Editor’s Note: I drove hours over roads snaking through green hills to join the Teters on their Six Buckets farm for the assignment of attending their butchery class. The couple, along with their three daughters, live on a huge pig farm in sparsely populated Northeast Ohio hill country. Their lives center around the families of pigs they raise, who provide them with meat that is then sold to Columbus grocers.
The old saying fits here… These pigs only have one bad day. They spend their lives fattening up and rolling in mud under the shade of trees, getting an occasional belly scratch from their benefactors/beneficiaries, the farmers Teter. Theirs is an ancient kind of symbiosis, honorable in a way that most modern meat production has ceased to be.
The Teters didn’t grow up farming, but rather approached it sideways, leaving the city as adults to chase a simple dream that modern technology and the flight of populations back to city centers have left in their wake. Their aim was to live off the land and the sweat of their brow.
I’ve long felt like a city girl in the country, and a country girl in the city. I was well into my 30s before I came to the conclusion that maybe I was just a fish out of water, no matter where I found myself.
After mulling over my story options, I decided to ask Lyndsey Teter to put down her bone saw, and pick up a pen, possibly for the first time in a pig’s age. She hasn’t left her writing roots too far behind apparently, as you’ll see in the following pages.
She’s assuredly back at the carving table after meeting her deadline, but getting out of Dodge for a day (along with a two-hour ride each way to consider my life choices) moved something in me that the glossy, glassy new condo builds downtown haven’t been able to stir. Seeing the Teters lead the city slickers in their farmhouse kitchen on a journey literally from one end of a pig carcass to the other showed me that a mid-life sideways leap is possible, and that good old American pluck and tenacity can still get you somewhere. That somewhere might just be in the middle of nowhere—but that may be the exact place you were meant to be. – Jeni Ruisch
Do it often enough, and you can find it on the first slice.
Grab the pig’s foot in your left hand and move it side-to-side in an awkward handshake introduction, locating the bend between the foot and the hock. When she was alive, the pig would tolerate such foolery only as long as she was comfortable napping in the grass, belly toward the sun, enjoying a scratch from her farmer. But now, on the butcher block table, one precise cut through the skin exposes the joint, which crunches and pops out of the socket with a bit of downward pressure, opening a natural seam for my knife to slice through the tendons and release the entire foot in one swift motion, no saw required.
Trotter, I say, presenting the foot before a group of wide-eyed peers. I’ve been doing this sort of thing long enough that I can spot the difference between those who are trying really hard to be cool with the visceral stimulus going on around them, and those suppressing eagerness to try their hand at the other three feet. OK, fine, they’re usually ghostly pale and/or fighting over the boning knife, maybe it doesn’t take a professional eye.
Do not EVER throw this away, don’t you dare, I tell them. This foot is a gift. You can cut it in half and cook it up on the grill, crisp the skin in the oven, braise the meat and bones, add body to your stock and soups with all the pig’s glorious gelatin, the options are endless.
The hog, whose tiny hooves took their first steps here on our pastures, the noble beast that grew fat and happy exploring the hills of Tuscarawas County on these trotters?
That hog is now food. It’s witchcraft.
Listen, I didn’t do any of this weird crap until well in my 30s. My husband Seth and I were professionally trained as journalists. We have no business knowing any of this. Growing up at the end of a cul-de-sac, pork was bacon. Pork was a lean, maybe even grisly chop. We’re not alone. Pretty sure Jodi Miller, a photojournalist, had also spent a few decades in a life well-lived before cutting off a pig’s trotter. A quick browse through her Instagram and I can see photos from Florence, Brooklyn, Venice Beach, the French Quarter. But no piles of red meat on a butcher block table, as of yet. She was here with us to remedy that now, slicing through the back hock with partner Robin Oatts behind the camera lens, lucky for us, another photographer. I like seeing this stuff through new eyes.
Then there is Brian, who works in logistics. Kristin, who distributes auto parts. We’ve had Scott from IT, Rachel from HR, Thomas, who works in accounting, Kari the vegetarian, even that one guy, the guy who worked at a hospital, selling human skin to burn victims and transplant recipients. He was there. We gather around two wooden tables that are scarred with saw tooth marks from the first-timers who went before them, and we are here together, starting as strangers, to learn how to do this.
In nearly every class, one person shrieks as we separate the loin from the shoulder, where the bacon and the pork chop become easily identifiable. This primal delight takes hold of a man, sweeps you up, and ultimately it is part of the reason my husband and I justified quitting our writing jobs in Columbus, eventually moving to his grandparents’ 90-acre farm two hours east of the city. We are trying to carve out a living as farmers and homesteaders, leaning heavily on educational Facebook forums and YouTube videos. You don’t have to take it that far, but fair warning—some do.
I think we shriek because are all tired and bored of not knowing. Somewhere buried in our sapien DNA I feel there is a part left wholly unsatisfied with prefabricated, abundant-but-anonymous meat, presented to our generation in tidy cellophane at the grocery store. It has left us full but disenchanted. I can only presume this because I keep getting these notifications on my phone that another stranger has sent me money, and each month our beautiful John Boos tables fill with folks from all over the state and we perform the weird rite of passage again—to transform a hog into food, the not-knowing into knowing.
We make sausage jokes. These are my favorite days on the farm.
To our ancestors, it used to be as trendy an autumn occurrence as pumpkin spice. Families, friends, and neighbors would gather as the days and nights cool, before the freeze, to slaughter and butcher the swine and fill the larder for the winter. Then somewhere along the way we stopped saying “larder.” We became repulsed and eventually embarrassed by our agrarian roots. Especially in Columbus, where I remember working as a journalist, we took great care to avoid those seven scarlet letters: C-O-W-T-O-W-N.
For decades, we were happy to let go of that connection to our roots, quite literally, to the soil where our food grows and ultimately to the animals that become our meals. Luckily for my husband and me, what was old is new again. We recognized this missing connection and cashed in all our chips. We are going to foster Ohio’s food scene and agriculture back together, where it belongs. One pig head at a time.
It goes without saying that farm to table is trending. Peasant food is finally getting the recognition it deserves. Utilizing the whole animal is now a noble pursuit for chefs and home cooks. The best part about modern day whole hog butchery is that Columbus folk don’t have to pack away a pig to survive the winter. We can take it at a more leisurely pace. We simply can enjoy a bit of craftsmanship that has previously been missing from our prefab lives. At the very minimum, we can Instagram bacon that we cured at home from a pig belly carved with our own two hands. After an eight-hour day on our farm, no one is going to be a professional butcher. All we have to do is enjoy trying.
To purchase Six Buckets pork, check out The Butcher and Grocer at 1089 W First Ave. For more on the farm, including their schedule of whole hog butchery classes, visit sixbucketsfarm.com. (And, if you want to see cute kids, dogs, and pigs, follow @the_swineherd).