PORTLAND, Maine — Jaclyn Burskey dragged the massive pig’s body — well, the half of it still there, anyway — to the edge of the stainless steel table until its head was hanging over the side.
“You just bend the head back until the neck cracks a little bit, and then you know where to cut,” she said matter-of-factly, wrenching the late hog’s skull until she heard that telltale sound.
For Portland teenagers aspiring to one day be chefs, Burskey’s workshop Tuesday offered what she called an invaluable — and often overlooked — link between farms and five-star restaurants.
To understand what makes a great dish, one must understand where all the ingredients come from, she reasoned.
So for at least one day, Portland high school students got to look into the eye of the animal they’d be using to make a range of dishes in their culinary class.
That is, the eye still socketed on the half of the pig’s head being carved up by Burskey. But the class was more than just a reality check for teens who may have never previously seen such a fresh pork chop.
The woman behind the Vermont-based JBurskey Custom Butchery — a longtime vegetarian who now embraces meat-eating whole hog, so to speak — gave the students a role model in a food industry getting younger and increasingly more local.
“It’s great to see someone so young and so passionate talk about what she does,” said Doug Armstrong who has four decades of experience in the restaurant industry and teaches the culinary concepts class at Portland Arts & Technology High School.
“Frankly, I think it’s an inspiration to some of the young ladies in the class,” he said.
Burskey’s workshop was eye-opening to even those in the room with restaurant bona fides.
Courtenay Kinney, a 2008 graduate of the Portland school who now works as the sous chef under a pair of James Beard Award winners at MC Perkins Cove restaurant in Ogunquit, said she never realized where in the animal hanger steaks came from. There’s only one in each animal, and they’re found near the diaphragm.
“The restaurant I work at, we’ve had hanger steaks before, and when we get an order of 50 hanger steaks, I now know that that’s a lot of animals who needed to be butchered,” she said.
Burskey told the students that for nine years, she was a vegetarian, a potentially difficult thing to imagine when seeing the same woman using a hacksaw to cut a pig’s body into approximate thirds.
Burskey said she became sick and lethargic as a college student attending a macrobiotic institute, a facility which trains participants in a certain holistic diet and lifestyle system. Unable to continue, she dropped out of the program and returned to her family’s home north of Michigan. She was immediately treated to a wild boar and venison burger handmade by her father, a hunter.
“I just felt 100 percent better,” she recalled Tuesday. “Being the self-righteous, avid vegetarian I was, I became a self-righteous, avid meat eater. I had to feel good about where it came from.”
When she returned to college, she aggressively researched meat and the food supply chain, and ultimately studied to become a butcher.
“Slaughter is the missing piece in terms of everybody’s understanding of where their meat comes from,” said Burskey, who performed a similar “whole-pig” butchery workshop for culinary students at the Bath Regional Career and Technical Center last month.
“This is small-farm butchery,” Armstrong said. “So we know where it was raised and what it was raised on. … I think it’s important that when they go to the market and get pork, they know it doesn’t just appear shrink-wrapped. A butcher has to work at it and put a knife to it.”
It was a difficult reality for some of the students to stomach Tuesday, but others were enthusiastic about tasting every last bit of the pig.
“There were a few squeamish kids — a little green around the gills, if you will,” Armstrong admitted. “One kid’s dying to try the brain. … Brains have a nice, creamy texture. If you don’t know it’s brain, you might find that you like it.”
The Portland students lined up to get a lot of mileage out of this fresh pork. Armstrong rattled off the culinary possibilities: Head cheese, kidney pie, bacon, sausage, deep fried pork rinds, baked stuffed pork chops and more.
Armstrong hopes the students savor those dishes a bit more, knowing how much work went into providing the meat.
“It’s got a tongue in it, it’s got teeth in it — it’s not that little packaged ham in the store,” he said of the pig on the steel table. “She’s showing them how to cut it up and break it down.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the culinary arts teacher as Doug Alexander. His name is Doug Armstrong.