I am still in awe that one, single, well-placed strike with a sledge hammer had the power to drop the massive beast instantly to its knees...unconscious. It was the last time the animal moved. Certainly, it was not the first time this Mongolian herder had killed a yak, and his experience showed. As soon as the yak hit the ground the herder dropped the hammer, picked up his knife and sliced the animal’s jugular so it would bleed out. Nothing out here in the northern Mongolian steppe goes to waste, and most certainly not this yak’s blood. A metal pot was quickly placed under the stream of blood in order to collect every last drop before the animal’s heart stopped beating and no more blood flowed through its veins. When it was finally dead, the yak was rolled onto its rounded back and two logs were placed on either side to keep it from shifting during the butchering process.
Butchering such a massive animal efficiently is much easier with several people and two of the yak herder’s “neighbors” came to assist. Out here, neighbor is a relative term. To me, where I come from, neighbor would mean the people that live in the house located about 50 yards away from mine, but on the steppe the nearest neighbor could be 30 miles away! These two neighbors made quite a journey to help their friend, the herder, process the yak.
After the animal was in position, the butchering commenced much as I would have expected...each of the two men took a front leg and using their knives “wringed” the skin just above the feet while the herder sliced the skin across the chest from one foot to the other. Starting from the mid-point of this cut, a second cut was made all the way to the anus. Then, the three men all repositioned to the bottom half of the yak and did the same there - wringing the skin above the rear feet and slicing the skin from one foot to the other crossing just above the anus. Next, the sledgehammer that had dispatched the animal was picked up and while one man held the skin tight another repeatedly swung the hammer where the skin was still attached to the carcass to separate it. This was done all around the cuts to provide complete access to the chest and belly. Once the skin was peeled back, a tarp was laid down on the ground underneath the rear feet and then the first of several unorthodox butchering strategies unfolded in front of my eyes - and they were like nothing I had ever seen before. It wasn’t until I better realized the context within which they were operating and how what they valued from the animal differed from what I was used to in my modern western world that the rationale behind every move they made became crystal clear.
Perspectives and values advise what parts of the animals are consumed and who consumes them. All of this, in turn, dictates how the animal is butchered. The butchering process is an honest and open window into a society’s culture and diet.
In our modern, western, meat-centric approach the next step in the butchering process would be to make one cut through the belly beginning at the anus and stopping at the sternum, being careful not to puncture the organs to avoid contamination of the meat. This creates access to the organs which are then pulled out of the body through this single, relatively small hole. In this butchering scheme the organs are considered “offal” or “off-fall” - a byproduct of butchering the animal for the purpose of obtaining meat. And, this approach accomplishes that goal rapidly allowing butchers to quickly remove the organs to move on to the real prize - the flesh.
It was 40 degrees below zero and the wind was whipping here on the northern Mongolian steppe. You would think these three men who have come together to help butcher this yak would want to get it over with as soon as possible so that they could retreat into the warmth of the Ger which was a mere 50 feet away billowing smoke from its peak signifying the strength of the fire inside. But, the quick approach to removing offal from the yak is not the direction they took. Instead, they carefully cut around the entire rib cage and belly and removed a huge section of the animal in what can only be described as an immense shield-like piece and set it aside. The scene now resembled something more like an autopsy than a butchering, but once I realized what was happening, it made complete sense. Removing practically the entire chest and belly of the animal provided the butchers unobstructed access to what they obviously prized most - the nutrient dense organs, blood and fat inside the carcass - not the flesh on the outside.
The three men, with hands like surgeons, worked together seamlessly to accomplish the next, crucial step - removal of the organs. First, the mesentery, a lacy membrane covered with fingers of yellowish-white fat that enveloped the organs, was removed and set aside so that they could later wrap the liver in it for frying. Then, they grabbed the trachea, cut around it, and began to pull using the knife slice anything still connecting it and everything below it to the inside of the body cavity. As the trachea was pulled out of the body the entirety of the inside of the yak was removed in one huge pile onto the tarp that was earlier laid down between the back legs. The three men then set to work on what they viewed as a highly prized pile of food on the tarp! The spleen and the gall bladder, the only two parts of the animal they do not eat were fed to the dogs. The liver, heart, kidney, and lungs were removed and saved for future consumption.
