May 2012


I’ve loathed the act of baking for a long time. Perhaps what I’ve hated is the measuring, mixing, and kneading. I’ve dipped my toes in the water of pizza dough and no-knead bread, both with marginal success, and now that I have a big bag of instant yeast, I’ve decided to explore a little bit.

Pita bread is the first stop on the tour for me. I found a recipe that I like (Go to Google. Type in Easy _______ Recipe. The first or second results for any baking queries are usually the routes I will explore.) at the Smitten Kitchen blog.  This is a pretty popular blog all around from the sheer volume of comments, but it’s consistent in offering up easy to make recipes that I can feel confident in preparing. There’s also a great post from which I culled my quick standby for kale chips. Check it out.

I’m sitting around right now, waiting for the first rise to occur- about twenty minutes. Usually, when I make pizza dough, I don’t have the patience for kneading, but it doesn’t matter to me too much because there’s not as much involved in making the crust as there is in making the sauce, toppings, and everything else that makes pizza so delicious. I’ve decided that it is, however, an important part, and despite not owning a stand mixer, after I mixed up all the ingredients, I kneaded the dough diligently for the required 5 minutes, until it became somewhat smooth and a bit lighter. The gluten particles have begun to bond.

My hopes for this experiment are that it will yield a pocket. I do love the pocket bread. I would like to make stuffable sandwiches out of the breads, and use them for everything. We shall see if my wishes come true. Until then, I’ll be content to wrap my sandwiches and gyros in what I create and call it flatbread.

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I lied. This part isn’t going to be pretty. It’s guts, and it’s blood, and it’s necessary. It’s just what I need to do to process the whole thing. If you don’t have the stomach, please don’t keep reading.

(if you haven’t read part 1, it’s right here)

The fact of the matter is that this is a slaughterhouse. A SLAUGHTER HOUSE. For however much we want to be treated with kid gloves, it’s a place where animals come to die. With that said, let’s get to the task at hand.

***

We stood in the receiving area, a cold floor with tracks lining the ceiling above us. Through a set of double doors was the kill floor, a maze of stations where it was the job of one person to do one specific task- tying the legs, removing the hooves, and yes, one guy for doing the deed. I’d visited a veal slaughterhouse a few years back when I was in school, but they weren’t slaughtering that day. Today, as I mentioned in the last post, they were doing the Halal live slaughter.

We were called in, ten at a time, and walked along the wall as we passed by a giant pressure wash conveyor belt filled with removed viscera. At the end of the line, they were dumped into a giant stainless wheelbarrow where they were then transported to yet another conveyor. There, they were separated into edible and inedible portions, wherein they were boxed and trucked out for use in different industries. The edible portions, parts such as tongues and livers, were shipped out to various markets and restaurants around the area where they would be no doubt made into patés and terrines, resold to people for exorbitant prices, which these days is justified by the amount of effort it takes to poach, puree, bake, set, and slice into a palatable dish. Yesterday’s offal has been transformed into tomorrow’s haute cuisine. In any other culture, the stomach would be rinsed and stuffed for haggis, and where many people believe that the hide and wool would be used for blankets, sweaters and jackets, the most profitable use of the hides is to utilize them as paint rollers. It might not be the most glamorous of ways to use the animal, but every part serves a purpose. The intestines are flushed, rinsed, salted and tubed, and used for casing when I make sausage.

We hugged the back wall as the fabrication line passed us by. A corpulent and silent man was hoofing the carcass as it rolled by, looking purposed in his work but cautiously detached from the nature of his business. With each hoof, he tossed it with a no look pass into the trashbin behind him.

The man before him hooked the tied forequarters to a t-bar, which he then raised to the ceiling tracks. The man before him was the one in charge of attaching the ties to the legs. Before that, the workers were removing the hides.

Five at a time, we were called back to the area where they were performing the ritual slaughter. As someone in the industry, this is something that I needed to see. I didn’t have to see it, but in order to understand what it takes to put dinner on the table, it was necessary.

The area itself was a narrow alley. In the back, next to the stunning machine, there was a small pen of sheep. One by one, they were attached by the back leg and hoisted up to about ten feet, so their necks were in line with the chest of the man doing the killing. We were in line with his actions, and as he prepared, in accordance of the Halal ritual of slaughter, he whispered a short prayer and cradled the head of the animal in his arms. With a quick and deep incision, the job was done, and the animal was dead.

Here’s the thing: It’s up for debate as to which method of slaughter is more humane for the animal. All meat that is certified by the USDA must be killed with a bolt, a quick stun to the base of the skull that severs the nervous response between the brain and the body. Virtually the same result is achieved with Halal, as the slaughter method is designed to both honor the animal in the name of the Lord and minimize suffering by a swift severing of the carotid artery. In both of these methods, exsanguination is the cause of death. The knife must not be sharpened in the presence of the animal to cause undue agitation, and the name of Allah must be spoken by a member of the Muslim faith as the animal is killed, for in that religion, the Creator is the granter and taker of life.

