These little piggies went to market

Since I got the two little bacon seeds back in early May, having a couple of other animals in our little menagerie has been a fun part of the daily routine around our house. 

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Mostly, it was just a part of my morning ritual to walk out, feed the pigs and check their water. Maybe give them a good morning scratch on the head, and that'd be about it. But they'd squeal and snort anytime we walked towards the barn to say hello, and we all got used to the antics of Chorizo & Honeydew.  

As they got bigger, I expanded their range a couple of times. A good quarter acre or more of our property is wooded fringe behind our barn, and it was perfect for the two Gloucester Old Spot pigs to range and root and explore. They were so well trained to the electric fence that I'd have to entice them over where the line used to be each time I expanded the area. A bag or two of peanuts in the shell or a few apples usually did the trick. They did a great job of clearing out a lot of the scrubby undergrowth I'd been meaning to get to.  

 

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Mostly, they ate pig feed. It's pressed grain, and they liked it. I was surprised at how picky they were - they wouldn't eat just any scraps. They loved any fruit. And I was lucky enough to score whey from a cheesemaking friend-of-a-friend, which they really dug into.  

But vegetable scraps from the garden were a hit or miss. When some of my radish crop got too big and woody, I tossed in a bucket full, with the greens. They turned their nose up. Potatoes were kind of blah for them. But when I brought out wheelbarrows full of apple pumice leftovers from this year's cider pressing party, they loved it. 

 

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To balance everything out, I mixed in peanuts with their feed. About 15% or so of what they ate were either raw or roasted in-the-shell peanuts. They didn't eat the shells. They'd crack them, eat the nuts, and spit the shells back out.   

I had read Pig Perfect  last winter in preparation for our pig-rearing adventure. The author had chased down the best hams in the world, and then traced back to the pigs they came from. They all start with the black pigs raised on the oak scrub pastures of northern Spain, eating acorns and other findings.  I don't have enough acorns to make that workable. But peanuts, that I can do. 

For a while, I was buying big fifty pound bags of peanuts in the shell at the feed store. They were about $2/lb, and I figured I may have to sacrifice a bit of the children's college tuition savings to keep the pigs in feed over the course of the summer, but at least we'd have some good tasting bacon. 

Then one day I spotted 5 lb bags of roasted, in the shell peanuts at our local grocery store for less than $6/lb. I did the math in my head. That was way cheaper. And I didn't figure the pigs would mind if the peanuts had been roasted. 

I went and grabbed another cart and filled it completely with every bag the store had. And a diet coke. When I got up to the cash register, I got a couple of strange looks. I just said "Pigs" and left it at that. They hurried me out. 

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Our friends kept saying to us, "Oh, you're going to have such a hard time when it comes time to... slaughter... them."

The word slaughter was always said in a bit of a whisper. 

I'd just shake my head. "No. The pigs are livestock. Not pets. There's never been any doubt as to what their destiny was."  

I like the pigs. We made sure they had a good, low-stress life wand were healthy and well taken care of. But let's remember: we're only a generation or two from a time when nearly everybody had some meat in their backyard. Pigs are easy going and personable. They'd sprawl out at my feet and let me scratch their belly ('Who's got the good little bacon? You've got the good little bacon!')   But that didn't change what they were there for.  We just enjoyed them while they were around. 

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I asked a buddy in town with a trailer if he'd help me taxi them up to the slaughterhouse. I sweetened the deal with a promise of some prosciutto in trade for his time and service.  

He brought his trailer over the day before we were transporting the pigs. I cut an area out of the fence, and put up a temporary chute onto the trailer. I moved their food up into the back of the trailer, and left them to it.   

Since the pigs are so well trained to the fence, I wasn't worried about shutting off the electricity. They only ever got out of their area one time when they were very young (and small enough to slip under the bottom line of the fence). And I think they were more surprised than anyone to be on the wrong side of the line.  

