I'm back at Fleisher's, the butcher shop where I've been apprenticing in Kingston, NY. Last week was out of the ordinary in a couple of ways. When I first arrived on a Tuesday there were a handful of good-looking, muscular men cutting beef around the main table, and no women in sight. Why so good-looking and so muscular? It must be the organic, grass-fed meat they're eating all the time. The women at Fleisher's are outnumbered to begin with, but it takes a completely male staff to make a female seem out of place. Once I put on a metal guard, a mesh apron that covers your entire front side, I felt more at ease.
The din of a butcher shop is soothing to the soul, and it's the small gestures that shape the rhythm of the place: the screech of the bandsaw cutting heads in half or trimming steaks to size, the whining of the cryovac machine as it sucks the air out of bags of trim. There's the assurance that every time someone moves behind you, he or she says "behind you" whether or not you're holding a knife. When you open the door of a cooler from the inside, you knock to signal your reappearance on the shop's floor so that the door won't crash into someone walking by.
The first day passed without a hitch. By the second day, the temperature outside had reached the 90s. It was hot in the shop, the kind of insidious heat that shortens your breath and leaves your head cloudy. We'd been breaking down pigs all afternoon. Feet and hocks piled up on the table.
Splitting pigs' feet by hand is satisfying work. Usually we run the feet through the electric bandsaw, which gives the cleanest and straightest cuts down the middle. But at an old-fashioned butcher shop, there's a sense of pride and comfort in getting things done by hand. When you reach the end near the hooves, the last segment can be split by parting the halves of the trotters with both hands and forcing the smaller joints out of place. The sound of joints popping out of sockets is melody to the butcher's ears.
Joints are slippery suckers. Synovial fluid, clear and silky with the consistency of thin mucous, cushions the space between them. When your knife cuts around the sinews and breaks the connection between two bones, the synovial fluid flows. The wetness is most extreme on the cow, which has the biggest bones and therefore the most fluid. On pigs the synovial fluid is only substantial on the larger joints.
I'd been using the pistol grip to dislodge the tendons at the joint nearest to the hoof, my right hand gripping the knife tightly with the tip pointing downward, my left hand supporting the pig's foot. When my knife hit the bone it faltered against the slick joint. The tip of the knife landed right into my left hand. My skin parted like the pages of a book and large spigots of dark blood, almost purple in hue, spilled onto the pigs' feet. I gasped in surprise and dropped my knife on the table.
Stabbing is different from cutting. Years ago when I'd cut off part of a fingertip it took a few seconds for me to recognize that I was missing the end of my finger. It's a strange out-of-body experience when you stare down at your hand and wonder if you've done any damage; the cut is surgical, sharp, and clean. This is especially so at the shop, where the knives are razor sharp and the chilled meat, straight from the cooler, can dull the sensation in your fingertips. The bloodier the cut of meat, the more likely it is that you'll mistake the animal's blood with that of your own during cutting. It's fairly common practice to stop midway during cutting to examine your hand—you can never be too sure.
A stab, on the other hand, registers instant shock and pain. The moment the tip of the knife went into my hand, in the tender area between the thumb and the rest of the hand, blood started gushing at the point of entry. It made my stomach turn to see the rate at which the blood was escaping from the wound. I must have stayed still at the table for ten seconds or so, staring dumbly down at the wound, before I snapped back into action. I grabbed a paper towel and walked over to where Bryan Mayer was standing. Bryan, who's been everything from a fishmonger to an indie rocker, can tell you more about meat and fish than just about anyone else I know.
I'd been holding the wound closed with the paper towel.
"Uh oh, you cut yourself?" he asked.
We walked over to the sink so that I could wash the wound. The moment I lifted the paper towel from my hand the bleeding started again. My hand quivered uncontrollably when the water hit the wound. I reapplied pressure to the wound, which I estimated was about one-third of an inch wide and just as deep.
"What, so you're going to stop cutting already?" Bryan teased.
Everyone grinned at me as I stood by, holding my hands above my head to control the bleeding. The moment I lowered my hand below my heart I could feel the blood, like warm wine rushing down the throat, surge back to the wound. So I'd raise my hand again. I watched as the rest of the crew continued cutting. I'd bled over quite a few trotters and hocks on the table; Bryan threw them away and wiped my blood off the table.
My right hand was already itching to touch meat again. I grew angry—first at myself for having been so careless and then, curiously, at the rest of the crew. I coveted everyone else's ability to butcher.
To remove myself from the temptations of the cutting table, I pulled out my computer to write. An hour later I began to feel faint. My breathing was ragged and my head, spinning. My entire left arm felt like a dead weight hanging off of my body and all of the joints in my left hand were aching. When I got up to walk over to the table the ground did not feel stable underneath my feet.
