“Nice to meet you. I brought a pig.”
When my husband, Casey, and I arranged to have dinner at the home of our soon-to-be neighbors for the first time, I’d offered to bring the main course. They may have imagined roast chicken.
+ + +In 2005, we decided there was something wrong with a world in which our 1300-square-foot bungalow in Venice Beach, California was worth $1.2 million. We also felt two self-employed people would be better off with a mortgage one-fifth the size of the one on that — admittedly, very sweet — bungalow. So we sold up, packed up and bought 28 mostly wooded acres of long-defunct mushroom farm in New York’s Hudson Valley. Then we built a really big kitchen with a bedroom on each side, and settled in to wait out what I suspected would be an Impending Economic Unpleasantness. We were a little early (say, three years) but everything I feared — and worse — has since come to pass. I may miss California at times (the climate, mostly), but I don’t miss the mess we’d be in if we still lived there.
Even before we moved, I started researching the local pork possibilities. The Hudson Valley, I’d been told, was the “New Napa” and the breadbasket for New York City’s finest eateries. Immediately, I found Fleisher’s Grass-Fed Meats in Kingston. I called from California.
“Sure, we can get you a nice big shoulder, but I can also get you a small, whole pig,” said Josh Applestone (he was at the time, rather disturbingly, a vegan; he has since mended his ways). Wow, I thought, this is going to be fun!
When we stopped in to pick it up on the way upstate for our first weekend in the new country (not yet my own), I could see that this small pig was far too large for any oven our new neighbors might possibly possess. “Can you quarter it for me?” I asked Josh, while Casey parked. “And please don’t let my husband see the head; he’s a little squeamish.” “Sure,” said Josh. I was definitely feeling better about the prospect of living so far from a Whole Foods. Where there is a good butcher, there is civilization.
Then Casey, who had parked in a miraculously short time, walked in. I turned to Josh, intending an introduction. On top of Josh’s shoulders, instead of his head, was the head of the pig.
“Squee-squee-squee,” said Josh. When I stopped laughing, I saw that Casey’s poor, sweet Irish Catholic face was paler than a ghost.
Oh goody, a vegan butcher with a bizarre sense of humor.
At the new neighbors’ house, I poked garlic and bits of anchovy into every possible nook and cranny, grilled one of the quarters, roasted two and lovingly placed the last in their chest freezer. All the guests got a doggy bag of succulent, garlicky pig. I hoped I’d made a good first impression on the group. Small town life can be Danté-esque. In a limited pool of people you are either well-liked or lonely; I was willing to feed for friends.
Fast forward a couple of years. I was now a pro at sourcing excellent pork in my valley, which had plenty. Often, it came directly from Turkana Farm in Germantown, right across the Hudson river, which flows not too far from my living room window. There Peter and Mark, a couple who lost their love for — and desire to live in — Manhattan after 9/11, set out to raise Ossabaw pigs along with British White cattle, guinea hens, ducks, heirloom breeds of turkey, a gazillion vegetables and those sheep with the fat tails.
Ossabaws trace their lineage directly back 400 years to the Spanish Iberico hogs that were introduced into an area destined for colonization, so that in a few years when the first residents arrived there’d be lots of dinners running around on the hoof, thus ensuring the colony’s survival. Only on Ossabaw island, off the coast of Georgia, did the pigs retain the characteristics of the Spanish ancestor, because there were no local pigs with which to interbreed. Much has been written about the Ossabaw: its superior flavor plus excellent marbling made it, at least for a time, the darling of cutting-edge chefs and the pork-loving press.
In early 2008, I told Peter and Mark I’d take half a pig at the next slaughter. These pigs are much, much larger than the one Josh had found for me two years earlier. In the interim, I visited the hairy little piglets and took great joy in watching them root, scamper, and wallow. (Casey wasn’t invited; I was now afraid he’d become a vegan, and then where would our marriage be?)
Seeing happy piglets doesn’t bother me, because if I choose to eat pork (and I do, I do), not only do I want it well marbled and tasting of pig, but I also want the pig to live a good life. And when the time comes, I want its departure to be dignified and painless.
Cut to California, where I was at the time of my pig’s departure from the living. I was driving along Pacific Coast Highway with the wind in my hair, my eyes narrowed against the glare of sun on the ocean, when my cell phone rang. It was the manager of the slaughterhouse:
“How do you want your pig butchered?” he asked, and he needed to know this, like, now. Conjuring up an image of a whole hog bisected by little dotted lines, I stumbled through the cuts. Most of them were very large pieces I planned to spit-roast, in front of a fire, as is my wont.
“And please leave all the fat and skin on.”
“Are you sure about that, lady? These hogs got an awful lot of fat on ‘em.”