Finally, the intestines and stomach were handed over to the wife of the yak herder who accepted them with an ear to ear smile. She carried them over to a special place in the yard reserved specifically for cleaning them. The existing pile of frozen intestinal and stomach contents on which she worked was evidence that they have butchered other yaks this year. The intestines were destined to serve as casings for a sausage made of dried that, once made, hangs from the roof of the Ger where the smoke envelopes it as it escapes. The stomach, on the other hand, once cleaned out is filled with butter made from yak milk where it ferments for several months.
What happened next was the second surprise of the day. Once all of the blood and organs were successfully removed, the rest of the skin was peeled from the carcass. The surgical precision and cooperation displayed during the removal of the organs quickly transformed into something completely different when they removed to the meat. The precision was gone. There were no primal cuts, or subprimal cuts or, for that matter any recognizable individual cuts of meat, whatsoever. In fact, the meat was not removed from the bone at all. Everything, I mean everything that was left was chopped up together into fist-sized chunks each containing its own proportional share of meat, gristle, and fat. What was once a yak was now a pile of indiscernible pieces. Fascinating.
Every single part of this animal was consumed (except the spleen and gallbladder). However, that was not the most surprising take away from the unique opportunity I had witnessing this butchering. Rather, it was the extremely high value that was placed on the most nutrient dense part of the animal and the equally strong, but apathetic attitude towards the meat - the obverse of the modern western view to which I was accustomed.
At first, this seemed strange. Then, after reflecting on our modern western practices, the ones in which I have operated within for my entire life, ours were the ones that now seemed strange. I felt embarrassed and disconnected… All of a sudden I needed desperately to find a way to incorporate everything I had witnessed in Mongolia into mine and my family’s life. But how? Where was I going to learn the skills I needed to learn to make the most use of animals in ways that were practical and meaningful? I needed to find ways to use the entire animal and to do so from the an ethical and ancestral place. And, the results had to be look good, taste good and smell good. They needed to be delicious if they were going to make a difference. This was an extremely high bar to set and one that I did not think would be easily attainable. It took awhile, but I finally found more than I ever could have dreamed of...in Italy of all places!
Chef John and the Italian Culinary Institute
I was on a mission. I needed to find a place to learn advanced forms of butchering where the utilization of the entire animal, from cooking to preservation including drying, fermenting and curing using traditional methods without the use of nitrates or starter cultures, was the focus. I wanted to start at the farm and meet the farmer who raised the animal. I wanted to clean intestines for sausage casings and actually stuff them myself! I wanted to eat all the parts of the animal we were not preserving for long-term storage and close the loop - from life to death to food to nutrients. I wanted a course steeped in tradition and filled with stories and inspiration. This was a tall order, but I was convinced that a quick internet search would reveal several options from which I would be able choose. I was wrong. After searching the internet for weeks I was experiencing a great deal of difficulty finding what I needed. There were plenty of really interesting options from which to choose where I could learn the basics of butchering - from as brief as day-long workshop’s to learning experiences lasting several months.
However, everything I found was lacking something I required from my search. That is, except for one - the Italian Culinary Institute. The description of what they offered in their Traditional Italian Charcuterie and Salumi course read like it was exactly what I was looking for in a course. I tried to look up reviews on the school but could not find much, so I ignorantly brushed the website aside time after time. Every instance when I thought I found what I was looking for in another site, upon further research I was disappointed. Over time, I found myself subconsciously using the Italian Culinary Institute’s description of their course as a model for what I was looking for elsewhere and, I finally realized what I was looking for was in their program. That was where I needed to go.
Once I made my decision, I shifted gears and focused on booking a place in the ICI’s next Traditional Italian Charcuterie and Salumi course and finding a way to get myself there. The website said they required a deposit and that all I needed to do was find a way to the Lamezia airport and everything else was covered once I landed. I took the plunge, filled out my form and sent in my deposit. And, I waited. And waited. And nothing. I thought my fears had been realized and that this wasn’t actually real. So I sent a message to the president and head chef, John Nocita and asked if we could talk on the phone to make sure everything was in place. He replied, “of course,” and we spoke on the phone the next morning. During our brief conversation he assured me everything was fine, the deposit was received and I had nothing to worry about. I was still skeptical - it just seemed too good to be true.