As we watched, it was done with before the animal had a chance to suffer. Despite the mettle it took for the man with the knife to perform this action day in and day out, he reserved a quiet connection with each animal he slaughtered as he was able to remain calm emotionally invested yet at peace.

***
I’m going to take a time out here for a minute, as this is a lot to read through for those who aren’t used to finding out about where their meat comes from. I don’t mean to be vulgar, and I don’t mean to be crass, callous or uncaring in my description of this process. This is how it is. For most, the idea of a slaughterhouse is unappetizing, as we prefer our meat sterile and without a face, but for those who work on a farm, this is nothing new. I’ve met so many people who have grown up on farms or around animals where this is their routine. If you make a conscious decision to eat meat, an animal is going to have to get killed. On a farm, there’s a good chance that eventually, you’ll have to be the one faced with the impending mortality of an animal. It’s matter of fact. With the live slaughter of animals, you need to treat them as if their lives meant something, if not to you, than to those who worked hard to raise them. For many, if they don’t kill the animal, they don’t eat. Or their family doesn’t get paid. It’s not a choice for them. It’s not even a livelihood. If you own chickens, they fertilize the soil while pecking at bugs and other farmland creatures. This, in turn, gets the grass to grow. The grazers come along, eat the grass, fertilize the soil, which, when tilled, becomes the base for an eventual bountiful crop. These days, pasture is replaced with monocultured commodity corn, and livestock that was allowed to roam is now in a feedlot, miles from wherever the edibles may be. We’re getting better with our awareness of heirloom varieties of vegetables that taste like vegetables should taste, grass fed beef and cage free hens, to name a few. Still, not everyone has access to these. Some live in food deserts, and some merely don’t have the resources, either time or monetary, to eat this way all the time. If you choose to eat meat, eat good meat. Eat something that has been raised on a farm, or buy it from somebody who has knowledge of the slaughter or where the animal or vegetable was raised. Smaller is better. Know where your food comes from.

Despite the fact that this plant slaughters, on an average day, 1300 lamb, it is something that a handful of people can do in a shift. It is not a lowlying, faceless kill floor in the middle of nowhere. The largest slaughterhouse in the nation is Smithfield Pork Producers, in Tarheel, North Carolina. With over 5,000 workers,  they employ 100 times the labor that I saw working the lamb line. This mass production of poorly raised, ill-groomed meat is why when I do buy meat, I stay away from what I don’t know. The smaller the operation, the more control they have over the quality of meat and caliber of the workforce who they employ. On family farms, it’s even simpler. Fewer people in the mix equal better quality control, and a better understanding of how meat is supposed to be handled and raised.
***

I think that’s what I got out of this. If you’re going to eat meat, know where it comes from. Know that with smaller purveyors and a decent amount of care, the quality of the meat you choose to purchase and prepare will ultimately be higher. With those who put a face on the actions necessary to bring your food to the table, whether it be animal or vegetable, comes the knowledge that what you’ve chosen to eat and purchase was at one point an organism of the earth. Seeing this process from start to finish has given me a further appreciation of where my food comes from and the effort it takes to make it presentable.

Respect what you eat. Respect the jobs of those who raise your food, and those who do the things that you won’t. When you eat your chicken tonight, or your hamburger helper, or even your vegetable burger, know that all of these things came from somewhere, and if you’re buying it from a market, that it took the labor of many hands and the fortitude of many workers to provide you with dinner. Your dinner took a lot longer to make than the thirty minutes it took to cook it on your stove. No matter what you choose to nourish yourself with, know that it came from the earth, and in the name of whomever raised it for you, it’s there to fill you up. Don’t take your food for granted. It took a lot of work to get it to your table.

That’s the whole story.

If you haven’t read the first post about breaking down a whole lamb, here it is. I’ve moved on to more serious territory, and if you’re a bit squeamish, try to make it through as much of this post as you can. I’ll keep it light. There will be no pictures of the slaughterhouse in this post. 

If you did read the linked post from above, you’ll remember that our butchers, for the last year, have been getting in whole lamb carcasses and breaking them down for sale in our meat department. As I stated in the comments, we come from a sterile environment of meat eating. Our meats come in shrinkwrapped packages with a sell-by date, and they have neither a face, nor a name. As far as we know, it’s what’s stamped on the package that gets us to buy things. Buzzwords such as ‘grass-fed’, ‘boneless/skinless’, and ‘organic’ influence our buying power as consumers, but we never give a second thought to where the meat actually comes from.

Chicago has a long tradition of being one of the nation’s top meat producing cities. Reaching back to 1906’s The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, Slaughterhouses are part of the framework upon which the success of Chicago was built.  Compared to today’s massive feedlots, ‘farming operations’, and processing plants, the smaller slaughterhouses have gone the way of the dodo, making room for centrally located behemoths dotting the landscape of America’s ‘farmland’. Chicago’s Southside neighborhoods like Back of the Yards, once bustling with trailer activity and the smell of a barnyard, now lay mostly vacant. This past Tuesday, however, our butchers were taken to Chiapetti’s Lamb and Veal processors, the last Slaughterhouse to utilize live slaughter of large farm animals within the Chicago city limits.