But since they are so well trained to where the line is, I had to drop a line of tempting peanuts and apple bits up into the trailer so they'd know where things were.  They were a little nervous of the big metal & wood box. But when I walked out a couple of hours later, they had clearly been in and eaten. Each of them followed me up into it individually, but they weren't in it together, so I let them have one more night in their pen.  

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In the morning, we all got up to see the pigs off. I walked into the trailer and poured a last bag of peanuts into a bucket for them, and they followed me right in. When I shut the gate, they munched happily, and we all got a last scratch and a 'thanks for being good pigs'. 

The Boy definitely had a little bit more mixed feelings about things, and we had a good conversation about happy livestock and how we treat our animals. And how much we appreciate what they do for us.  He still was a bit wistful, but he said he was happy to know where his food came from. And I promised we'd throw a mini party when we made our first bacon sandwich, in honor of the pigs. 

 

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This year, I was trying a new slaughterhouse. The small one a few towns west of us in Massachusetts was always super busy this time of year, and I just hadn't felt as good about the interaction last year as I might have. Especially not when I had put all the care into raising pigs of my own this year.  

The process at LeMays up in Goffstown, NH was good - each pig was ear tagged as they came in. This ensured that the pigs didn't get mixed up (which was good - there was a trailer behind us with two pigs of the exact same breed. But they were a good 20% smaller than mine. I wouldn't want them to get confused!)  

I always go in for kill-only, as I was planning on picking the carcasses up and taking them to the butcher I've been working with for years.  

I helped unload the pigs, gave them a final pat and headed out, already looking forward to seeing them split a couple of days later.  

 

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I wasn't disappointed.  

Chorizo's hanging weight surprised me. He was 265 lbs. Which meant that on the hoof, he was almost 300 lbs (they lose 30 lbs or more of blood and offal in the cleaning process.)  

Honeydew was about 25 lbs smaller. But both exceeded my expectations. I'd have been happy with anything approaching 250.  

I took the Critter with me again - we loaded the pigs up in the back of my truck and headed down to a guy I think is probably the best butcher in the Boston area.  He and I have been dealing in whole animals since we moved to the area, more or less. He knows how I want them cut, and always helps me come up with new ideas to try. 

This tradition of father-daughter slaughterhouse day may have to change a little next year, as I've promised the Boy he can come along.  

I have to make sure he has his share of good stories to tell his therapist later in life as well, after all.

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Driving down the highway with a bunch of pink, meaty carcasses wrapped in plastic in the bed of my truck is always a bit of a treat.  I always worry a little about what passing motorists might thing. On the other hand, they tend not to cut me off. So there's that. 

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It was a beautiful day - we're wrapping up a perfect autumn here in New England. And taking the animals to the butcher is as much a part of that for us as watching the leaves change.

It's a part of the rhythm of things in our house. The freezers are mostly empty, and the prosciutto boxes are waiting to be filled.   And knowing this year we have pigs of our own makes it even more enjoyable to know we'll soon be filling them up with meat for the coming year. 

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I didn't snap the best pictures when I dropped them off in the shop. But you can see the carcasses here, split and ready.  

(What did you expect to see when you read this far? Pictures of puppy dogs and rainbows?) 

They looked good - I walked through the cuts that were most important to me. 3 prosciuttos, and one dress ham. 3 bellies without skin for pancetta. One with skin for other dishes. One dressed crown roast for Christmas. I like English-style back bacon, so I sacrifice pork chops for more loin & ready-to-cure cuts.  

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After that, I get less choosy.   However, you can see that huge strip of fat across the back of the pig - I did ask to keep as much of that intact as I can. I'll be making lardo again with that - I've never had a pig with such a good layer of fat, and I can't let it go to waste!

The rest of the meat will come more or less as it speaks to Mike & Maureen (the butchers). Plenty of meat to make sausage, guanciale, or whatever else strikes my fancy.  Ribs of various cuts to cook or give away. I've no doubt we'll be enjoying our two piggy friends for many months to come. 

