It wasn't the first time I'd seen a pig splayed across a state in all its fleshy glory. Or even the second or third. My fascination with pigs -- and with butchery -- extends over several years, but while I've witnessed numerous butchers, their starched aprons splashed with blood, their nimble fingers slipping a sharp boning knife into the carcass, break down a hog, it wasn't until a few weeks ago that I got my own hands around a swine carcass.
Garbed in long black aprons swinging with knives, their slender waists wrapped in heavy chains, Kate Kavanaugh and her fiance, Josh Curtiss, use a small boning knife to make the first slit into the corpse, a 100-pound, five-foot-long red Duroc pig that was raised -- and slaughtered -- in Brush. Jeff Bauman, the former owner of Pig & Block Charcuterie, who recently sold his shop to Kavanaugh and Curtiss, who will open Western Daughters Butcher Shoppe in August, procured the pig.
Its body, slaughtered just two days before, lays stretched across a chilly butcher's table, and according to Bauman, who also sells the same Duroc pigs to Old Major, I have a "meat pig -- not a bacon pig," although the belly is hardly bereft of what will eventually become bacon. "It's very comparable to the marbling of a Berkshire, and it's amazing," he says. I've clearly hit the pig jackpot.
Kavanaugh checks the kidneys to look for discoloration or legions, signs, she explains, that indicate whether or not the pig is healthy. My pig appears to have led a good life before it met its fate.
And then I nearly met mine, slashing my finger while trying to separate the flesh from the tendons with a mercilessly sharp knife. "We want to congratulate you on your first butcher's cut and let you know that you are now officially on your way to being a butcher; the blood has been spilled," quips Kate.
She and Curtiss hand me a band saw to cut through the bones and cartilage; I mutter something about it being difficult -- weak arm muscles -- but Curtiss glides me through the process with relative ease, and I manage not to saw off my finger.
Both Kavanaugh and Curtiss spent a year studying the art of butchery in New York, mastering whole-beast butchery alongside Joshua Applestone, a no-nonsense, don't-give-me-any-bullshit, high-end butcher, who owns Fleisher's Meats, which he and his family founded in 2004. "I read Joshua's book, called him, and he happened to have a few openings in his butchery class, and while we were originally planning to just spend a few months there, we ended up staying a year," says Kavanaugh, who grew up in Denver.
"I knew I wanted to die on a bison ranch, and I strongly believe in restoring the ecology of the plains, but I knew nothing about butchery -- in fact, I knew nothing other than how to cook at home," admits Kavanaugh. "But being able to see animals from the inside out was an incredible learning process for me and Josh, and we knew that we wanted to open a full-scale butcher shop down the rod, and when the opportunity presented itself, we just ran with it," she adds.
Their shop, which will offer hands-on, "how to" classes, much like the one I was privy to, will also sell custom cuts of lamb, beef and pork, housemade sausages and deli meats, pasteurized whole chickens, local dry goods and even custom-made dog food and biscuits; delivery service and apprenticeships are part of what they have planned, too.
When it comes to whole-animal butchery, Kavanaugh has a few tips for those of us who aren't quite as professional as she and Curtiss are. First and foremost, she tells me while I'm stroking the fat on my pork chops, "Start with a well-raised animal. Make sure you know who your source is, and have a relationship with your farmer and rancher." Always -- always -- use a sharp knife (even if doing so sheds blood); start with your primals first and then break the rest of the animal into sub-primals; and, most important, she tells me, "just have fun with it -- you can't really mess it up and make it inedible."
For me, this was sort of like the continuing education I've always wanted. I know, more or less, where the cuts come from, but I wanted to get inside the animal -- literally -- and use my hands to feel the blades and the ribs, the kidneys and the colon. Several years ago, some friends and I pooled our money so we could share a steer; a quarter of a Black Angus was shoved into my two freezers, and the meat lasted for a good two months. I now have 100 pounds of pig in my freezers.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
To contact Kavanaugh and Curtiss about upcoming butchery classes, call 303-477-6328. And to see what it's like to spend the day with the two incredibly patient butchers, click through the photos on the following pages.