SEWARD, Ill. — Tom Eickman didn’t have to talk. The skillful
snick, snick, snick of an obviously-used-often knife against the cold half of a
hog was enough.
Eickman expertly located bones, joints, muscles and even
arteries as he carved a 100-pound half of hog, complete with head and feet, into
all the separate cuts and explained the process of meat cutting and the end
The demonstration was part of the Meat Trends, interactive
pork production, processing and cooking demonstration hosted by Eickman’s
Processing in Seward and sponsored by the University of Illinois Extension, Jo
“Typically when we put him on the table, the first thing
we’re going to want to do is pull the brain out,” said Eickman as he began his
part of the demonstration.
Jeff Sindelar, University of Wisconsin Extension meat
specialist and associate professor of meat science, opened the session by taking
the audience of some 20 to 25 guests through modern pork production, including
explanations of conventional and niche systems.
Then it was time to turn a carcass into cuts.
Eickman’s Processing is a third-generation family meat
processor founded by Tom Eickman’s grandfather. The business recently celebrated
60 years in business.
The business slaughters and processes and sells beef, pork,
lamb and goat, as well as more exotic, farm-raised meats such as deer, elk,
bison and llama. Eickman’s also has its own smokehouse and makes its own
“Everything we do comes to us live. We prefer to do it that
way, so it’s done under inspection, either (U.S. Department of Agriculture)
inspection or, with certain species, under (Food and Drug Administration)
inspection,” Eickman said.
Eickman’s has an onsite USDA inspector who reviews the
slaughter and processing of the livestock.
Eickman described each step of the process that would end
with Chef Michelle Princer’s delectable pork dishes, including pork belly
sliders, grilled braised pork hocks and Char Sui pork shoulder, in detail to his
“To kill the hogs, first we stun them. When we have them in
the kill box, we use electricity to stun them, 320 volts. We hit their head with
it and, it puts them into a seizure state, so at that point they have no idea
what’s going on. Only at that point do we hoist them and stick them, cut the
jugulars and bleed them out. We want to make sure they are unconscious the whole
time — that goes back to the humane handling side of it,” said Eickman, who said
that his staff carefully monitors each slaughter. “That’s one of the things we
watch to ensure quality.”
Eickman himself learned the craft from his father,
grandfather and veteran Eickman’s meat cutters. He also learned a lot while on
the family’s annual vacations, a tradition he said he continues with his own
“The family vacation was always to go to the meat
convention. Since I was 12, we always went to the meat convention. That’s where
our family vacation was. I’m doing the same thing with my son,” he said.
Eickman went on to describe the half-carcass that he was
rapidly cutting apart, even as he described what he was doing and answered
questions from the audience.
“This is a little on the lean side, compared to what we see,
a little lean to about average,” he said of the 107-pound half-carcass.
“As a roaster, I almost like them to have a little fat to
them. What works good for a butcher seems to work good for a roaster,” he said.
Eickman also noted that terms can be confusing when it comes
to what parts of the animal are where when it comes to cuts of meat.
“This is a butt roast. This is the most confusing thing.
People call and say I’m smoking meat. I want to order pork butts, they come off
the hind end of the animal. No, they actually come off the shoulder. The pork
butt comes off the top of that shoulder section,” he said.
Eickman also described and explained the collection of
knives and equipment he works with, including what sounded like a chainmail
apron worn under the traditional white smock and apron, to guard against Eickman
accidentally filleting himself.
“These knives are typically softer metal, and they get
sharpened much more often. High-end knives are good knives, but they’re really
hard steel and really hard to sharpen,” Sindelar explained.
“As long as I don’t cut the table or myself, I’m good,”
He also explained some “tricks of the trade” that he employs
when cutting various parts, including keeping the artery whole when cutting hams
from the carcass.
“We want to leave that in the ham. We use the artery to
inject the curing solution into the ham,” he said.
Eickman throughout the process also talked about making the
most of each and every bit of the carcass. While some pieces are left over for
the rendering company, which then turns those pieces into natural additives for
products from paint to cosmetics, the processor strives to turn as much of the
carcass into human food as possible.
That includes bits and pieces such as the pork cheek, the
pork collar, the temple and the brain, as well as the more popular cuts such as
chops, roasts, steaks and, of course, bacon.
“I ask — do you want the head in the sausage? A lot of
people kind of freak out on that one. There is good meat on the head, so there’s
no sense to throw it away. That’s part of our job, to save as much of this
animal as we can to utilize. If we’re throwing it away, we’re not doing anyone
any good,” Eickman said.