We spent a long weekend in Seattle last week.
For country mice like us this is a pretty big deal! On my agenda for the visit—along with taking the girls to see the lights at Westlake and visit the Zoo—was getting some of the food we cannot find at home on Whidbey. Itineraries and priorities are almost always set by our stomachs in this family.
Pork is one of the things I have been missing.
I will not buy factory farmed meat, especially not pork. I know how fully sentient pigs are and I am not going to eat something that I know has led a miserable existence, especially not if it was aware of it. I have found a source for pork from a small farm on Whidbey, but it is only available by the half or quarter animal, and since we lack of a big freezer that is not really an option for us. So the trip to the city was our chance to visit a good meat shop and get turned on to some fine swine.
Boy, were we in for a disappointment.
I went to Whole Food at Westlake with the purchase of pork in mind. I headed straight to the meat counter, after brief detours at the cheese counter (half a wheel of Red Hawk for Maggie Rose) and the beer section (some new Christmas beers for Daddy). Once there, I asked the guy behind the counter about the origin of the pork, but he really did not seem too sure of his answers.
He told me the pork was from Coleman Farms in Colorado. It was, he assured me, antibiotic- and hormone-free but he could not tell me much more, such as the breed of pig or the farming practices Coleman uses. I really wanted pork for dinner, so I selected several pieces of boneless loin, cut from the loin end, which had the nice dark band of muscle across the top that I always try to find. The price was $6.49 per pound. I left with the pork, but also with the feeling that Whole Foods has a lot of training to do in the meat department.
I took it home and prepared it as lovingly as I could.
I wanted it for dinner that night so I did a quick 30 minute rub of salt, sugar and seasonings. I pan roasted it and cooked it to just a hair past medium. I accompanied it with Georgie’s delicious German Butterball potatoes and some braised leeks and Belgian endive with honey and cider vinegar. Thank goodness we had the cheeses I mentioned earlier and the good veggies to go with it, because the pork just did not taste like much of anything. I literally turned to my wife Tyla midway through the meal and said “It is a shame that an animal had to die for this.”
I love pork; in fact, I have a theory that all of the world’s great cuisines are pork-based.
I have butchered, cooked and eaten a lot of pork in my life. I even had the privilege last spring of going on a pig hunt in Sonoma County, on a huge ranch above Healdsburg. I came home with two pigs, a boar and a sow to butcher for the hunting party. Nothing went to waste. I made bacon from the bellies, cured and smoked the ham hocks, roasted the loins, cured the hams and made the best wild boar sausage one could hope for from the lesser cuts.
Finally, my Mexican friends and I took the carcass and heads and did barbacoa (where the bones are rubbed with chilies, spices, garlic and oil and roasted very slowly) and made fresh tortillas and salsa to go with it. We had the best tacos you have ever tasted. All that was left was the snout and liver, so I made a classic liverwurst out of them. That pork was incredibly delicious, and I am convinced it was that good because of all the acorns those pigs feast on and all the exercise and fresh air they got up there in the coastal mountains of California. Those were happy pigs and we could taste it.
I mention all of this because I want to be very clear that I am not in any way anti-pork, nor am I opposed to taking the life of a mammal for food. I am, not by any stretch the imagination, a vegetarian. I am an omnivore through and through. But the fact of the matter is that most of the pork being sold is either off-putting because of how it is raised and/or flavorless to the point of being unidentifiable as pork.
That is why it was so wonderful yesterday morning to have a divine swine experience.
My family and I were having pancakes for breakfast and we wanted a little protein to go with it, lest my daughters experience a mid-morning crash after their carb- and syrup-induced high. We did not have any bacon, but we did have a package of my buddy Chuck Tessaro’s home-cured pancetta. Tyla cut it up in pieces and pan-fried it to a crispy-chewy-peppery perfection. The girls devoured it. Tyla and I had to fight them off to get some for ourselves. Chuck’s cure was great, but better still was the flavor of the pork. Chuck had selected a really good Berkshire pork belly from his favorite purveyor, Select Gourmet Foods in Kenmore. The flavor of the pig shined through.
And as my kids say at the dinner table each day “Thank you Chuck for the time and care you spent to find the pork, and thank you farmer for raising the pig, thank you pig for giving your life to feed us, and thank you Chuck for making the pancetta.”
Many breeds of swine are disappearing.
As with most types of commercial agriculture, the dozens of breeds of swine that existed just 50 or 60 years ago are being replaced with narrowly selected lines of swine bred for factory farm conditions. These new breeds are not selected primarily for meat flavor or hardiness or whether or not they are able to reproduce without help, in other words, the kind of traits small-scale farmers have been selecting for since the time of domestication 10,000 years ago. Instead, these pigs are selected for things like conversion rate (how fast they turn feed into meat and fat) and the length of their loins because—and this is true, I am not making it up—if the pigs loins are too long their loins will not fit in the boxes they ship pork in. These are cookie-cutter pigs and they are raised in horrible, crowded conditions, and the factory farms that produce them threaten the environment around them because of their waste streams AND the pork they produce tastes like nothing.
We can do something about it.
There are small farmers out there who are raising heritage breeds of pig. There are CSAs and farmers markets that sell locally-produced heritage pork right here in western Washington. So, the next time you get a hankering for a pork chop, find a purveyor that raises heirloom or heritage breeds and does so on pasture. Then try the pork and you will discover that the pleasure you derive from it is well worth the price difference between that pork and the slop being sold in most stores.