My fears remained even as I landed in the tiny Calabrian regional airport in Lamezia Terme and became more intense as I waited for almost an hour at baggage claim for my bags that never arrived! It wasn’t until I passed through customs with just my carry-on and I noticed a woman holding a sign containing the name ,“Schindler” scribbled in Sharpie that I realized there was actually something, or at least someone waiting for me in Italy. This provided me with a small feeling of relief, but I still had no idea what to expect once I actually made it to the Italian Culinary Institute. The woman who picked me up spoke very little English and, although she was very nice there was not much conversation in her van during the 45 minute-long trip to ICI. The coast-to-coast drive from the airport in Lamezia Terme, located in the west near the Tyrrhenian Sea, to the Italian Culinary Institute, located in the east overlooking the Ionian Sea spans what is perhaps the narrowest part of Italy - the constriction right before the big “toe” of the boot in the south.
The sign for Hotel Baia dell’Est was posted at the entrance as we began our final ascent up the steep drive leading up the side of mountain. The van came to a stop at the entrance to the hotel and as I stepped out I was greeted immediately by a woman wearing a white chef’s coat and a huge smile! I immediately recognized embroidered symbol and letters ICI on her chef’s coat from the institute’s web page and was comforted in seeing it.
So, this actually was a real place! From that moment forward - beginning with my first interaction with someone from ICI - my fears were not only allayed, but I continued to be more and more impressed than I could ever have imagined! Chef Dawn led me to my room and as I entered I immediately noticed two things - both fantastic and both illustrative of what I was about to experience over the next week - the breathtaking view through the window at the far end of the room overlooking the Ionian Sea and the plate of homemade Italian salumi and cheeses next to a bottle of red wine on the desk (oh, there was a bottle of water too, but it didn’t rise to the same level as the view and the food and the wine!). The spectacular view of the Ionian Sea was ever-present throughout my entire time and, from that moment forward there was never the slightest hint of hunger or thirst for the entire week!
That night, once all the students were seated around a meticulously set table in the heart of the Italian Culinary Institute, I met the president and head chef, John Nocita for the first time in person. He walked in and his presence immediately commanded the room. His striking similarity to cast members of every mafia-themed movie or show certainly helped in this regard. Once all of our glasses were filled with wine, he toasted the group and then proceeded to tell us what to expect during our week under his tutelage. I listened with fascination as every bit of the schedule he laid out for us seemed as if I dreamt it up myself. I was so excited (and, to be completely honest, slightly nervous) to get into the kitchen with this man the next day. But, when he told us what time to meet for our first day, how we should dress and what to expect I realized that we were not beginning this course on Traditional Italian Charcuterie and Salumi in the kitchen. No. We were doing something far more important, starting one crucial step earlier... we were starting at a farm. Then, as soon as the meal was over, he left. That was the last dinner he shared with us until the final night of the class. He used the separation at the evening meals as an opportunity to both allow the students to come together as a cohesive group while also maintaining the teacher/student boundaries at appropriate levels. Sharing food is a powerful act and understanding the role that is holds in human relationships is equally powerful. He has certainly taught many times before and has it figured out perfectly.
The next day we loaded into a bus and drove up the mountains to visit the 100% Organic Free-Range Farm, Casellone, who would supply the Calabrian Black Pigs for our class. Upon arrival at the farm my first thought was how it didn’t smell or look anything like a pig farm with which I was familiar. I spent a year of my life in my early twenties living and working on a huge pig farm in Powell, Ohio and I will never forget the smell and lack of, well, any other life around except the pigs. This farm in Calabria was nothing like that. Yes, there were pigs and fences, and even some wooden pens. But, otherwise, it didn’t look like a pig farm at all. There were trees - and plenty of them! And there was actually grass and bushes. It was not the vegetation-free, stench filled, virtual mud-bath that is typically the case with most modern pig farms. This was something completely different and the interaction between the farmer, the pigs and the environment was also completely different. There is no doubt the pigs reared on this farm are far superior than those from the more common modern factory farms in every way.
The farmer came out of his home with his family and introduced us to his wife and his daughter. He then gave us a tour of the farm and told us all about traditional Black Calabrian breed pigs and what makes them special. He informed us they are one of only six native breeds to Italy and told us how explorers, even 350 years ago, spoke of the quality of the meat in this region. He talked to us about raising the pigs and compared the firm flesh of his Calabrian Black pigs with the softer, more water-filled flesh of the typical modern white pig. Not only are his pigs raised on much higher quality diets (which includes olives!), but it takes his pigs one and a half years to reach 150 kilograms while modern white pigs can do the same in less than a year. And, after meeting the pigs we got to select the two pigs that we would use for the workshop. The tour ended in the farmer’s home around a few large tables where we tasted some of his homemade extra virgin olive oil and bread providing the opportunity to ask him any final questions we had. Then we loaded the bus and headed back to ICI. As I sat on the bus I began to think about the pigs - especially the two pigs we had selected to use during the course. In order to get them to the ICI for our use later that day I was confident that as I comfortably sat on the bus, the two pigs were being prepared for slaughter. Or, perhaps they were already dead. Beginning the course here, at the farm was brilliant on Chef John’s part. We met the pigs and observed their personalities, listened to them and heard their voice, touched them and felt their life. This experience added an important level of responsibility to what we were doing and made how we go about doing it so much more important. This is something that it missing in our modern relationship with the animals that provide us food. But, it was front and center in everything we did with Chef John.