They've got this picture below on the wall above the counter. 

I trust them. 

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Would I do it again next year?  I don't know. I'm still thinking about it.  

I enjoyed the routine and the care for the animals. And I can't say it's a lot of work, really. Especially now that I know what I'd be getting into. But it's a commitment, and I have other projects I want to try my hand at.  

For now, I'll enjoy my Christmas ham and plan out what kinds of sausage we're going to try, and we will celebrate our friends, Chorizo and Honeydew each time we sit down together to a good, home-raised meal.  

Paddling to the ocean

My Bride laughingly refers to this as my 'mid-life crisis trip.' 

OK, so  it happened to coincide with the same month I turned 40. But I know it's not a mid-life thing because I've been planning this for about 4 years, and this actually has more to do with the chickens and the pigs in my backyard than it does my birthday. 

Like those other ideas, it started with an episode of River Cottage, where Hugh Fearnsley-Whittingstall paddled down the river from his house to the English Channel. In his case, that was a trip of less than 10 miles that he did in an afternoon punting about in a canoe.  

Every day, I drive over the Concord River to and from the office. One of those days several years ago, it struck me that I could probably try the same thing. I wasn't the first one to have this thought (Thoreau did the same trip in 1839), but I mentioned it to a few buddies over the years, and finally decided that this was going to be the year. 

 

 

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It ended up being late October, because of coordinating the various schedules. 6 of us ended up going on this trip - all guys from around my little town. Most of us knew each other. Or at least a couple of others that were going. All of us were game for the attempt.  We definitely wanted it to happen after the cold had killed off the majority of mosquitos. And it's nice to enjoy the change of leaves and scenery. But it has its tradeoffs. More on that later.

Step 1:  Find some boats.  

I don't have a kayak of my own, but my Bride & I used to rent them a lot when we lived out in California. I've seen plenty of them out on the Concord river. I had rented a canoe previously for an afternoon with the kids, but I was pretty sure I didn't want to try this trip in a canoe. Mostly because I don't really enjoy canoeing. Sure, it's a lot easier to load & unload, and you can bring a lot more. But it's also heavier to move & push around through the water. And you're probably going to end up with someone else in your boat. And what's the fun of that?  

The day-touring sea kayaks are easy enough, and plenty durable for whatever we might face on the river. 

Oh yeah. Step 2: Figure out how to get there.  

 

 

I had a definite advantage of Thoreau. I have Google Maps.  That little arrow is the junction where the Concord river runs into the Merrimack. Hang a right there and keep going down stream, and eventually you hit the Atlantic ocean at Newburyport, MA - 30 miles or so north of Boston.  

The total distance is about 50 miles from the bridge near my house to Newburyport, by river. But one of my genius friends suggested that we start another 5 miles upriver at the head of the Concord river, for that true Thoreau experience. Sure. Whatever. I was still trying to figure out how to squeeze my stuff into the boat.  

Fortunately, I had some help. 

 

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One of the guys had sent an email before hand asking if we were trying to be self-sufficient on the trip, or if we'd be ok in sharing or stopping at a convenient bridge in town to scramble up and buy some extra water or coffee if we felt like it.

I explained: this was not a spiritual journey. I planned on bringing enough stuff to share around, and if he wanted to call his wife to come bring him some hot cocoa half way through, it was within the rules. I would make fun of him. And then I'd ask for a cup of cocoa for myself.

I rented the boats from Plum Island Kayaks  - a very helpful guy named Ken, in fact. He brought them all down to my driveway for the drop off, which was terrific. 

From looking at the map, I knew we weren't going to be able to make the trip in a single day. But I figured that downstream, without too many obstacles, it would be two solid days of paddling. A tiny bit of online research confirmed that from Lawrence to Newburyport was definitely achievable in a day's paddle. 

