My grandfather, Jan Frys, worked as a butcher in the rural town of Piechowice, Poland. My grandmother sold the cuts out of her storefront connected to their house, which sat on a quiet farm. Recounting her childhood filled with an abundance of animals and meat around every corner, my mom tells me that this family business sustained them for decades.
I used the example of my grandpa's life - a man I never had the chance to meet, but of whom I have heard countless tales - to remain cool and calm when I suddenly found myself standing in front of lifeless pigs dangling by their feet at The Heart & Trotter Butchery in North Park .
Unless you're my mother, raised by a butcher, it's easy to take for granted where your protein comes from. The Heart and Trotter is one of only two butcher shops in Southern California that buys whole animals direct from the rancher. Full sides of pork are shipped straight to the shop (along with beef, lamb, chicken and duck) and hung in their walk-in cooler, where my jaw practically hit the ground on a recent Sunday evening.
I was there to take the Pork 101 class, a three-hour tutorial taught by head butcher David Reyes, on how to break down a whole pig. With a maximum class size of six people, the course becomes intimately hands-on. Meaning that yes, students are cutting, tugging and groping that pig.
First, we scrubbed up and donned our red aprons. Reyes showed us some basic knife skills (there's one called the murder grip), and we started slicing away at the shoulder. The colors of the flesh were beautifully marbled, something I've never seen on grocery store-bought meat. It's obvious that this pork is a cut above the rest, arriving from the small Cook Pigs Ranch located in Julian. Even the fat was a thing of beauty on this beast, with a thick, buttery texture.
Reyes led our class down the anatomy of the pig and into the belly to cut up someone's future bacon. We carved out the tenderloin and pork chops, learning how to portion the body into suitable retail cuts and tie up some perfect chops.
One thing that I discovered early on in the class was that cutting through skin, fat and bones is quite labor intensive. Knife skills are everything and, unfortunately, I have none, so I struggled to pull the saw across the flesh. I also learned that the body of the pig truly guides the knife, and someone with the extensive training that Reyes has can butcher the entire thing in five minutes, tops.
As a whole animal butcher shop, The Heart and Trotter is able to utilize the entire animal through a variety of products, meaning that our little piggy would not only produce the pork chops and bacon that's widely sought after, it also would be used for bone broth and sausage.
The class costs $150 per person, and each of the students leaves with three pounds of meat from the pig. We even tasted a few grilled cuts throughout class, and I could immediately taste the drastic difference from the mass-produced meats of the world. Tonight, I'll be cooking my bone-in pork chops and thinking about my grandparents, appreciating both their legacy and the unbeatable flavors of a small-farm pig cut by my own two hands.
The Heart and Trotter Butchery
Address: 2855 El Cajon Blvd. #1, North Park
Phone: (619) 564-8976