“Fat is good,” I admonished him with, I’m embarrassed to admit, a slight note of condescension.
+ + +Back home again and preparing to spit-roast, I unwrap the first of many festively bright green-wrapped packages that now compete for freezer space with goat butter, D’Artagnan duck sausage and diced prosciutto. (It’s two hours to the nearest Whole Foods. One must be prepared.) Immediately, it is clear that my Ossabaw pork doesn’t have a problem with marbling. In fact, there is a 5-inch fat cap before you get to any of the lovely meat, and from a 10-pound roast I may, if lucky, be able to feed four.
I call the guys at Turkana Farms, and they tell me everyone’s got the same problem, as if we could ever have imagined that a lot of fat on pork could be a problem. Next year, they tell me, they’re planning some changes in breeding and feeding to retain the benefits of the Ossabaw (its saturated fat content is relatively low) but end up with leaner meat.
Meanwhile, I have a freezer full of fat. Really tasty, and comparatively healthy — but fat. I resolve not to waste an ounce of it.
Immediately, my mind turns to confit. Duck confit has become quotidian in the last decade, but pork confit is the mother of all fat-simmered comestibles. French peasants originally slow-cooked chunks of lightly salt-cured pork in its own fat as a way to preserve the meat from the spring slaughter throughout the winter. It’s always been something of a conceit to say “in its own fat,” however, because just one animal could never yield enough fat to completely cover its meat during cooking and, later, storage. Fat from another animal was always necessary. Until now.
Recipes are consulted. As a cookbook author, I am unwilling to put all my eggs in one basket, and end up following a hybrid method hailing from Paula Wolfert, Judy Rodgers (of Zuni Café) and Jennifer McLagan (the relative newcomer who has taken the cookbook world by storm with two simple, elemental words: Bones and Fat). I quickly realize that if I am going to have a confit-making marathon, I might as well make rillettes, too. Really, they’re just a much smaller, highly spiced version of confit. I spend four days up to my elbows in lard. At the end of this time, my refrigerator boasts three ceramic crocks of confit and four smaller, rounded glass jars of rillettes (plus a jar of juicy goodies not identifiable as either one, labeled “Mysterious Tasty Stuff,” that will later elevate a simple bean soup to transcendency).
I take the adage Thou Shalt Not Waste very seriously. If a pig gives its life for my table, I will eat the whole animal, not just the luxury cuts that are easy to love.
A month later, it’s time for my editor’s annual Porkapalooza. This five- to seven-course all-pork lunch on his expansive summer lawn, always generously accompanied by pale pink Provençal wine, is the perfect event at which to unveil my very first jar of rillettes. Since I potted them, a two-inch covering of snow-white lard has protected the spiced pork paste from exposure to air, thus allowing the flavors to mature. As the jar approaches room temperature, the fat begins to soften. In the kitchen, I dig down through the fat for a first, experimental taste. “I’m afraid it’s a bit salty,” I say to my hovering editor, in a hang-dog tone of voice.
Achieving the right salt balance in confit and rillettes is an art, clearly one which I’ve not yet mastered. My editor looks wildly about his kitchen, obviously trying to dream up an alternate first course on the fly. But I have a solution: I fold the softened, protective layer of lard right into the meat paste. It pales considerably, but the salt balance is perfect. Spread onto warm toasts just off the grill, my rillettes instantly liquefy and dribble down into the porous surface of the rustic bread: salt, crunch, fat, pork. If it’s not exactly rillettes, then it is something new of my own accidental invention (just like Tarte Tatin, or so legend has it): It’s Pork Butter!
A sudden hush falls over the long table. Just moments ago they were boisterous and irreverent; now everyone sits very still, eyes closed, jaws slowly moving, savoring. They appear to have fallen into some sort of revelatory primeval trance. For our hunter-gatherer ancestors, adequate fat in the diet spelled a chance for survival. The slick coating on the roofs of their mouths now ignites an ancient, hard-wired instinct: We’re gonna make it.
There is fighting about who will get to lick the jar, which I whisk away when attention is elsewhere. Sadly, it gets quietly licked by Stella, our terrier, on the drive home. When I relate this story to my editor on Monday, I can hear his voice break.
More phone calls follow: Is there a recipe?
I am coy. “Well, you start with a very fatty pig . . . ”
Brigit Binns (http://www.brigitbinns.com) is the author or co-author of twenty-one cookbooks and editor of countless others. She’s collaborated on cookbooks with some of the country’s most respected chefs, including New York's Michael Psilakis and Los Angeles’ Joachim Splichal. Brigit has been called “Pig-Lit’s First Chick,” and although she’s written well over two thousand recipes, her true passion is the opinionated drive-n’-eat blog Roadfoodie: “Feel the wind in your hair, the sinews between your teeth.”