Kind of the whole point of this trip was to avoid planning too much detail. I did a walk of the junction of the Concord and Merrimack to scout out a few of the rapids we'd encounter on the last stretch of the river before they met, but I deliberately didn't find a campsite ahead of time or do much further research beyond some reasonably extensive time with Google Maps zoomed in pretty much full blast.  

This is the kind of thing that drives my prepper-Bride absolutely bat shit crazy.  

"What are you packing? 

"I think I'm going to bring the big cast iron skillet. And a sleeping bag." 

"What about toilet paper?" 

"Ooh! Good idea!" 

"You're an idiot. Please update your insurance before you go." 

 

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The morning of, five of my buddies met in my driveway at 7:30am.  

The first trailer we had was about a foot shorter than we needed to load the kayaks. So we had to go fetch another trailer. We threw all our gear in and headed over to the beginning of the Concord river at the Old Calf Pasture boat ramp, and started packing.  

I had already sorted out where to put things the night before - my total pack list consisted of  a sleeping bag & poncho & a change of clothes with an extra change of socks and the aforementioned toilet paper. That was the first two dry bags. I had a small dry box for my wallet, a charge pack and some matches, and a dedicated iPhone dry bag (that is awesome).  The other gear was loosely packed in some plastic bags - a large cast iron skillet, a camp ax, some bungee cords, and food. Half a dozen eggs, hashbrowns, sirloin strips, an onion, and bratwurst, all stowed in a soft cooler on top of my kayak. Plus another like little cooler full of drinks. 

When we all got started loading our kayaks, we counted three bottles of bourbon.  

We didn't actually get in the water until almost 10am, but we were off to a good start on other logistical fronts. 

 

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Most of the first part of the river is wide open - it's lovely. Eventually, it does come into old mill towns of Tewkesbury, Lowell and Lawrence, and we started hitting areas that took a little bit more than simply paddling in a straight line.  

That's me above (you can see the coolers strapped on behind me). I'm halfway over a 5 foot tall mill dam just coming into Lowell. The other guys laughed, and portaged around it after watching me go nose first. I had fun. But I got a little wet.  

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The portages gave us a chance to reset, grab a bite (and a sip or two for medicinal purposes), and head on to the next stretch.  

The last few miles of the Concord river are narrower, and set with small dams and lots of rocks. Which means rapids. One of our crew had never set foot in a kayak before that day. Several of us hadn't been in years. But we were game to try it. 

I tumbled in the water the first time trying to reach another one of the gang that had just tipped over. I ended up getting stuck on exactly the same rock, twisting in the current and swamping my boat. That was the start of a hard 2 or 3 hours of paddling. The water was low this time of year, which meant that in stretches where you'd normally have two or three paths through, there'd be only one viable path, which took a little scouting and planning each time.  

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So at times, you'd end up bottomed out - like my buddy above - and up out of paddle-able water. You could choose to push off, get out and let your boat lead you down on a line, or just struggle through.  

We'd race through sections and then get caught up in sections. I lost my paddle once and found it a few hundred feet later. Struggled through portions with my hands and feet in the water, and laughed through others. 

We finally regrouped about 3/4 of the way through this section. We were all cold and wet, and we discovered that one of us (the least experienced) had a patch on his boat break open, and had a dime-sized hole in the stern tip of his kayak, which flooded his rear bulkhead, and made his boat even more tippy.  I think he flipped a half dozen times. I managed to do it myself only twice more.  

We were sitting on the shore trying to size up if we could makeshift patch his boat. We were well into Lowell at this point, and the sides were much steeper. It was less than an hour until sundown, and we were beginning to have to think about whether we could make it far enough to camp.  

Camping inside of Lowell wasn't an option - it's built up, old mill buildings, and older residential. It's a working town, with a lot going on. And the river doesn't run through the best neighborhoods.  

