The pork chops I grew up onand yes, I love you, Mom, but if you're honest you'll admit it's truewere dry and brittle as tree bark but not as tasty.
Mom wasn't really to blame: The actual culprits were the industrial farmers who bred pigs so lean the natural juices in the meat were all but gone, and the health experts whose dark warnings about trichinosis scared her into cooking that meat, and cooking it, until it gave up all hope and surrendered. And in those days, of course, we all knew that a drop of pork fat would kill you faster than a cigarette with an asbestos filter.
Today, the disciples of Dr. Atkins wage war on their love handles with towering breakfasts of sausage and bacon. Trichinosis is about as much a threat as a plague of frogs, and as a result restaurants now serve chops that are daringly, deliciously pink inside. Most supermarket pork is still a dismal prospect, but purveyors like Whole Foods and many small farmers can hook you up with meat from hogs that were bred and raised for maximum flavor (nichepork.org provides a listing). As for lard, these days it sounds as healthy as wheat grass, compared to the margarine that I grew up on.
Pork kept America well fed when we were still a country of farmers, and suffered as we became a nation of supermarket shoppers. But all signs point toward a major renaissance. Americans had been eating pork at roughly the same pace for decadesuntil the first three months of this year, when, according to the National Pork Board, demand spiked by 5.3 percent. Our steak-loving nation seems to have developed a mad crush on pig meat in all its guises: Meltingly tender braised shoulders and bellies, potent sausages and salamis, succulent barbecued ribs and even once-outré odds and ends now turn up in the kinds of nice restaurants where a sommelier is likely to tell you that a halfway sweet young German Riesling would be just terrific with those trotters.
Larry Cizek, who, under the auspices of the Pork Board, runs a kind of matchmaking service for chefs and farmers, has been eyeing this trend for a while. On the day we spoke, he had just gotten the results of a survey on the fine-dining scene. A good deal more than half of the white-tablecloth restaurants included in the study had on their menus what the Board calls "niche pork"that is, meat that isn't raised in the typical giant-industrial fashion. And half of those restaurants reported that until recently, they served no pork at all.
It's probably true that historically pork has been neglected by East Coast chefs, many of whose sensibilities bowed toward France, where pork often can't get its snout in the door until it has been reborn as some kind of charcuterie. (Richard Olney in Simple French Food, published in 1974, gives haughty voice to this prejudice: "There is an edgesomewhat flat, slightly sweetish, fatty, and insidiousto fresh unsalted or uncured pork that palls on many a palate.") Northern Californians, with their Italian affinities, were hog-conscious far earlier. Paul Bertolli at Oliveto in Oakland is such a devout student of pork cookery that for several days each February he throws what he calls Whole Hog Dinners, during which he serves more than thirty kinds of pig preparations, from grilled heart to tongue salad to frankfurter with truffle sauce. His passion for pork products, however, is too great to be shoehorned into a four-day extravaganza, so by the middle of next year he plans to launch a line of cooked and fresh cured meats such as handmade salamis, pâtés and, possibly, cured pork jowl, or guancialean ingredient in his pasta-sauce recipe.
One town over from Oakland, Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley was one of the first loud and enthusiastic cheerleaders for Niman Ranch's pioneering pork farming. Since its beginnings in the 1970s, Bill Niman's business has gone from a literal ranch, in Marin County, to a figurative one comprised of small farmers nationwide who raise their hogs to his humane and healthy specifications. Niman's innovation proved that in one stroke you could make pigs tastier, pig eaters happier and pig farmers richer, or at least more glamorous.
