Knife, Pig

This is the story of two days at Hampshire, which began with a haft of broken steel and ended with a haunch of roasted pig.

It was a Thursday night and my throat was sore. It had that dull flaming scratchiness that made me want to toss my head like a bothered horse until it went away. Instead I had a cup of tea, made from a round teabag of which I had recently purchased a tin.

The tea advertised its decongestant, expectorant, antibacterial and antiviral properties. It proclaimed itself a veritable panacea, guardian of health and all that is good in the world. It described in careful detail the roots and herbs which gave it these wonderful qualities. It was a hippie’s dream come true, at about a dollar a bag.

What it failed to mention, I surmised soon after drinking a second cup, was that it also contained significant amounts of caffeine.

Now I am a cheap date, I admit it. But this doesn’t change the fact that two cups of caffeinated tea were enough to get me a little pumped. By the time I finished the second cup I could have jogged to Europe. Round-trip.

Thus my evening was decided for me. I would be doing many things, but sleep wasn’t one of them.

It was around nine o’clock at night. The day was just ending and the campus was already quiet as a sunken ship. Before the walls started closing in on me – or worse, the night sky pressing down from above – I needed to find something to do.

It was a nice night, and there were no other options at all. I decided to go blacksmithing.

I changed into a short-sleeved shirt and cottonfiber pants, to minimize the chance that a stray spark would make me do a Human Torch. I put on a long coat and put in its inside pocket a tube of moisturizing lotion. While walking out the door I also decided to snag a bar of hard soap. I’d made it the day before for just such a purpose.

Anyone who says that these aren’t essential tools for the blacksmith, obviously doesn’t have my soft English-major hands to contend with.

I crossed the little Prescott House quad and went up the driveway to Lemelson. I entered through the door very clearly marked NOT FOR STUDENT ENTRY, a fact which had ceased to trouble me some weeks before.

I wasn’t wearing any protective gear, so I ducked through the hot shop as fast as I could. The gear is kept in the main room. The main room is on the far side of the hot shop. This is a conundrum of design that really ought to be sorted out – or Lemelson should really start locking its back door, one or the other.

I signed in on the Lemelson sheet, a piece of paper on a clipboard that hangs from the wall by a nail. Then I did the same on the Forge signin sheet, a wispy bit of parchment mounted on a wrought-iron rosette suspended from a handforged nail-and-hook. Then I hung my coat on the rack, and then I put it back on so I could rifle the pockets. I took out the bar of soap, hiding it in the vicinity of the sink for later.

I took off the coat again and then put on goggles. I tryied on four pairs before I found one clean enough to see through. I’m a stickler for these little things, y’know?

I headed back to the hot shop, which was hellishly true to its name that night. Someone was sending cascades of sparks flying into the wall as they ground down a piece of titanium bar-stock with a hand grinder. Three kids were sticking big breathing-tubes into long columns of blue-hot fire, in order to blow glass of one sort or another. The plasma cutter was running intermittently, cutting through sheet metal like a hacksaw through goat cheese. A first-year was on her hands and knees, spot-welding small fins onto a large column of metal that had been scrapped from an abandoned tractor. And of course, both forges were on full-blast.

I convinced the assembled pyros to open the door, let in a little, y’know, oxygen. They assented, after questioning my fortitude, masculinity, parentage, such things. The night air struck me like a cool breeze in Hell. My brow began to dry on contact.

Then we got to forging.

The two forges operate on the same principle. They’re boxes full of fire. Propane gets piped in through long tubes, mixed with a bit of oxygen. The result is that these little toaster-ovens get up to around two thousand degrees Farenheit, enough to turn many metals into little puddles.

One of the forges has one long lateral opening, like a pull-out saran wrap box. The other has openings on either side, like a cylindrical oven. Each of them had flames flying out ten, twelve inches from their mouths. Stick your hand about two feet away from them and hold it there, it’s a sure way to cure yourself of excess knuckle hair.

There were five other people working the forges that night. I made six. There were five anvils. We would have to swap between us. Someone that evening was getting a second-degree burn. The question is: would it be in a cool enough place that you could show it off?

“Make me an S-Hook!” commanded Dillon, one of the leaders of the Hampshire College Blacksmith’s Guild. S-Hooks are to blacksmiths what, I don’t know, sketches of ponies are to impressionist painters. They have also been pretty much useless devices since the invention of (pick one: tape | staples | glue | thumbtacks). True, making S-Hooks is the best practice there is. But still.

