Tom Eickman, owner of Eickman’s Processing, a third-generation meat processing business in Seward, Ill., talks to a group about different cuts of pork carcass. Eickman hosted Meat Trends, an interactive pork processing and cooking demonstration, where guests saw him process a half hog into various cuts and then enjoyed pork recipes.
Tom Eickman, owner of Eickman’s Processing, a third-generation meat processing business in Seward, Ill., talks to a group about different cuts of pork carcass. Eickman hosted Meat Trends, an interactive pork processing and cooking demonstration, where guests saw him process a half hog into various cuts and then enjoyed pork recipes.

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 results themselves.

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 Daviess-Stephenson-Winnebago.

“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 sausage.

“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 guests.

“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 son.

“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,” Eickman said.

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.