I could be morbid here, and talk about death, but it’s not the time, nor is it the place. This is a job that needs to be done if those who eat meat want to have dinner on the table. Those who are involved do their jobs with skill, and with a quickness and precision that most home cooks will never see. They do it because it’s necessary.

We showed up to the plant at 8:45 in the morning and waited to be called in for our tour, just as the first shift of workers was going on break. As we stood out front, out came the USDA representative, everpresent for daily operations, and in went the Rabbi to inspect the plant. We were informed that today, instead of the USDA mandated stun kills, we would be seeing a Halal, or Muslim live slaughter. This is similar to a Kosher kill, in that the animal is slaughtered with a single knife cut to the throat, and bled immediately. The knife is the sharpest I’ve ever seen, and the kill is quick and arguably as humane as the bolt method. I’ll touch more on this later.
As we waited, the trailer drove by carrying the lambs and pulled around back to the loading chute. The familiar Midwestern smell of sheep passed us over. It was no different than a county fair.

We walked into the plant, and were introduced to the man who took us first to the fabrication room. Many of the readers of this blog have seen the movie Rocky. I’ll just say that the depiction of a meat locker in that movie is true to how they actually are in real life. Hundreds of spit-ready lamb were hanging, ready for bagging for wholesale or breakdown for smaller restaurant cuts. As we watched, one of their butchers broke a carcass down for us, first breaking the hindsaddle from the foresaddle with a breaking knife, and then fabricating them into subprimal cuts of shoulders, racks, bone-in legs, loins, and denver rib racks. As 25 people gathered around his small table, he had the opportunity to do each cut twice- the first with the speed necessary to meet the quota of 1300 lamb that they go through every day, and the second time, slower to show where each cut was to be made, and how to hold the knife.

Home cooks hold their knives different than chefs, who hold their knives different than butchers, who hold their knives different than the fabricators and breakers who split whole carcasses. The mistake that most people make when they use their knives is that they use the end of the knife closest to the hilt, because it gives them a feeling of more control.

I want you to do something right now. As you’re reading, reach over and touch something. What part of your hand are you using? I’m willing to bet it’s your fingertips. I can definitively say that it’s not the first digit of your fingers. Why would you do that?  When you use your knife all day, it becomes an extension of your hand. If you treat your knife blade as if it’s your hand, the highest level of accuracy you can get is with the tip.

Sound familiar?

Okay, maybe not the best picture for analogy, but you get it. We watched as he pressed with a pointed blade directly on the bone to separate the meat with the highest yield possible. This comes from years of practice. As he cut, we saw roast after roast cranked out. The square cut shoulder became a boneless shoulder roast. Using just the tip of the knife, the cap from the rib rack was removed, and the bones were frenched, removed of any incidental meat from a two inch area at the top, leaving an ovenready roast.

Most interesting was the tunnel cut leg of lamb, where he separated the femur bone from the meat, made an incision above the knee joint, and removed the lower leg, or shank, and femur from the whole roast by twisting, leaving the now boneless leg roast intact.

***

It’s interesting to see how our meat gets to the state in which we recognize it as it comes to our case. I appreciate the workers who spend hours making it so we can easily make it for our dinner without much effort, but it’s important to realize that it came from somewhere. The next post I write will focus on how a live animal becomes something that these workers can use to make our trips to the store more convenient. It might not be as pleasant as this one, or as palatable, but it’s something that I need to write to get the full story out. If you eat meat, I hope you’ll find it a valuable read.

The other week, we went over to a friend’s house for dinner. It’s becoming more of a weekly thing, taking Sunday Nights to go over and have brunch, or a pizza, or something along the lines of a meal shared with people who you’re excited to have an evening with. This night, it was pizza.

The last time we had them over, I made a couple different versions to try, one with potatoes, one with fresh chevre, walnuts, and the last ramps of the season. When we went there, we had about four different pies, a roasted pepper pizza, one with rosemary and potato, a margherita, and one with caramelized onions and mushrooms. The thing that stood out, though, was the crust. Where my standby Jamie Oliver recipe has served me well, I never have the patience with baking to form any sort of uniformity among the different batches of dough that I produce. It turns out well, but oftentimes, it will be more pillowy than I’d like, or more dense than I’d expect. The dough over here was thin, crisp, and a crackled tan on the underside.

This could have been for a number of reasons. They have heavy duty pans over there, as well as a well-appointed professional range/oven combo. What was most different was that they used instant yeast for the dough.

I know next to nothing about yeast. The container of Red Star in my freezer serves me well for most purposes, and I’ve found a conversion factor if all I have is Active Dry yeast and not instant. Still, the more recipes I find, the more recipes call for the instant.

The easy recipe for the Sullivan Street No-Knead bread? Instant yeast. This pizza dough? Instant yeast. I had a desire to make pita this morning on my day off. Also instant yeast. What is it about the instant that makes it a preferred ingredient in all of these recipes?

I’m going to try it out, eventually. Maybe not today, as for the pita I need to get a baking stone, but soon. Once I get a baking stone, I may have to admit that I’m a baker.