“Then make me a leaf pendant!” said Daniel, the other leader of the Guild. Leaf pendants are pretty. Girls like them. Some permutation of the transitive property suggests that those who make them will get liked too. At least, we kept hoping that it would work something like this.

So a combiantion of Good Cop and Bad cop got me again. I cut myself some ¼ round stock, mid-carbon steel, and put my irons in the fire.

One hour and five sort-of hooks later, I got something that approximated the 19th letter of the alphabet.

“Do it again!” Dillon exclaimed.

“Fornicate yourself!” I replied, with equal enthusiasm.

Daniel interceded, and I cut myself some hot-roll bar stock and put it in the fire.

An hour later, my dominant-hand biceps were about three times the size of their opposite numbers on my left arm. My eyebrows felt toasty and I had burned the flesh of my thumb to the consistency of old vellum. I had a lot of broken half-leafs, and a healthy appreciation for the fact that women are just not worth the effort.

The forge is supposed to close at eleven, which it now was. But Alex and Zach were still hanging around, trying to make roses or candlesticks or such things, so we decided to keep going a bit longer.

My tasks for the evening completed, I was a free agent. So long as I didn’t draw attention to it. I just had to look really, really busy. I had an idea.

I went into the scrap-pile and cut myself about three feet of ¾” rebar. Rebar is tool steel, less than one percent carbon by weight. It is sculpted like a thick wire has been wrapped all around it. It is heavy, hard and it likes it that way. There’s a reason why rebar is the weapon of choice for post-apocalyptic zombie hunters, and the like.

I went to the hammer shelf, and pulled out my favorite hammer. They call it the Czech, assumedly because the design was popular in Bohemia back in the day. The head is flat on one side, an equilateral triangle on the other, mounted on a big wooden handle. It weighs about as much as a liter of Coke. I like it mainly because everyone else hates it. When you’re using the Czech, you no nobody’s going to steal your hammer.

I stuck the rebar into the two-sided forge. About twelve inches of metal were directly under the howling, air-sucking flames. The next twelve inches was in the air but would get too hot to touch, very fast. The last foot would stay cool for a long time. I cut the metal that long so I could bare-hand the cool metal at the end. Tongs get in the way, especially that late at night.

There were only two other people forging by that point, so I lay claim to an anvil all for myself. I waited until the rebar was a glowing white-red for its last twelve inches entire. Then I pulled it out, held the heated end flat against the anvil, grabbed the Czech, and started hitting.

Fortunately rebar holds heat very well. Unfortunately it fights your hammer like a werewolf in body armor. I raised the hammer and snapped it down about a hundred times, stopping for five seconds every twelve blows to keep my arm from falling off.

By the hundredth blow, the steel had cooled to a dirty orange color. It was still hot enough to kill all the nerves in your hand if you were damfool enough to grab it. But it wasn’t hot enough to keep hitting it. As it was, I’d barely made a dent in the rebar. It was a little more square than it had started out, but it was still about the same height as width.

And I was trying to flatten it out.

I waited sixty seconds and the metal was cherry again. I pulled it out and introduced hammer to steel.

This went on until about midnight, interrupted only by the sound of my arm falling off from time to time.

By the end of it, what once was rebar was now the general shape of a thin nail file. It was twice as wide as it had been, twice as dense, and some fifth, perhaps, as thick. I doused it in a bucket of water for a minute, cooling it to room temperature.

When I pulled it out of the bath it was covered in nasty overlapping scales of broken metal and rust. But beneath that there was good steel, somewhere.

I then shoved her a little farther into the forge and got her hot again. Then pulled out my dear Smithin’ Magician, a simple bit of tool that is about the equivalent of Johnny Tremain, in his role as blacksmith’s apprentice at least. It looks like a little guillotine, except far less delicate than that cruel madame. She goes in the hardy, which is a hole in the anvil. Then you lift her top bladestone and push in your bit of metal, and with enough stern blows from the hammer, eventually you will have two pieces of metal, cut clean through.

It took about twenty blows, and then I almost lit my shoe on fire as a bit of thousand-degree steel landed an inch from my feet. I looked around: nobody had seen that. Good. Then it didn’t happen.

I doused them again, both pieces, and added the 24 or so spare inches of rebar to the scrap pile. May it help someone else to build forearm strength as it had me.

I went first to the table grinder and took off the largest imperfections from the edge of the flattened bit of metal. Then I went to the disk grinder and made her perfectly flat on both sides, about two inches wide and coming to a point. A little more time at the disk grinder, sparks flying everywhere, metal dust rising in cyclones into the air, and she has the general shape of a two-dimensional football. She came to a fair point.

