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The latest foodie fad: be your own butcher

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Butcher Tom Mylan tells his class about more adventurous cuts of pork on a recent evening in March. (Photo by Brent Lang)

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Tom Mylan determines where to make his cut in a pig's leg as his butchering class looks on. (Photo by Brent Lang)

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Class participants line up to select their six pounds of freshly butchered pig. (Photo by Brent Lang)

The evening’s guest of honor looks rather the worse for wear; she’s been sliced in half and is sprawled out along a row of wooden carving boards.

A group of 10 men and women stare in amazement at the exposed carcass, a brilliant maze of internal organs, patches of ruby red flesh and a spider’s web of muscles. As they survey this macabre sight, Tom Mylan, looks at them from his perch behind a counter, while he runs his fingers along the handles of the knives he carries with him. The blades are stored around his waist in a metal box adorned with two stickers—one a brightly colored portrait of Jesus and the other the phrase “lambtastic.”

“Where to now?” Mylan asks the group on this March night. He pauses a moment before announcing with conspiratorial glee, “Let’s take off its head.”

It’s just a typical Tuesday evening at the Brooklyn Kitchen, a Williamsburg kitchenware store.

What started as an experiment for the store’s owners and their friend Mylan, a local butcher, has become a hip night out for many New Yorkers—Pig Butchering 101.

“We weren’t sure many people would come,” Harry Rosenblum, the store’s co-owner, said of the butchering class he started in January 2008. “But once the word got out, we started selling out.”

New Yorkers aren’t the only ones eager to watch an animal being butchered. Restaurants, butcher shops, and fine food stores throughout the United States and beyond have started offering similar classes, costing from $60 to $80, to seasoned chefs, foodies, and the merely curious.

People came to the Brooklyn Kitchen that night for different reasons. Many wanted to learn more about the food they ate—how it went from a farm to a butcher shop to their plates. Their interest had been stoked by a growing emphasis on organic eating and by the work of Michael Pollan, the bestselling author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and a vocal proponent of locally raised meats and vegetables. Many participants also stressed a desire to find ways to use the whole animal for cooking, not just the pieces that society has come to regard as the choicest bits. Moreover, it’s an approach to cooking is a way to save money during the economic downturn, they said.

“I want to learn to use all parts of the pig,” said Sanam Aarabi, a 26-year-old photographer from Park Slope, who first became intrigued by food processing after reading Pollan’s books. “It just seems more humane to use an animal that way.”

Aarabi found a willing tutor in Mylan. The knowledgeable, nimble-knifed and frequently profane butcher enthusiastically touted ways to make use of everything from the pig’s skin to its lard to its jowls. At the same time, Mylan took his students through a crash course on the virtues of locally raised meat, the problems with confinement farming—they overcrowd and stress animals, which compromises the quality of the meat—and some general information about the pig that he was carving up—a 10-month-old Ossabaw Cross from a Shushan, N.Y., farm. In between, he’d toss out admonitions such as to avoid using a boning knife while hung over.

One thing he didn’t allow was any hands-on butchering.

“Our insurance wouldn’t cover 12 unskilled people with sharp knives,” he said.

Many of the stores that offer these classes are also emphasizing that in today’s challenging economy, butchering can be a creative way to pinch pennies. That’s one of the themes that Joey Minarsich, owner of Vivace Restaurant in Albuquerque, N.M., has been stressing in his butchering classes.

Minarsich tells his classes that steering clear of individually wrapped chops at the supermarket can mean big savings. A pack of two chicken breasts can set a person back $6, but a whole chicken could cost as little as $10. By buying a whole bird and cutting it up, Minarsich said that a person can make five different meals for two people.

It’s a message that his students appreciate.

“I’m cooking new parts of a fryer,” said Greg Skyles, a 55-year-old computer engineer who has taken several classes at Vivace. “I use things like thighs that I never bothered with before, and that saves money.”

Buying large cuts of meat isn’t difficult and need not be reserved for gourmands, according to Minarsich.

“Places like Costco do whole racks of meat, and you can save a lot of money,” he said . “In New Mexico, it’s easy to get whole cows, pigs, or chickens from local farmers.”

Aside from the savings and curiosity factors, some students at these classes believe that learning more about butchering is a key element of maintaining a “green” lifestyle. Vanessa Farquharson, a journalist, committed to spending one day each year doing something that benefits the environment for a book she wrote, “Sleeping Naked Is Green.” As part of her project, Farquharson, 29, decided to attend a butchering tutorial at the Healthy Butcher in Toronto, which has been offering monthly classes to the epicurious for the past two years.

At the class, Farquharson learned about the virtues of grass-feeding animals and how buying local cuts down on the fuel used to transport meat, leaving a smaller carbon footprint. There was a personal undercurrent to the evening as well. The night offered Farquharson, a lapsed vegetarian, an opportunity to reconcile her omnivorous ways with her commitment to eco-friendly living.

“This was a way for me to confront that it was flesh that I was eating,” said Farquharson.

Her only disappointment was that the Healthy Butcher didn’t offer much in the way of snackables.

That wasn’t a problem at the Brooklyn Kitchen. Students were given samples of sautéed pig liver and sent home with six pounds of freshly butchered pork.

As they packed up their cuts of pig shoulders, bellies and even a foot, many class members expressed a desire to try Mylan’s craft in their own homes. The evening had also made them more confident to ask for less orthodox cuts of meat the next time that they visited a butcher shop, they said.

“I’m going to experiment with different cuts, particularly now that I know more of the terms,” said Leslie Cacciapaglia, a 24-year-old architect, who took the class in part because her grandfather was a butcher.

Others had more specific plans. John Markus, a 53-year-old writer, thought he’d start by getting a shoulder of pork and barbequing it when it got warmer. Growing up in the South, he was used to eating cuts of pork that were “bigger than a car door,” and was pleased that he’d have the ability to replicate the kind of cooking he’d loved as a child.

Even if he never picks up a knife again, Markus felt that the evening had a deeper resonance than simply learning new skills.

“Living in a city, we become out of touch with what we eat,” said Markus. “Tonight we saw that meat doesn’t just arrive in a Styrofoam package.”