Page 2 of 4
Following Louis, the plant manager, are a radio crew from Heritage Foods USA, as well as that company's Martins, and Sam Edwards III and IV from Edwards & Sons in Surry, Virginia. Chefs Jason Neve and Matt Harubin from B&B Ristorante in Las Vegas, Community Food & Juice chef Zach Kell, and chef Stephen Barber of the Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch (in California's Napa Valley) are here as part of a four-day trip to learn more about the butchers who ship to them.
"We make our own wine, raise cattle, grow our fruits and vegetables, and make our own olive oil," Barber says as people introduce themselves.
"I'm from Vegas," deadpans Harubin. "We have strip clubs and gambling."
Walking past the refrigerated coolers that line the west and north walls of the shop, these are men in a pig candy store. Louis passes out white plastic suits and hairnets and beard nets, and the men wrestle into the gear.
In the butcher shop, a bookshelf by the door holds a copy of Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals, which has been turned open. Deer heads gaze out from one corner as Martins offers a little history. "They had to give up deer season in the hopes that the restaurant community would support this," he says. "It was a big risk. You know community-supported agriculture. This is chef-supported agriculture."
The chefs troop up a concrete ramp, their feet passing over the phrase "Piggy's Paradise," which has been etched into the concrete. Beyond is a chute attached to concrete pens, where farmers from as far away as Iowa unload 150 pigs a week. Their water trough is heated in winter to keep it from freezing, and a misting fan keeps the animals' temperature down in summer.
"I remember the misting fan arrived, and I was putting it together," Louis says. "Our slaughter guys asked if we got a misting fan for the kill floor. I laughed and told them, 'No, it's for the hog pen.' "
The Fantasmas practice and promote humane killing, for ethical reasons as well as for practical concerns. A stressed animal, they believe, is more difficult to maneuver and yields tougher meat. On Mondays and Tuesdays, the plant's hog-slaughter days, the pigs are led up a small wooden gangplank into a pair of interior pens. At the end of the pens is a small door that leads onto the killing floor.
Louis guides this white-coated pack through a different door, into a storage area that leads into a chilly, odorless room where an employee is busy forming hams. The meat is slid through a conical metal tube into a fine mesh netting, like a Christmas tree being bagged. The worker bangs each ham on the table to push out any air — a gesture that produces a wet plopping sound — before clipping the end of the netting.
"I have a surprise for you," Louis says. "I didn't take you here to see the hams. This is actually the killing floor."
Each room in the plant, he explains, has multiple uses. The walk-in coolers hold the animals that are slaughtered on Mondays and Tuesdays. After being chilled — the temperature of the carcasses is lowered from 110 to 40 degrees over 14 hours — the pigs leave the coolers on Wednesdays and Thursdays. The hogs are then broken down in a separate room and returned to what was the killing floor to be made into bacon, bratwursts, ham, and dozens of other products. It is a ballet as neat as turning a room for a wedding.
The dance is the only way this 6,000-square-foot plant can handle the volume that Heritage needs. It also allows plant workers to escape the typical monotony of a slaughterhouse. They're not stuck on the line or cutting the same chops day in, day out. (This is one way to address a basic meat-industry problem: how to attract the next generation of workers to a job that requires extensive training and is, in most companies, dangerous and exhausting.)