Pig Butchering and Peach Pie

Everything has an end
Except sausage. 
It has two ends. 
- Low German Saying

It's true, the tradition of community pig butchering seems to be long gone. I've read and heard much about the Mennonite customs around butchering, called Pig Butchering Bees, but they're all told as relics of the past.  A "remember when..." if you will.

Perhaps our urban living insulates us from such ritual. Perhaps the presence of technology, the convenience of modern food, or the efficiency of slaughterhouses make the tedious labor of butchering a moot point. 

But then again... perhaps the point is not to be totally mooted. Just yesterday I participated in an annual event, hosted by Janan Markee and Levi Cole, that is: First - Butchering Bee. Second - Pig Roast. The events are in part for Levi's birthday, but its focus seems to really be on keeping ritual in our foodways. 

The pig. Photo by Levi Cole
The wonderful hosts

This event is intense in its ebbs and flows...

It is, in fact, a celebration.  And we all seem acutely aware of this celebration's uniqueness. That we have the opportunity to interact with our food in this direct way has become rare in our culture, and there is certainly a tone among us of savoring that opportunity. 

But it is also the ritual of killing an animal for our consumption. And do not be mistaken - there is a tone of solemnity about that. There is a silence when it is time for the shooting. I chose to participate last year for the first time in part because I wanted to observe my response to this. I wanted to know that I could be involved in the butchering of my meal and still sit down to it. 

And I could. My picking up the fork was a transformed choice though. Observing, and helping, with this tedious, messy, labor-intensive process, I quickly saw supper a bit differently. I understood how bizarre it is that I can walk into a grocery store, pick out a pork loin, and within an hour be eating it for supper. The bizareness of it stemming from the convenience of it. The distance between me and the pig that the loin was rooted in, plus the work it took to extract that loin is gaping.

The process is basically: Shoot. Bleed it. Sometimes scald. Scrape hair. Eviscerate. Brine. Roast.
And that's all assuming you're cooking it right away and not doing more butchering for curing or sausage-making. 

Bubba - the man who raised the pig

Said pig. Photo by Levi Cole. 

Consistent with what northern European fare is known for - Norma Jost Voth notes in her amazing book, Mennonite Food and Folkways from South Russia, that the importance of pork for the Mennonites goes back to their days in Polish Prussia in the 16th century. Why pork for the Mennonites? Why pork for us? ...

- Pork is economical... Second only to rabbit, it is very quick to mature to butchering age, gaining about 1 pound per day. The pig we killed yesterday was 120 pounds, to give you an idea. 
- Pork is economical. Virtually every part of the animal is used. Sausage, ham, loins, headcheese, stock, lard, lard, more lard, prosciutto, caul fat, livers, feet, stomach. You name it - it can be used. 
- Oh yeah, did I mention that pork is economical... Because they are smaller than say, cows, one family could raise more meat per acre. Or foot. Or yard. Whatever measurement you choose really. 
- Also, it really tastes good. 

As rituals go, there was much habit in the Mennonite butchering bees. Much of which resonated in yesterday's events...

Photo by Janan Markee

It was a community event in the Mennonite world. Neighbors, friends, family members, the preacher - they all came to help, knowing that soon the favor would be reciprocated. 
There were about 16 of us at yesterday's butchering bee. Friends, neighbors, family members, dogs. 
There were cooking teachers, farmers, professional butchers, farmers market folks, medical folks, wine folks, mothers, fathers, children, restaurant owners, and a cookbook writer. 
Ok there were no preachers but I was once ordained online so... 

My job: Hold Lucy back. 
And scrape hair. Photos by Janan.

The Mennonite gatherings always included an Utname, a person skilled in the art of evisceration. 
Levi was our Utname for the day. His anatomy lesson is thorough and concise, skilled and seamless. 

Levi - our Utname

The Mennonite women would have been responsible for the cooking of the food for the entire day - no small job considering the size of the crew.  They were also be in charge of cleaning and preparing the intestinal casings for sausage-making,  a job which required great skill and special knives. "Cleaning these casings was an art and accomplished women rarely made mistakes." - Herman Rempel  
Ok it was not the traditional roasted chicken or bobbat (a yeast bread with sausage), but I did bake zucchini bread and peach pie. (See below for recipe) Janan made a caprese salad and adorned us with charcuterie, cheese, baguette and chocolate. That's all got to count for something. 
The women did not, in fact, clean the casings. Thank you very much. 

"When light appeared in the eastern sky and stars faded away, it was time to go outside for the shooting. A glass of wine, on occasion, preceded this event." - Peter D. Zacharias
"On butchering day in Russia the master of the house would make the rounds with a bottle of brandy and a small glass from time to time, in order to strengthen his neighbors." - Arnold Dyck
We sipped the apple wine that was made from the apples we pressed at last years pig butchering. There was also a bit of pear wine - the one from our tree's fruit. Good would be an understatement.

Last year's apples are this year's wine
From our pears!

In Mennonite families, the skill of killing a pig was passed down through the family's oral history. Like baking was for the women. The animal was killed humanely by shooting it once in the head, and the task went to the oldest boy of the family where the event was taking place. Having watched and listened for years, he was prepared. 
A recent article in The Atlantic on the topic of slaughtering and deregulation sparked much conversation among us. I definitely recommend reading it for your own conversation spark. 
Please do not be mistaken... this is not a plug to spontaneously go out, buy your own 150 lb. pig and throw a butchering bee in your backyard with spirits floating around. Get real Mr McWilliams. I was a learning amateur among professionals. A sip of brandy. 
The fact that a Mennonite oral history of proper killing technique doesn't exist for us today should not take away our responsibility for the way in which our animals live and die. Levi is trained, skilled, and serious. In Portland we're lucky to have a place like The Portland Meat Collective, who provides butchering courses for the community, and who Levi often teaches classes for.