"Uh, my entire left hand feels numb and sore at the same time. But that's normal, right?" It was hard to keep the anxiety out of my tone.
Bryan walked over to me. "Hold out both of your arms," he said. "I just want to make sure that there isn't any swelling or anything. Nope, looks good."
I drank some more ice water and sat down in a quiet corner of the shop. I thought about the hocks , those glorious hocks, and the trotters that we had to toss into the trash. I wondered if I would be able to cut the next day. It would be such an ignominious return to Brooklyn if I couldn't continue to cut.
That night I took two Advil and went to bed. The tiredness after working a full day at the shop is like nothing I've experienced. It's a numbing exhaustion that robs you of all desire and mental acuity. When your body hits the bed and you settle in for the night, you notice that your breathing is deep and heavy; your chest rises and falls dramatically and you follow every exhalation to its absolute end.
As I lay there I thought about life in the shop. The disparity between the image of the rockstar chef or butcher and the realities of working in the food industry seemed all the more absurd. Being a butcher has very little to do with covering your arms with tattoos or breaking down pigs in record time. It's the minutia of the shop—the mundane tasks, like scraping fat and meat from skin and bones, and cutting and arranging chops and steaks for the display counter only to store them back into the coolers at the end of the day, that keeps a shop functioning. Stabs and cuts are an inevitable part of the work. When injuries occur, you work through the inconvenience, which slows you and therefore everyone else down.
Though my left hand ached the next day, the cut had stopped bleeding. Parted ever so slightly, the wound felt significantly less tender and vulnerable. I slapped on a bandage and got back to work. After a few minutes I shed the timidity of using my left hand. Soon the edges of the bandage were stenciled with fat and blood, though this time not my own. Not that I'd been ungrateful before, but I was never quite as thankful as I was on that day for the intricacy of my own bones and joints, so like that of the animals we butchered.
Pigs' feet are an ideal addition to stocks. There's very little meat, but plenty of gelatin in the skin and bones to give body to the liquid. If you're going to eat them whole, it would be a shame not to crisp the skin. Though the Chinese are fond of braising trotters and eating them off the knuckles, I would argue that there's too much skin and fat around the joints that's soft and uninteresting to eat without the benefit of crisping, either by deep-frying or grilling. Splitting the feet is a must if you're grilling—since trotters are finger-food, you're best off breaking them down into portions that are easily gnawed.
Since trotters are all skin and bones, the tendons and skin must be tenderized prior to grilling. I braised the trotters in kecap manis, sweet Indonesian soy sauce, which I've been using for a few months now. The flavor is sweet, smoky, and reminscent of caramel; the consistency is thick like oyster sauce. The braising was about as low maintenance as it gets—I dumped all the trotters into a pan with some ginger, poured on the kecap manis, and topped the whole thing off with Sriracha.
Use indirect heat when finishing the trotters on the grill. Do not place the trotters directly over the coals, which will scorch the skin well before it's had a chance to dry out and crisp. When the trotters come off the grill, the skin will be crispy and a little chewy, the meat and tendons inside, extremely tender. The feet will be finger-licking good and to add to the pleasure of the experience, serve them with a impromptu sauce of kecap manis mixed with more chili and garlic sauce, and a bit of vinegar or tamarind sauce to round out the flavors. The sauce will be so delicious that it would not be unheard of to use it on other items, such as the grilled asparagus or the bowl of noodles you have accompanying the trotters.
Braised and Grilled Trotters
- 4 to 5 pigs' feet, halved lengthwise
- 1/2 cup kecap manis
- 1/4 cup sriracha
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1/2 cup water
- For the sauce:
- 3 tablespoons kecap manis
- 2 teaspoons sriracha
- 3 teaspoons honey
- 1 teaspoon tamarind sauce
Rinse all of the trotters and place them into a shallow hotel pan or dutch oven. Loosely pour the kecap manis and the sriacha over the trotters. Add the salt and the water to the pan and cover with foil or a lid.
Preheat the oven to 325°F. Braise the trotters for 2 1/2 to 3 hours, until the trotters are very tender but not falling off the bone. Let cool briefly.
Meanwhile, start your grill. Arrange your briquets on one side of the grill or in a pile in the middle, so that there's plenty of room on the grill to indirectly cook the trotters. When the briquets have ashed over and are glowing red, arrange the braised trotters on the grate, skin side down.
Grill for 25 to 35 minutes, turning the trotters occasionally to check that the skins aren't burning. Serve immediately with the sauce on the side.