There were a couple of guys who had lit a fire across the river on the other bank of the river, sort of between an old mill building and some houses. I was 'volunteered' to go over and ask if we could park for a minute to warm up and decide on next steps. I paddled over and got close enough to see that they were drinking cheap whiskey out of some shopping carts, and had apparently set up shop there, and clearly not for the view or to use the water for any kind of cleaning purposes.

I decided we were going to move on. 

By this time, it was getting dark - I ran one last set of rapids around the last island in the Concord river before it joins the Merrimack. The last drop was about 2 or 3 feet, and I was pretty proud of not tipping again. I think it being in the dark made it easier in some ways - I had no idea the trouble I was getting into before I got there. Less to tense up.  

The rest of the guys took one look, called me an idiot and pulled up on the bank (they really are smarter than I am).   Just under the Whipple Cafe - a local bar/watering hole with no cafe about it. I pulled my kayak out of the water and pushed my way up the bank to them. We decided to declare the mission over for now, call one of our wives, and tow the trailers back.  

I think the decision was made right after one of the group staggered on shore and stated firmly "I f#!%ing hate kayaking. I f#!%ing hate the water. I f#!%ing hate the cold. And I need a f#!%ing drink."

 While we were waiting, a few of us went into the Whipple - dripping wet (I still had my life jacket on).  

Remember that bar in "Star Wars" where the droids weren't welcome, and Luke got picked on by some weird monkey alien?  This was not quite that well decorated. With a heavy Massachusetts accent. 

The locals took one look at us and laughed.  

"Whe-ah did you guys come from?" 

"The river. Beer please."

"Whaddya mean, 'the rivah'?" 

"The river. Kayaking. More beer please." 

"It's been mostly dahk for two hours!?" 

"Yep. If I buy you a beer too, can we be friends now? I forgot to bring Obi-Wan along."

 

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The fuzzy picture above I snapped as we went back for my boat. Down river where I had pulled out, the banks were a steep, 50ft vertical drop below houses. We went back for my gear first, and then hopped fences and gates to sneak my kayak back up through a couple of back yards. I was pretty sure we stood a good chance of getting shot. 

All part of the adventure, right?  

Seriously - we had a blast.  

We ended up pulling out just before the Concord hits the Merrimack. Right about where that arrow is up there in the map earlier. Probably a bit more than a third of the whole distance. There wasn't a part of it that wasn't fun - work, wet, cold, tiring, and beautiful. Good laughter, great scenery. Even the homeless pair was all part of the story. We lost a few odds and ends to the water, and learned a hell of a lot about that stretch of river.

I got home late Friday evening, shed my wet gear and downed a bottle or so of Ibuprofen before jumping in a hot shower and raising my core body temp a few degrees.  

I woke up Saturday morning stiff and scraped and aching. A few of the guys showed up later in the morning - all claiming to feel less sore than I felt (damn them). And we loaded up the boats to take back to the rental place.  

I was a little nervous that when I got in the van, they'd all beat the shit out of me for coming up with a stupid idea to paddle in the cooling autumn weather when we could have been home and hanging out safely indoors.  

Instead, we all immediately began planning our next attempt - pack and load the kayaks the night before, start earlier (even before the sun comes up) to time our arrival at the first portage and rapids more effectively. We really only needed a couple more hours of daylight to have made the whole trip work. And our late start hampered us.  

Mostly, though - I think we all took a lot of this view away from the trip. 

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Yeah. Totally worth it.  

Ultimate tailgating

The Critter has been hauling cinderblocks out from the back of the barn, getting ready for next weekend's pig roast & cider press. I've already fetched a couple dozen bushels of apples, and was left with all the cardboard. 

The pit's not quite ready, but it was close enough to enjoy a bit of a fire on a cool-ish, sunny afternoon. I put some cider and spices into a cast iron kettle, stuck some brats on sticks and set a few apples on the edge of the pit to roast. A few s'mores to finish things off, and this is what we call tailgating around here. 

 

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