Once we returned to ICI we ate (eating was a common theme throughout the entire week!) and Chef John embarked on a series of lectures and presentations about Italian Regional Cuisine, traditional Italian butchering and salumi, and laid the groundwork for all that we were about to do once we had the pigs in front of us and knives in our hands. He told story after story to steep us in the tradition that over the past several hundred years created the traditional practices we were about to learn. We learned about safety and the difference between working with a properly raised, recently slaughtered pig. We were immersed in the context we needed before we even picked up a knife.
Butchering, cooking and preservation
The pigs, dehaired, gutted, and split in half arrived later that day. All of the internal organs were delivered separately in bags except for the intestines, which arrived in a big 5-gallon plastic bucket. The organs were immediately placed in the refrigerator and the split carcasses laid on the workstation tables. The bucket of intestines were placed in the large sink in the back of the room. Chef John then assembled us around the half of the pig and began to walk us through the different options we had that would inform how we would approach taking each individual half apart. He used his finger as a virtual knife and we explored in detail the anatomy of the pig and the different American, Spanish and Italian approaches to butchering. I will never forget the very last thing he did before we initiated the butchering process - he cut several lemons in half and, using the newly exposed cut surfaces, wiped the inside of every carcass with the lemons. He did this as a sanitizing measure to ensure the exposed surfaces of meat were safe. It is the same approach I use at home to clean my work surfaces - I used vinegar instead of lemons, but the chemistry is the same. Although is does not sterilize, low pH, acidic nature of both lemons and vinegar sanitizes by destroying many harmful pathogens and, with high quality fresh ingredients handled the right way, is enough to ensure food safety. This was perfectly in line with my approach and an incredible first day!
Once the fabrication began we literally did not stop for the entire week. Whenever he felt we needed a break, Chef John stepped to make us, in his words, “a little snack” which almost always amounted to a full course worth of food and each one were experiential learning opportunities in their own right. His mantra, “you should never eat on an empty stomach” was one we all practiced during our entire time there.
Through lectures, stories, demonstrations, and a ton of hands-on teaching and learning Chef John and everyone that assisted him, created an incredible experience for us all. We prepped parts of the pig for fermentation and curing and long term storage. We cooked and ate, on the spot, the other parts such as the organs, skin, ears and certain cuts of meat immediately. I even spent one of our lunch breaks with one of his assistants, Maria, cleaning, scraping and preparing the intestines that we would later stuff for fresh and fermented sausages. By the end of the course we made a variety of whole muscle cures such as pancetta and prosciutto. We made lardo, or cured pig fat. We used the bones for bollito, or bone broth. We made various fermented and cured meats including salami and, my personal favorite, ‘Nduja, a fermented and cured spicy spread made from all sorts of leftover bits that didn’t meet the standards for other cured meat products - a true “zero-waste” food that tastes absolutely delicious. We made a number of different cooked dishes using everything from “choice” cuts of meat in pasta dishes, to skin in pork skin braciole, and odd bits and pieces in head cheese and bolito. We adhered to tradition but also innovated when appropriate. Everything was delicious and presented beautifully. It was all nutrient dense. And, since I was a part of the entire process I felt a special connection to all of it that could never be replaced by anything I could buy - anywhere - no matter how good it tasted or how much it cost. Safety and respect for the animal was ever present at the forefront of everything we did. However, what impressed me the most at the end of the week was that the parts of the pig that we did not use filled up a medium-sized bowl! That’s it! We started with two large pigs and, over the course of a week using traditional food processing technologies transformed almost the entirety of both of them into nutritious, delicious, gorgeous food that appealed to all of our senses and to which we all felt a close connection. It was pure magic.
