It was just past 8 a.m. and Doug Armstrong was excited about the culinary lesson awaiting his sleepy high school students.
Before it was over, there would be “oohs,” and there would be “aahs.” There also would be one shriek of surprise.
But mostly, there would be pork. Pounds upon pounds, in every manner and shape, of pork.
“Shall we bring out the patient?” Armstrong asked before disappearing into an industrial-sized kitchen at Portland Arts and Technology High School. He returned with exactly half of a Berkshire pig, sliced from nose to tail, ready to be transformed.
It was a 100-pound teachable moment, and only a few ounces would be wasted.
For more than an hour, Vermont-based butcher Jaclyn Burskey introduced the students in Armstrong’s culinary class to the basics of whole-animal butchery, the unattractive but necessary process that’s lost in the gleam of modern grocery stores.
Armstrong and Burskey are part of the growing backlash against mechanized agriculture, factory animal farming and their environmentally dubious byproducts, hoping to usher in a return to bold, flavorful ingredients raised in sustainable ways.
The local food movement, which has thrived in highfalutin restaurants for years, has now reached the classroom, where Armstrong wants to show his students what supermarket shoppers never see.
Before the course is over, they will meet a farmer and see his vegetables. They will watch milk being made into cheese. And on Tuesday, with a few expert flicks of a knife, they watched a pig become pork.
“A few of the girls are like, ‘Ew, that’s disgusting!’ ” said Armstrong, who also had to navigate the religious conflict that the lesson posed for his Muslim students by speaking to religious leaders before administrators approved the demonstration. He believes it’s all worth it.
“Maybe (for) one, maybe two, it will spark an interest and they’ll be raising goats and making goat cheese,” he said.
In the coming days and weeks, the students will do what local food connoisseurs pay dearly to experience: cooking and eating recipes that can be made only when a whole animal is available.
Brains will be poached and sautéed in lemon butter. Hocks will be cooked in wood smoke. Ribs will be roasted, and loins will be sealed and seared. And don’t forget the hangar steak – a cut that was once tossed aside but is now back in vogue – of which there is only one per animal.
Wielding the knives, Burskey, 25, shared with the class her own journey of meat, chatting happily as she cut through muscle, sinew and bone, pausing to reach for a different knife or reposition her work. With a sturdy grip, she moved between sections, working from head and tail toward the center, until all that was left to trim was bacon from the belly.
“Butchering is a very physical, laborious thing,” she said. “I like butchering because the carcass is like a road map. (It) shows you where the seams are.”
Originally from Michigan, Burskey spent nearly nine years as a vegetarian, and not the passive variety. Vegetables were her gospel, and she spread the word.
“I was a pretty self-righteous and extremist vegetarian,” she said. “To myself, it made sense.”
All that changed around 2009, when Burskey fell ill during a stint volunteering in a macrobiotic kitchen. When she saw her family in the Midwest a short time later, she broke her habit for a burger of venison and wild boar. Her energy returned, and she found a conversion moment. Her militant vegetarianism became passion for sustainable meat.
At Prescott College in Arizona, she designed a course that began in a slaughterhouse and ended with her killing, cutting and curing a pig in the traditional ways, using salt and time to subtract moisture and add flavor.
“A lot of people are intimidated,” said Burskey, who had not seen an animal die before she began her voyage toward quality food. Now, she wrestles a bone saw with zeal.
The students in Portland were spared the goriest details, leaving the instructor, Armstrong, with a tub of neatly stacked meat, chop after chop, ribs upon ribs.
“They need to know where their food comes from,” Armstrong said. “It’s not in a grocery store from a neat little package.”
Some students watched from another room as the lesson was transmitted live. For those in the classroom with an up-close view of the pig, the experience was either mildly fascinating or a serious turn-off.
Brendan Thibodeau, 17, said he enjoyed the session, and knows more because of it.
“I can definitely know a better cut and what stuff looks like,” he said.
Haley Bean, 17, who said she just started a vegetarian diet, looked pallid when the class began, but was asking questions by the end.
“It was different,” she said. “Watching how you get the meat and everything and cut it apart, it’s just not my thing.”
Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at: