Pork has long been among the most common of barnyard meats, but an epicurean fashion has elevated it to the top shelf of haute cuisine.
Author Ben Detrick Illustration Jack Unruh
SPLAYED ON THE METAL butcher’s counter at The Brooklyn Kitchen is a vivid glimpse of the pork revival. Half a pig—complete with ears, tail, trotters and most everything else—is lying skin-down. Standing over it wielding a chef’s blade is Tom Mylan, a genial fellow clad in a protective layer of chain mail and a blood-smeared apron. Mylan is teaching a dozen rapt spectators a seminar on hog butchery, but he’s actually part of a much larger renaissance of swine. These days, pork is no longer just chops and ribs and dinner-table boilerplate; it’s become an epicurean centerpiece. Spots for today’s seminar sold out online in just 25 minutes.
Slapping the animal’s ribs for emphasis, Mylan praises the pedigreed Ossabaw-Tamworth hog as the “perfect pig” and cautions that birdshot occasionally ends up in the meat due to the breed’s propensity for escaping their pens and terrorizing neighboring farms. Using the knife and a small saw, he quickly segments the beast into parts recognizable from the average supermarket aisle—butt, picnic ham, tenderloin, sirloin—as he describes the best ways to roast, cure, smoke and fry each cut. His pupils include an amateur sausagemaker, a couple who already butcher their own venison and a dude named Dave who just “likes to eat pig.”
It’s hard to say exactly when this humble creature became so trendy. It may have started around the time superchefs Mario Batali and David Chang introduced their exhilarating takes on Tuscan roasts, pillowy pork buns and inventively resuscitated butcher scraps.
Though pork is forbidden to observant Jews, Muslims and vegetarians, in the larger foodie universe, prosciutto, charcuterie and bellies are buzzwords that cause Pavlovian responses. In part, pork is beloved for its simplicity. “For chefs, the emphasis is on making things that are delicious, and pork just makes a very natural entry into that,” says Andrew Fortgang, general manager and sommelier at Le Pigeon, a Portland, Oregon, restaurant whose menu boasts a corn bread dessert with apricots and bacon topped by maple ice cream and lardons.
For those who value deliciousness above all else, the marketing campaign labeling pork “the other white meat” seems like lunacy—after all, who gets excited about a meat prone to curling into dry, dreary slabs? Dissatisfaction with commercial pork is part of what’s spurred domestic production of top-shelf breeds like red wattle, Tamworth and six-spotted Berkshire—all pigs valued for their marbled meat and muscle structure. “They just have so much more flavor than they used to,” says Donald Link, the chef behind acclaimed New Orleans restaurants Cochon and Herbsaint. “They’re surpassing chicken and squab.” To paraphrase the porcine dictator in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, some pigs are more equal than others.
The increasing availability of whole pigs with imperial lineage has raised interest in using every part of the animal—even ones considered butcher’s leftovers (or offal). “Chefs are becoming really smart,” says Heather Hyman of Heritage Foods USA, a company that works with independent breeders to promote genetic diversity and humane production. “They’re not just taking the 10-rib rack to make a chop. Now that they’re getting what the French get, they’re creating charcuterie and cured meats and blowing up menus with pork belly dishes.”
The elevation of “lesser cuts” to the level of modern culinary art is really a return to tradition. “I’m not creating anything new,” says Chris Cosentino, executive chef at San Francisco’s Incanto and founder of salumi company Boccalone. “I’m reviving ancient recipes that people just don’t recognize anymore. Back in the farm days, everybody used everything. That makes the pig a magical animal.”
And while some parts of the pig may seem less than magical—bellies, trotters and brains, for instance—diners don’t seem to mind. “When I put that belly on the menu, I never thought anybody would order it,” recalls Link. “And all of a sudden, I can’t take it off .” His “ultimate pork and beans” at Cochon includes marinated belly, bacon, white beans and basil salsa verde. Batali, perhaps the most renowned proponent of “variety meats,” has been thrilling diners for over a decade at Manhattan’s Babbo Ristorante e Enoteca with pigs’ feet and “head cheese” (which isn’t cheese at all, but pieces of meat from a pig or cow’s head rubbed with spices). And Feast, a Houston restaurant specializing in such lesser cuts, was nominated by the James Beard Foundation for “America’s best new restaurant” in 2008.
With all the emphasis on obscure pieces of the pig, it’s easy to forget the populist power and nostalgic charm of bacon. This beloved ancillary ingredient—prized burger topping, “B” in a BLT, dynamic accompaniment to a batch of scrambled eggs—has spent the past few years mutating into a flavor enhancer of stunning ubiquity. Like some freakish off spring from Dr. Moreau’s test kitchen, it has been covered in chocolate, infused into vodka, crystallized into salt and swirled into spreadable Baconnaise. Some bloggers even moan that bacon has been endorsed too wholeheartedly by the hipster set, sucked into the same vortex of irony as Pabst Blue Ribbon. “I believe the interest has always been there. It was just never identified,” says Dan Philips, who founded a mail-order Bacon of the Month club in 1997, which now has thousands of members. “Bacon is arguably as American as apple pie.”
Few have benefited more directly from this bacon explosion than Jason Day and Aaron Chronister, a pair of bloggers who invented something called, well, “Bacon Explosion.” A swinish monstrosity comprising two pounds of sausage stuffed with bacon and wrapped in a hammock woven from the same, the dish premiered on their BBQ Addicts website and then grew into an internet sensation. Viewed equally as a joke and an instruction manual for an instant coronary, it was featured in The New York Times and earned the two a lucrative book deal. “I personally like bacon a lot, so it’s good to see it get such press and publicity,” says Day, who never anticipated the fervor their recipe would stir up in the swine-craving masses. “I mean, who’s not going to like a good bacon weave?”
At Porchetta, a tiny restaurant in New York City’s East Village, the tiled floors and cramped counters are watched over by a huge spray-painted stencil of a handsome hog. Well-heeled food snobs sit patiently elbow-to-elbow with loud, wobbly bar-hoppers. What brings these two very different classes together is a simple dish—tender cubes of slow-roasted Hampshire loin dusted with fennel pollen and wrapped in a roll, for just $9—that couples a haute pedigree and a down-home presentation. Both culinary sophisticates and hot dog fans agree: It’s simply delicious.
BEN DETRICK is on a quest to find the world’s best pork-and-chive dumpling.
The top pork dishes in America…
Porchetta sandwich (Hampshire loin wrapped in a roll)
Crispy roasted pork belly with potato cake and red cabbage with apples
Pig foot “Milanese” with rice, beans and arugula
Braised pork cheek with sweet pea, asparagus and chard