Angela Chase, 18, in a pastel butterfly top and rhinestone glasses, doesn't look entirely comfortable wielding a giant bone saw over a bisected pig carcass.
But on a recent Sunday, at a "Be Your Own Butcher" class at Wyebrook Farm in Chester County, instructor Janet Crandall coaxed Chase to use a smooth, confident, back-and-forth motion to cut through a bone.
Tentatively, Chase worked the saw, struggling for a few long minutes as other students called out instructions and encouragement.
Crandall, a petite figure barely 5 feet tall and one of the only female butchers to ever work for New York's famed butcher Pat LaFrieda, was instructing about a dozen people assembled in Wyebrook Farm's narrow basement kitchen. Each had paid $80 each to get some hands-on experience butchering a whole animal.
"I have been hearing from my students for years that they want to know how to talk to butchers and farmers and improve their skills cutting and cooking with locally raised meat," says Betsey Gerstein Sterenfeld, owner of Essen, the Lancaster-based cooking school that organized the workshop at Wyebrook.
"This is an important part of understanding where your food comes from," she says.
Normally, her classes focus on home-cooking basics, including lessons on Julia Child's recipes or how to make dinner in 20 minutes. For a whole-animal butchery class, Sterenfeld knew she'd need to find the right expert instructor. When she met Crandall, a proficient professional butcher, chef, and culinary teacher, she knew it was time to schedule a class during which a hog would be cut down into chops and roasts by the students themselves, under Crandall's close supervision. Sterenfeld announced the class and the slots filled up fast, thanks in part to increasing awareness about the vices of factory-farmed meat and the virtues of its local, sustainable alternative.
One student, Kristen Ippolito, 32, owner of Lancaster's Amaranth bakery, enrolled out of a desire to make the most informed, ethical choices about eating meat again after a seven-year stint of vegetarianism.
"I couldn't believe how conscientious the farm is about using every part of the animal," she said. As part of the lesson, Crandall explained how every scrap of each animal goes into making food. The fat is rendered into lard; the head becomes headcheese; the bones are used for stock. Even the kidneys are frozen and used in high-end farm dinners cooked by guest chefs and hosted by Wyebrook once a month.
"Honestly, I don't see myself ever breaking out the bone saw at home," says Ippolito. "But thanks to the class, I'm much more likely to seek out and buy something like pork cheeks or pig belly." She said offal doesn't intimidate her anymore now that she better understands nose-to-tail cooking.
Other students, however, do plan to test their new whole-animal butchery skills.
Jansen Herr, 38, a business owner from Lancaster, routinely purchases half a cow from a friend who raises them. During the class, he was the first student to volunteer to cut the pig - his job was to slice off the jowl, a part prized for charcuterie. "I can get a discount on the beef if I butcher it myself, and thanks to the class, now I'm not afraid to try," he says. "I know I won't ruin my meat making a rookie mistake."
Most of the class won't be trying a butchering project as ambitious as Jansen's, but there were plenty of practical lessons for everyday cooking to take away.
"I was surprised how much the class improved my knife skills," says Paul Chase, 47, a Lancaster-based real estate agent and Angela's dad. "I have already used the technique Janet showed us for gliding the knife through the meat instead of sawing." And the next time he shops for pork chops, he will look for the shoulder chops and not his usual choice of the center chops. "Janet said they have more flavor, and looking at the marbling in the meat, that makes a lot of sense."
The nuts-and-bolts meatcutting skills that students sharpened during the class are, as Sterenfeld sees it, a bonus above and beyond what the lesson was really about.
"People don't understand that there's not an unlimited number of tenderloins," Crandall says. "If you want baby back ribs, for example, you can't get pork chops from that same animal because they come from the same place."
The deep red color of the pork, as well as its thick fat layer and marbling, was a stark contrast to the pallid pork on foam trays in the supermarket meat case. Every student took several cuts home to taste the difference.
"I wanted to provide meaningful context for people who want to know more about where their food comes from, and help people make connections between how their food is produced and how it tastes," says Sterenfeld.
Check Essen's schedule online for announcements for DIY butchering sessions at breathelivegrow.com/schedule.