|Market in Florence, Italy
Over the weekend I was researching bacon, writing for Monday. Which made me remember my visit 10 years ago to Park Packing, still in business today, one of three remaining slaughterhouses in Chicago. The article came about because I used to print a joke at the end of every column, and the USDA inspector at Park sent one in. I thought I should link to the story in my bacon piece tomorrow. Only I never posted it here. Now I have. A warning: not for the squeamish. And as a reward, tomorrow we'll have bacon.
Nine pigs are driven into a small pen. The metal door clangs shut and a man in green rubber boots and a yellow smock goes to work.
First he takes a hose and washes the pigs down. They seem to like that. Then he reaches for the instrument of death. It is an appropriately crude device: a short metal T-shaped pole, wrapped in electrical tape, with a cable running out one end and two round electrodes protruding from the other.
The worker —named Daniel—presses the electrodes to the back of a pig's neck and down it goes, kicking and convulsing.
Pigs are smart animals, and the others instantly realize something bad is happening, and begin scrambling over each other, squealing and shrieking, eyes wide, trying to get away, back through the metal door.
But there is no escape.
When two pigs are down, Daniel binds their twitching hind legs together with a chain, and hoists the pigs into the air with a winch. He moves them over a square metal trough. With a deft thrust, he jams a thin knife into the throat of each pig, and berry-red blood gushes out into the trough. Though the pigs are stunned, it is important they still be alive. Otherwise, the blood won't drain properly.
"Once they've been stunned, they're brain dead," says Ray Ramsey, the Illinois Department of Agriculture inspector monitoring the process at Park Packing, 4107 S. Ashland. "It supposedly makes them insensible to pain. But they never come back to tell me whether it's true or not."
I met Ramsey after he sent me a pig joke and mentioned where he works. My reaction, like that of everybody else I've told about the plant, was amazement that pigs are still slaughtered within the city limits. The greatness of Chicago was built on the processing of animals—"Hog Butcher for the World" as Carl Sandburg famously wrote.
But the stockyards closed in 1970, and finding live Iowa pigs trucked daily into Chicago to begin their conversion into sausage is like discovering Al Capone still getting a hot lather shave every morning at the Lexington Hotel.
"There's not too many left," admits Tom Bairaktaris, owner of Park Packing, which caters mostly to smaller mom and pop stores.
Park Packing employs 40 people and, today, will butcher 182 pigs, two by two. After their lifeblood drains away, the pigs are lowered into scalding water.
"I have to spot check everywhere," says Ramsey. "They can't go into the water while still alive."
1 TO 2 PERCENT TOO ILL TO EAT
From the water, the pigs are shunted to a large device, made of curved ribs of metal. The device tumbles the pigs to remove their hair. Each pig weighs 185 pounds, about the size of a human, and is a pinkish hue very similar to Caucasian flesh. Pigs can sunburn. The sight of a pair of large, wet, freshly killed pigs loudly tumbling around and around is not pleasant.
After, their hooves are removed and the back legs are attached to a gambrel—a metal armature—and the pigs are hoisted up. They are conveyed from station to station along an overhead track, an invention that revolutionized meatpacking a century ago.
The remaining hair is burned off with a torch, the pig is shaved, and the process of cutting apart the pig begins. The rectum is removed—they call it "dropping the bung"—and the pig is split to the chin.
Ramsey draws a knife, reaches into a hog carcass, and begins slicing up a large, bean-shaped bulb of flesh—the mandibular lymph node.
"We're supposed to cut them as many times as we can," he says, making thin slices. "I'm looking for inflammation, hemorrhaging."
The innards are taken out, a wet, sloppy sack, liquid still sloshing around within the translucent yellow intestines. They're dumped on a metal table. Ramsey palpates the purplish brown liver with his fingers.
"Sometimes you find worms," he says.
One or two in 100 pigs are rejected as too ill to eat; most have ailments that don't affect their edibility.
"About 80 percent of the pigs have bronchitis or pneumonia," he said. "That doesn't mean the meat is unusable."
Loud Spanish music plays—except for Ramsey, the workers are Hispanic, many related, most from the same city, Guanajuato.
ALL PARTS CAN BE BOUGHT
A living pig's temperature is slightly higher than a human's—about 102. It takes six hours for the pigs to cool to 37 degrees. That's when Ramsey stamps them with an Illinois-shaped stamp; the purple ink is really blueberry juice.
Then the pigs are cut apart—heads off, torsos divided into loins, shoulders, ribs and hams —by workers using band saws, cutting so quickly it makes your fingers tingle just to watch.
The pigs go out like that—customers divide the large sections into individual chops and ribs. The plant also has a small retail store, stocked with every pig part imaginable, and if you are in the market for pigskin, perhaps to make your own football, it's 49 cents a pound. Pig blood is $45 for a 5-gallon bucket, enough for your backyard production of "Carrie."
Ramsey's job can be seen as a balancing act. He is charged with enforcing a stack of regulations a foot thick, rules that would give him justification to shut the plant down at any given moment, were that his goal.
"Our overall mission is to make sure the meat from here is safe," he says. "You have to make a judgment. You have to pick your battles."
He ends up giving the plant four or five citations a month, demanding that a restroom be cleaned, or that carcasses not be removed until they are sufficiently cooled.
"You become the bad guy," he says. "But by lunchtime, you're friends again."
Ramsey is 32, married for the second time, and has found his life's work.
"I'll probably do it as long as I can," he says.
It's lunchtime when I finish my tour, so I step across the street to a Mexican diner and order a pork chop sandwich. It seems the thing to do.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Aug. 10, 2007