I left empowered and inspired. I gained a whole new appreciation for what is possible to create in the kitchen when raw materials, in this case animals, are transformed into food with the right skills and approach. I was now even more disheartened with how we treat animals in our food chain in much the modern western world. There is so much more we can do - and most of the answers are not new, rather, the path forward can be found in the past.
Making the Most of your Animal
I left the Italian Culinary Institute with my head filled with knowledge, my hands filled with know-how and, most importantly, having made an incredible new friend and colleague in Chef John Nocita. A few days into the workshop Chef John learned about the work that I do and my approach to food both informed by the technologies of our ancestral dietary past. He and I had several early morning meetings before class began each day and stayed in contact after I left. In order to supplement the context he already provides in his course he has brought me back to the Italian Culinary Institute several times to deliver lectures and workshops for his master’s students on our ancestral dietary past. These have been incredible opportunities for me to share my work with his students while simultaneously continuing to learn from him.
I finally had a chance to include Chef John and his expertise in the Food Evolutions project and a great way to bring full-circle what I experienced in Mongolia and my journey to learn to translate it into something that is both meaningful and delicious! On May 17th, Chef John came to Ireland so that we could co-present an interactive one-day workshop we titled: Making the Most of Your Animal: context, implementation and taste.
The description of the workshop read:
The nose-to-tail approach to eating animals is more ethical, sustainable, and nutritious than the current practice which, for many of us, means a diet comprised of the same cuts of meat from the same few animals. In order to make changes to our modern diets and food system to restore our health and the health of the planet we need to adopt a whole animal approach similar to that of the past. This workshop provides exposure to the knowledge and basic skills necessary to make the most of the animal to produce informed, meaningful food that reaches its full potential by exceeding modern expectations of flavor, texture and presentation.
Through a dynamic combination of presentation, demonstration and tasting offered by Experimental Archaeologist and the Director of the Eastern Shore Food Lab, Dr. Bill Schindler and Master Chef and President of the Italian Culinary Institute, John Nocita learn:
- How animals have been a part of the human diet for almost 3.5 million years and why it is important to know.
- See examples of approaches to making the most of an animal using traditional regional Italian Cuisine deeply rooted in both history and sense of place.
- Experience how amazing food made from even the strangest parts of an animals
The event was co-sponsored by the Eastern Shore Food Lab at Washington College, the Italian Culinary Institute, Odaios Foods, University College Dublin, and Airfield Estates. It took place on the Airfield Estates grounds and, through a combination of lecture, presentation, butchery and cooking demonstration, and tasting and discussion we tackled important topics that ranged from our 3.5 million year long relationship with animals in our diets to butchering techniques focused on a nose-to-tail approach. Most importantly we wanted to illustrate a powerful approach that included archaeology, experimental archaeology, ethnography combined with traditional and modern culinary techniques. The audience consisted of trained chefs, culinary students, faculty from local culinary schools, archaeologists, experimental archaeology students, archaeology professors, and a few people that didn’t fit into the above categories but had a genuine interest in food. It was a truly interdisciplinary event with an equally interdisciplinary audience that closely resembled the various approaches Chef John and I believe we all need to take in order to reconnect with our food and create meaningful change in our food, diets, and health.
A nose-to-tail approach does not have to automatically result a grey mass of strange looking, tasting and smelling food. Instead, with an open-mind fueled, inspired and informed by the approaches of our ancestors, extant traditional societies, and a handful of groundbreaking chefs we can do something different.
By focusing on using the entire animal, recognizing and increasing nutrient density and bioavailability, and celebrating (not masking) the range of textures and flavors of all of the parts of animals we can transform our diets and relationship with animals in very powerful, meaningful and accessible ways. Most importantly, it is something we can do in our own home kitchens. By making small, meaningful steps you will slowly begin to change your approach/view, build your skills, and empower yourself to take the next step. Start with buying a whole chicken, butchering it yourself and using every single part - making several different dishes from meat, skin, giblets, and bones. Then, once you have mastered the chicken go to the butcher and buy a whole pork shoulder, butcher it, and again use every part. Make your own nutrient rich bone broths. Make pates from livers. Learn to cook kidneys. Eat marrow - roasted marrow is delicious! Use the skin of every single animal you eat. Then, once you have developed your skill set and feel confident, begin to cure meat (why not make your own bacon?), make head cheese and even hot dogs. Make your own salami. Get together with neighbors and tackle butchering an entire half of a pig making use of every single piece!
Reconnect, learn, develop, empower yourself, have fun, and create change.
Everyone and everything around you will benefit from it!