In his wake, all sorts of folks who were decidedly not born in a barn woke up one morning to find they were sharing their property with a passel of hogs. Michael Yezzi and his wife, Jennifer Small, had two master's degrees and a law degree between them when they bought "three little pink pigs" as an experiment. The meat, which they mostly ate themselves and shared with friends, was so appealing that the next year they increased the number of pigs to 14. Now nearly 200 hogsfat breeds like Berkshire, Large Black and Gloucestershire Old Spots, from the days before pigs were as lean as runway modelsroot around Flying Pigs Farm about an hour outside Albany, New York. Yezzi and Small sell this stunningly rich, moist "heritage pork" in New York City to discerning restaurants like Savoy and to the ultrapremium butcher Lobel's; they also sell everything from shoulder to hocks by mail order via flyingpigsfarm.com. Some chefs have even become so enamored of these pigs that they've decided to raise their own. A small herd of black Berkshires roots through the dirt behind the kitchen of Dan Barber's new Hudson Valley restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, in Pocantico Hills, New York. Melissa Kelly tends a few Tamworths of her own at Primo in Rockland, Maine; flavorful as the meat is by itself, Kelly likes to enhance it by using a brine made with maple syrup and vinegar, as in her grilled double-cut pork chop recipe.
For anyone who hasn't yet tasted this new-style pork, which is of course just the old-style pork of grandma's girlhood with a higher price tag, I'd seriously suggest finding a sample. You know how much better wild salmon tastes than farmed fish, or a free-range hen does compared to one of Frank Perdue's all-too-tender chickens? Multiply that difference by about a hundred and you'll get an idea of how far superior a lovingly raised hog is to a pale graduate of a factory farm. Like a prime steak, the meat is streaked with fat, but that fat is pork fat, with a sweeter flavor, a more sensuous texture and a simply amazing ability to carry seasonings as it bastes a roast. The meat of the loin is a dark pink, or even a ruddy reddish-brown. Generally the darker the meat the moister it will be, which is one reason even the Pork Board is having second thoughts about its famous "other white meat" advertising campaign.
"I don't even know what they're referring to, because when pork is white, it's overcooked," says Bruce Aidells. Aidells, a food writer, sausage entrepreneur and all-around carnivore, has just published his eleventh cookbook, Bruce Aidells's Complete Book of Pork, a fond salute to the versatile pig. Aidells tested all his recipesincluding the one published here, for Tuscan ribs slow-roasted with herbs and spices, then glazed with balsamic vinegarusing shrink-wrapped supermarket meat to make sure they still functioned under such adverse conditions, but he tried a few with Berkshire pork, "and it made a huge difference."
"One trait that puts pork in a league all by itself is the marriage between pork and salt," Aidells says. "Salting is a pretty severe thing to do to meat, and beef will get hard and dry. But pork, partly because its fat is creamier and softer, does really well. That, to me, is what makes it the most special meat. Seventy percent of the pork eaten in this country is sold in some kind of cured form. Ham. Sausages. Bacon."
The Bacon Boom is a thriving subset of the Pork Renaissance, and it cuts across economic boundaries. Your local fast-food joint sells sandwiches tricked out with bacon at any time of the day, while a mail-order foods company called the Grateful Palate (run by Dan Philips, an F&W contributing editor) sends its subscribers one package of supremely flavorful artisanal bacon each month for $135 a year, plus shipping, through gratefulpalate.com. And uncured baconalso known as pork bellynow fetches premium prices at French-leaning restaurants like Daniel in Manhattan and Blackbird in Chicago. "Fifty years ago you called it side meat and gave it to the hired help to eat," chuckles Larry Cizek.
A lot can change in 50 years. It's enough time for science and capitalism to gang up and manufacture a tomato with no flavor whatsoever. It's enough time for a few chefs and farmers to bring back tomatoes that taste like tomatoes. It's enough time for a small child who lived in fear of pork chops to grow up and learn how to cook. And, if that child is me, one day he'll sit down to make a list of the five most delicious meals he's eaten this year and realize that dark, juicy pork from small, serious farms was the star of all five.
Pete Wells, a former staffer at F&W, is an articles editor at DETAILS and the winner of three James Beard Foundation journalism awards.