into the normal amount of chops, steaks and roasts. This means that it is a lot harder to create something like porchetta if the pork being sourced comes from a place like Sysco or Gordon Food Service, where cuts are far more common than carcasses.
But culinary delight isn’t the only reason Albion Malleable Brewery wants to invest in the extra time involved in doing whole animal butchery. Also joining Chef Joe and myself on this snowy February Saturday is John Rogers (‘14), who believes in the necessity of the whole animal butchery operation.
“People might ask: What’s the value of doing a whole animal butchery? What’s the value to locally sourcing the ingredients for your beer?” he said. “Community emerges out of doing these things. When you’re doing whole animal butchery, you’re going to speak to the person who raised the animal, you’re going to talk to the person who did the slaughter, who butchered the animal, and who cooked that animal,” he said.
The sourcing of high-quality ingredients for the brewery is something Chef Joe heartily believes in.
“People enjoy eating, but don’t know what goes into [their eating food]. Part of what we’re doing here is just trying to raise awareness for where things come from.”
Sourcing high-quality ingredients, and preparing those ingredients with skill and care, will certainly be complementary to the atmosphere created by eating such food. The formation of a place where good food and good beer come together to enrich the vibrancy of the community is something the brewery wants to work towards.
“It’s all about making connections between people. [Our beer and food will create] a shared experience you can connect with people over,” Rogers noted.
Utilizing good food for the common good is hardly a new idea, but it is one that, when fostered, can contribute to the creation and maintenance of a healthy community. John, Chef Joe and the rest of the Albion Malleable team — Associate Physics Professor Dr. Charles E. Moreau and alumnus Ben Wade (‘99) — all believe in this, and believe that Albion Malleable will help fill that role in the rebuilding of downtown of Albion. When I talked with John, this point was emphasized over, and over again: “That’s the story of Albion Malleable — that’s why we’re opening a brewery: community, community, community. This is what we’re here to do.”
Photo by Evan Rieth