I then used two vice-clamps to affix her to a table at the back of the room. I got a mug full of cold water from the cooler and assembled the hand-grinder. I turned it on and dragged it over the flat metal that I had made.

On the first pass, the scales of dross came off. Along with a shower of sparks that went two feet up and five feet out before hitting a protective wall. I poured some water over the steel; it vaporized the moment it touched metal. This would take a while.

About thirty or forty more passes with the grinder, and one side of the flat shone like a miorror. It was thickest in the center, and curved gently to its edges. It looked rather like a knife, a dagger in the shape often known as lotus-petal.

I flipped it over and rinsed and repeated. Eventually she looked shiny enough to see your future in. Not up to Ginsu standards, perhaps – but I’d made her myself, for God’s sake. A bit of imperfection, adds character, y’know?

Then I went over to the belt-sander and pushed her at a shallow angle against the fast-moving ribbon of abraisive. I did this along both sides of both edges of the blade. Took forever. She kept getting so hot I had to dunk her in a bowl of olive oil to cool her. But finally – only one nearly-artery-cutting injury later – she had a good edge on her, all around. Even her tip was fairly sharp.

Then over to the nylon stone to give her a nice sheen and polish. If she’s going to cut food, she better be clean and smooth enough to eat off of. The nylon spun rapidly and I pressed her onto it, every inch of her. Eventually I could look into her and see what color my eyes were. I think they were blue that day; I don’t know, they’re always changing on me.

Then I went to the toolbox and took out a whetstone. The next hour of my life would have been entirely removed from higher brain function, had not I managed to accost Don, the shop manger, for company and lively camaraderie. We talked of knives and poetry and the Viet Cong. Sometimes all at once. I managed to get through this part of the exercise surprisingly unscathed – I must have been going something wrong.

There was no pommel, just more steel. The handle was about five inches of raw metal that had not been fully flattened. The raised coil pattern, telltale of rebar,was still clearly visible. I buffed the metal as best I could but couldn’t quite get into the grooves between the coils. I thought it gave it a nice texture, in a kind of Cormac McCarthy sort of way.

At the end, I took the knife, rinsed it in hot water and then scrubbed it with soap in cold. I scrubbed my own hands to boot, as they were covered in heat and rust and ash and dust and enough steel shavings to set off an airport metal detector. I dried her on a bit of rag that was floating around the shop. A slight bit of pressure brought to bare and I had two rags where I earlier had one.

If that was not a passed test for a knife, I don’t know what is.

Pleasantly exhausted, I went to sleep around one in the morning. I woke up at nine with numbing pain in my right arm and the beginnins of some fantastic scars on my hands. I had forgotten to use moisteurizing lotion so my hands had gnarled into something out of a Grimm fairytale. A hot shower and a handful of shea butter and a handful of Tylenol too, and I was ready to face the world.

Around eleven, Kristian came over to fetch my modmate Adam and I. I had forgotten. We had to go get us a pig.

We had been sitting around in the library computer lab a few weeks beforehand, talking about the gross inefficiency and rampant corruption of the school’s student finance committee. A prime example of this came to us in the way that student groups could apply to fund their projects. The form was entirely electronic and essentially anonymous – it required you to give your name, but not to provide any proof that the name given was the one you’d been born with. We decided to demonstrate the dangers of this loophole. You know – for the lolz.

So Kristian and I submitted a form, in the name of an unknowing friend, for four hundred and twenty dollars. Four hundred dollars to go out and buy ourselves a full-grown, full-body, snout-to-tail roasted pig. And twenty dollars for barbeque sauce.

We looked forward to this request being rejected, thus demonstrating the system’s gross vulnerability to exploitation. Imagine our surprise, then, when the request was approved.

“Whatever,” Kristian said. “Free pig.”

It’s hard to argue with that kind of logic.

So the day before he’d done the paperwork and made the call to a local farm. All, we were assured, was in place. That day we had to go out, then, and fetch back our noble spoils.

We piled into Adam’s car and pointed it east of the sun. About twenty miles later, on top of a hill and in the middle of an apple orchard, we found the farm.

We drove around the back of the old wooden farmhouse and popped the trunk of th car. Thank God for hatchbacks! Thank the hippie deities for Subarus! The pig came stretched out on a long plank of wood like a wounded soldier on a stretcher. A bit of fancy maneuverin’ and we got the pig in the car. Snout about a foot shy of being underneath the rearview mirror. Feet a few inches from being cut off my the trunk closing.