So today the pig is in its brine. Tomorrow we will gather again to roast the pig and have supper together, along with a lot more people. I'd like to think that my Mennonite ancestors are smiling down upon me, pleased that a food ritual has taken place, or even that a ritual has simply been remembered. Stay tuned for photos and a pork shoulder recipe on Sunday!!

As I mentioned -  I baked a peach pie and I'd love to share it with you... Oh so rustic and donning Maryhill peaches that are magical right now, it was really one of most gorgeous pies I've set out to make. I adapted the crust from Kamman's basic pastry crust, and the filling and concept from Kolb.

Peach Skillet Pie
adapted from Mrs. Jacob F. Kolb's recipe in Mennonite Community Cookbook 
The Making of a Cook by Madeleine Kamman

Yields: a LOT. 8 very hearty pieces. 

9" cast iron skillet (or something similar), buttered generously
2 ¼ cups sifted flour
½ teaspoons salt
4 Tablespoons sugar
13 Tablespoons butter, chilled
5 to 6 Tablespoons ice water
7 fresh peaches
1 cup sugar
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
½ teaspoon cinnamon (optional)

For the crust: 
1. In a food processor, pulse together the flour, salt, and sugar. Add the cold butter all at once and let the machine run till the butter is about the size of very small peas. 
Note: If you're doing it by hand... whisk together the dry ingredients. Add the butter and either use a pastry cutter to cut the butter or use your finger tips, rubbing the butter to break it into small pieces. 

2. Now add the ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time, as the machine is running. Keeping adding water until the dough gathers into a ball. Do this fairly quickly as it is important to not work the dough too much which will form gluten and make your pastry chewy and tough. 
Note: If you're doing it by hand... make a well in the flour/butter mixture and add a couple of tablespoons of water to this well. With your hands, bring the flour mixture into the water and mix it together. Continue adding water gradually till you can form a ball with your hands and it is not dry or cracking. 

3. Feel the dough, if it still cold you can roll it out right away. If it seems too soft or warm, form it into a disc and place it in the frig for about 10 minutes. To roll it out, lightly flour a flat surface. Form the dough into a disc and slowly roll, with a floured rolling pin, from the center of the dough outward. Frequently check to make sure the dough is not sticking to your counter. If it is, dust the surface with a bit of flour. Not to rush you, but it's sort of important to get this done fairly efficiently. Otherwise your butter melts, the flour is being overworked, and you're losing out on texture in the crust. 

4. Make sure to roll it large enough to fill the skillet, and allow for dough to drape over the filling. Gently lift the dough by folding it up and draping it over the skillet. Here's the beauty of this pie - if it tears when you're draping. No big whoop! It's rustic! Just get a bit of water on your fingers and patch it up. 

5. Place crust in the refrigerator for an hour or the freezer for about 15 minutes. 

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. 

For the filling: 
1. To easily peel the peaches... Fill a large pot with water and bring to boil. Once it's boiling, drop the fresh peaches in for 30 seconds. Remove with a slotted spoon into a collander and immediately rinse with cold water to stop them from cooking. With a paring knife, remove the peel. It should come off very easily. 

2. Slice the peaches into a large bowl and add the sugar, cornstarch, and cinnamon. Stir with a wooden spoon or spatula, making sure all the fruit is evenly coated. I did this with my hands to make it easier. 

3. Place your fruit in the crust and fold the crust back towards the center to partially cover the fruit. Dot the fruit with small pieces of butter. 

4. Bake at 400 degrees for about 50 to 60 minutes or until the crust is golden brown. Check frequently after about 30 minutes to ensure even browning. You may need to place baking sheet on the bottom rack to catch any leaking liquid. 

5. Remove from oven and allow to cool on baking rack. It can be left at room temp for about 1 day, uncovered. Serve with cheese, pear brandy, milk, pork, and of course - friends. 



  1. Loved this posting. My son Christian Sutter's menu project at the French Culinary Institute three years ago (it won the prize at graduation) was an adaptive tribute to the centrality of pork in his PA Dutch Mennonite heritage:

    amuse bouche: bacon confit and pickled watermelon rind
    appetizer: johnny cake, headcheese, and apple salad with maple mustard
    salad: field greens with pickled beets. red beets eggs and bacon dressing
    main: "dutch goose" or stuffed pig stomach with beurre noisette. herbed spätzle & braised red cabbage
    dessert: apple dumplings
    -spring water
    -apple wine

  2. Sem,
    Thanks for the comment! I'm glad you liked the post. :) Christian's menu sounds amazing and is certainly inspiring to me. I hope his obvious talent is at work in some lucky kitchen!

  3. First a comment on Sem's comment above. I love that "dutch goose" won a prize at the French Culinary Institute. That must have been a fabulous meal!

    Stuart's family in Virginia used to butcher at least one hog on Jan. 1 every year. I participated at least once.

    Your own pig butchering/hog roast sounds wonderful. And I just might tackle that pie!

  4. Christian is currently pastry chef at Five Points in Manhattan. He cooked more pork at the venerable Savoy in SoHo, which (sadly) closed in June. His FCI menu project included an essay on pork and pigs as a part of Mennonite culture.

  5. To Shirley - That Showalter new year's ritual sounds fun! I'd love to hear more about your impressions sometime. I vote for pie tackling... it's always a good time!

    To Sem - I would LOVe to read Christian's essay. Do you think he would mind sharing?!