Despite what the Food Network, Williams-Sonoma and your girlfriend have been telling you, the proper utensil for tenderizing a country ham is a baseball bat.
That's one of the new techniques we learned attending a hands-on butchering class at The Meat Hook
in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, led by co-owner Tom Mylan
. One of Mylan's goals is to help students avoid painful rookie mistakes.
"I was constantly injuring myself, rather severely," says the 33-year-old Mylan of his early days in the trade. "I have a million little scars all over my fingers where I've cut myself down to the bone."
He pulls an 8-inch "breaking" knife out of the metal sheath slung around his hip, affixed by chain and loaded with all manner of devilish-looking instruments, to show us how he once buried its tip into his arm.
Tom doesn't do butchering as you've come to know it, with tickets from a little red dispenser and honey glazed ham cold cuts. Mylan, along with a handful of others around the country, view butchering as an important part of the larger Greenmarket
movement, which encourages people to take an active role in knowing where their food comes from and how it was prepared.
Keep reading to find out how we took an active role in taking apart a 110-lb. Duroc-Hampshire pig straight from Mylan's walk-in freezer.
With an imposing wall of knives as a backdrop, Mylan gives a quick safety tutorial, noting that the shop's grinder, "Whitney," operates at a rate of 20 lbs. per minute. "Your arm is probably 2 to 3 pounds," Mylan says with a smirk. Duly noted.
As students crowd in around the pig, whose head Mylan dramatically plops down next to it, he begins by explaining the subject's life up until this point, which included a humanely-raised farm existence. But this isn't "Babe" and Mylan doesn't spare the gory details, like the stun-gun zap and slit throat which brought this little piggy to market.
Next up, Mylan walks us through the various cuts so that everyone knows which part produces the tenderloin and which brings the bacon. He also points out muscle groups that do the most work -- legs, shoulders, face -- and tend to produce the most succulent-tasting meat, adding that "young animals have better-tasting brains."
Straying from the normal class curriculum, we learn how to produce a country ham, which is basically the American version of prosciutto. Mylan pulls out the big guns, including the bone saw and his vintage Biro electric band saw, which he admits he's terrified of running his face into. Sawing, slicing and pulling, the pig now starts to come apart into recognizable bits.
A country ham must be rubbed in a salt mixture and left to cure for weeks (if not months!), we're told, but first it must be tenderized ... with a baseball bat. Class attendee Bjorn Wespestad stepped up to bat, giving the pork a few mighty whacks while his girlfriend (and birthday girl) Melanie Scott looked on. "He knows the way to my heart," she remarked.
As the class drew to a close, the students cracked open the remaining Brooklyn Lagers
and sampled some of the ham steak that had been slowly cooking throughout the evening. While we might not be running out to pack a whole pig in our freezers just yet, we do know the good from the bad in bloody detail now. We've also got professional confirmation, in the words of Mylan, that Slim Jims are "super-sketchy sh**."