The whole thing was wrapped in tinfoil like a giant porcine baked potato. It must have been six feet long, maybe longer end to end. Its two rear feet stuck out from beneath its metal blanket. They were completely black. They looked like they had been tight-sealed in patent leather – which I guess they were.

“Who wants to sit in the back with the pig not it?” I asked, raising the index finger of my right hand to lie flat across my nose. If such as us are the future leaders of the world, then this is how the great decisions shall be made.

Kristian got his finger to nose, followed after a lengthy pause by Adam.

“Wait,” Adam said, browed furrowed, “what are we nose-goesing?”

Kristian explained it to him.

“But wait,” he said, his mind crunching the numbers on this, “who else here can drive a stick?”

Kristian moaned good-naturedly and jumped in the rear. He closed the door behing him and then used the head of the pig as an arm rest.

“My car’s gonna smell like roasted pig,” Adam said, getting in.

None of us felt it quite necessary to dignify that with an affirmation.

We pulled into the Prescott quad about twenty minutes later. At one point we were worried that we were going to get pulled over. Not that we were doing anything illegal. But imagine trying to explain to a cop that you’re just out taking a blackened dead farm animal out for a drive?

We popped the trunk, and found that Adam had quite underestimated the degree to which his car would never be the same. Streams of liquid hog fat had come running down the tinfoil to land on, in, his upholstery. There were pools of goo all over the back seat. And we hadn’t even moved the thing yet.

“Dude,” said I, “your car is no longer kosher.”

Adam thought about this. “Does this mean I can’t drive through Connecticut anymore?”

A group of three or four girls walked past the car, wearing pre-torn pre-faded designer jeans and ballet flats and oversized aviator sunglasses. They turned and looked into the back of the car.

I pulled up the tinfoil, exposing a small blackened tail. “Pig!” I exulted.

They walked past speedily, wearing perhaps the most insincere smiles I have ever witnessed. including those on Jack-O-Lanterns.

A window was thrown upon on the second story of the mod next to us. Bera’s head appeared therefrom.

“Pig?!” be bellowed, part query, part heraldry.

“Dude,” said Kristian. “Pig.”

“Pig!” he hollared.

Adam and I grunted in acknowledgement of these subtle, complex statements, rich as they were with emotional undercurrents and hunger.

Bera came running out of his mod a few moments later, followed by Molly, holding Camera. “Oh my God,” she said, “is that a pig?”

“Yes indeed!” said Bera, smiling like he had whelped the beast himself. “Ninety pounds of fine, fresh Massachusetts roast pork.”

“A hundred and twenty,” Kristian informed him.

“I thought you ordered nintety?”

“I did,” he said, in a – pardon me – sheepish way.

Bera raised his fists to the heavens and shook them. A spear should really have been clenched in them, but sometimes we must imagine these things.

Molly started taking pictures. I began to pose with the pig. We put an apple in its mouth. We put an apple in my mouth. I felt a great deal of solidarity with the noble beast on the seat next to me. That being said, I was glad I was the one who’d be on the eating side of the relationship. That’s about the water’s edge at which stop my dietary ethics.

“So dudes,” Kristian said, “how are we gonna carve this bad boy?”

A fine idea. I asked Bera to take over holding the apple in his mouth and I ducked into my mod, emerging a few minutes later with fourteen Ginsu carving knives in a bamboo block. I handed it to Adam who put it in the car. We agreed to reconvene over behind ASH, whence we would move the pig to a space more worthy of its delights.

I told them I would catch up with them, ran into my mod and grabbed one more thing. Then I bolted over to ASH as fast as my pork-deprived legs would carry me.

We got it onto the picnic table in front of ASH, all of us getting well baptised in lard in the process. I wished that I had a container to catch it in. I’m told that lard makes an excellent hard soap, better even than the one I had left in Lemelson. But I let my lust for pig flesh get the better of me. Now alas I guess we’ll never know.

But I did at least have the presence of mind to have brought one thing with me. As everyone stood about the beast, pondering what to do, I reached into my pocket and pulled out the knife which I had just made.

I fancy that she twinkled in the waning sun.

“How are you gonna-” Adam began to ask. Then I raised the knife on high, gripped it in both hands, and plunged it hilt-deep into a point just off the pig’s spine.

I started cutting.

Nobody spoke.

I made a long incision along the spine, running from the base of the skull to the anus. Then I cut down the inside of the thighs on either side, right down to the feet. I did the same for the front legs. Then I slit its throat. I got my fingers in under the leather skin and pulled back, peeling the thing like an orange.

