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Diner: Belly of the Beast

Do you know where your meat comes from?

By Chris Kemp · March 1st, 2006 · Diner
C. Matthew Hamby

Dick Stehlin is holding his hands about 18 inches apart to frame the ribcage of a dead pig, hanging upside down at Stehlin's Meat Market in Colerain Township. "Now, this is your pork loin," he says, adding, "These are your spare ribs," running a fingertip over the evenly-spaced ribs, "and on the other side of the spare ribs is your bacon."

On a raised platform behind him, his brother Ron Stehlin, Steve Blank and Brandon Toelke are scraping hair from two more hogs making their way through the de-hairing station. It's just before 8 a.m. on a Tuesday morning at Stehlin's Meat Market.

"Monday is cattle. Tuesday is hogs," Toelke told me the day before -- and there's plenty of work to do.

Standing next to me in a waterproof butcher's apron, Dick Stehlin continues his inventory in a friendly voice, talking loudly over the clank of machinery: "Your ham is here," he says, pointing first to a hind leg and then toward a front leg and a powerful-looking shoulder muscle bunched above it.

"This is your picnic ham," he says, patting the shoulder joint. He brings his hand to rest between the thickset shoulder blades. "A lot of people call this Boston butt," he says, "which we break down to make a pork tip and a cottage ham."

Behind me, Dave Kaufman, an inspector for the Ohio Department of Agriculture, Division of Meat Inspection, is talking about football to anyone who will listen. Stehlin excuses himself. Another hog has arrived.

This column germinated in early February with a recipe for pork and beans that called for a pound of belly pork. Of all the ingredients I didn't already have, belly pork sounded like something I wouldn't have trouble obtaining. Unable to find any at my local grocery store in Clifton, I drove to the Hyde Park bigg's store, certain I would find belly pork there among the sterile Styrofoam trays of pork loin, the bloodless chicken breasts and the vacuum-packed bacon. But there was none. I asked for belly pork at the meat counter.

"We don't have any," said the bored worker standing behind it. I asked where I could get some. "I don't know," he said. Strike one.

I was already in the neighborhood, so I went to the Kroger store in Hyde Park Plaza. When I asked for belly pork there, the man working the meat counter excused himself and disappeared through a heavy plastic flap into another room. I heard mumbling from the other side of the flap.

"He wants what?" another voice said. More mumbling. "What kind of pork?" said the other voice. Mumbling again. "Belly what?" Strike two. Not only did they not have belly pork, they didn't even know what it was. Finally, I called a meat shop, Hyde Park Meats. These people are meat specialists. All they sell is meat. So, they must sell belly pork, right? Wrong. Strike three.

In Cincinnati, right here in Porkopolis, I spent a day trying to find belly pork and failed. Eventually, I gave up and cooked something else for dinner, while the half-forgotten bodies of a million hardworking German immigrants groaned and turned in their graves.

"We don't get whole hanging beef in anymore," says Chris Price, meat department manager of the Hyde Park Kroger. "That was 25, 30 years ago. There's only a half-dozen, or a dozen, suppliers in the country. They all ship to our main warehouse."

When the meat arrives at the store, Price says, most of the work is already done. "It's all done at their productions plants," he says. "All we have to do is put it on a saw and cut it, trim it a little bit. We call it merchandizing."

Grocery chains like Kroger and bigg's -- and even specialty stores like Hyde Park Meats -- don't have belly pork because the suppliers who provide their meat simply don't send them any. Retailers stock their shelves with items they know will sell. Consumers go to the store and choose from the available stock without thinking much about what it is, where it came from or how long it took to get there. In the process, we have become so disconnected from our food source that most of us don't even know what part of a pig a pork chop comes from. We have convinced ourselves that eating meat doesn't involve killing; it's something we don't like to think about it. My editors have even asked that I try to make this column as bloodless as possible.

I ask Chris Price if there's any way to know where the meat on the shelf at Kroger actually came from, where the journey that ended here began.

"I couldn't tell you," he says. "Midwest ... could come from Indiana. Iowa, maybe? There's lots of farms out there."

Back at Stehlin's, on the other side of a heavy metal door, four more hogs are waiting in a dimly-lit pen. I watch Dick Stehlin prepare another animal for slaughter, first loading a stun-gun and then gently herding the hog into a smaller holding pen. It's over quickly.

"These weigh probably about 250 to 270 pounds," says Stehlin, hoisting the hog in the air to cut its jugular vein. The animals were purchased directly from local farmers for market price -- "I'd have to check, but probably about 46 cents a pound," Stehlin says -- and will be butchered here on-site for sale in the well-stocked store next door.

The hog is lowered at the end of a chain attached to a mechanical winch and slowly sunk into a large square tank of steaming water, which removes most of the thick white hairs that cover its body. It is then transferred to a machine that most closely resembles a tumble-drier. For a noisy couple of minutes, the hog tumbles over and over, a pink whir of legs and a spray of warm dirty water, in a process designed to remove the hairs loosened by the hot water treatment. From there, it's moved over to a platform where Stehlin, Toelke and Blank stand waiting, talking about movies and the Super Bowl with Kaufman.

These men, with their slow lazy way of talking, of comfortably ribbing each other, stationed on either side of a dead hog, are the people who bring us our meat each week. Down on the slaughterhouse floor, Stehlin continues his tour, crouching a little and reaching his hands farther into the cavity that remains after the pig's organs have been removed. He takes hold of a long pink-purple strip of flesh that runs alongside the ribcage.

"See this?" he asks, "this is your tenderloin. See this piece here? It's called leaf lard. It protects the kidneys and the tenderloin." He points to a dark flap of skin, located just below the long lean curve of the ribs. "This here's the diaphragm," he says. "It keeps the lungs separate from the rest of the organs."

A moment later he's gone again, humming to himself, moving quickly across the slaughterhouse floor, past a row of hanging hogs and the de-hairing station, past Kaufman, the straight-backed meat inspector, through the heavy metal door, and to the waiting hogs.

CONTACT CHRIS KEMP: letters@citybeat.com


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