A waft of steam fogged my glasses. When it cleared, there before me was meat.

A ragged cheer went up from my emaciated brethren. I glanced up and saw that there were already about forty people in the vicinity. People kept making to walk by us, but never quite making it past. What the hell, I thought. It’s not our place to hog the – I mean, to make pigs out of – I mean –

I took the knife in my right hand and began to cut, using my left hand to balance myself against the edge of the picnic table. I took off a clean slice, and tasted it.

“It’s pig!” I shouted.

There was much rejoicing.

But an idea came to me then – first things first. I dipped the knife into the sides of the skull, removing both the ears, and then the little tail. These I presented to Kristian, with all due pomp.

Later I learned that he was not familiar with the process by which matadors are given trophies. So instead he took the ears, and began to eat them. At least, the meat which was inside them.

I shook my head. Bloody undergraduates, no culture to them at all!

Then I spent the next three hours getting elbow-deap in a steaming pile of meat.

I had not known it about myself before then, but I learned it that day: I am totally one of those white North American males who just takes over the carving and won’t let anyone else near. For three hours that day, I turned that carcass into enough food to feed about eighty people. Not including leftovers, some of which still remain in my freezer. A month later.

I myself sated myself primarily with the tenderloin, of which there must have been ten pounds total. I also tried a bit of the muscle along the skull, and the marrow from a leg-bone was damnedly tasty. Kristian, ever trying to outdo himself culinarily (there being nobody else for him to outdo), made a fine snack of the brain stem.

“Sweetbreads?” I asked him.

He shrugged. “Nom nom nom!”

“Last of the aesthetes, you are.”

At the end of it, I was jolly exhausted. A combination of sleep deprivation the night before, and the fairly significant upper-arm workouts which were occasioned both by knife-making and then by knife-using, had left me with a very pleasant lethargic glow. Normally after such exercise I must be careful to add a bit of protein to my diet. That day, I felt I was pretty good for a while.

I had cut the metal that got heated in the forge that got hit with the hammer that was made into the knife that carved the pig that served my friends and my peers.

I felt pretty good with myself.

Then we divided the remaining spoils, lest they spoil on the picnic table. Kristian took the carcass, as he is not adverse to a bit of constructive gnawing. Bera filled three large wonton soup take-out containers with cut meat and brought them back to his mod. Adam didn’t take much of the stuff back. He and I live together, and we both knew we could just eat what we wanted with either Bera or Kristian, as we weren’t exactly strangers to them.

Despite this, I did end up stealing an entire leg that was otherwise untouched. Also known, when deboned, as an entire ham. It is still in my freezer, where it takes up most of the space therein. It could probably be used to as a life raft, in a pinch.

It took us about an hour to clean up. Kristian’s Div II is based around osteology and anthropomorphic sculptural mechanics – that is to say, bones and bones – and so we have to make sure to save everything we could. He still plans to reconstruct the skeleton one day. What else does one do over a long inter-Hampshire summer?

Bera has been quite happy hosting the photodocumentary evidence of the proceedings on his Facebook account. He will wax poetic quite easily on the premodern, pagan-esque flavor of the whole event. He is looking forward to next week, when the school has promised to buy us a buffalo. Though that one we will have to roast ourselves – God help us.

Adam wiped his hands on his pants and went inside ASH to play StarCraft. He stayed for the whole feast, but he didn’t really eat any of the pig. Pork, it seems, is not generally within his dietary sphere. This should not really have surprised anyone, since pork is not made out of chocolate or ice cream.

And I – I have memories of a great event, a smile that comes from such wonderful camaraderie, and the pride which I feel so rarely as a student, having accomplished something tangible in the world. It is true that a student’s job is to build potential within themselves, not to actualize on that potential until their scholarship is complete. But it is very nice for me to remind myself, from time to time, that I am in fact capable of such small feats.

And of course, I still have the knife. And yes, I still have at least ten pounds of ham to be disposed of most pleasantly. So now all I really have left to me is to make some more concrete record of what transpired, those twentyfour hours that began with a haft of broken steel, and ended with a haunch of roasted pig.

Which, for better or for worse, I believe I have done.

-Hampshire, 2009


~ by davekov on 26 April 2009.

One Response to “Knife, Pig”

  1. You just violently wet(ted) my appetite!
    Whole foods to my rescue, here I come oh-ye-pretentious-kinda overpriced-oh wait, who am i kidding, whole foods is great! store!

    Hope to partake in the next pighunting-pig distengrating-pig consumption-manaicly laughing all through-shebang

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