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Sometimes it takes an office to eat a pig

There was a time in the recent past when Americans, even eager carnivores, didn’t like to know where their food came from. Picking up a package of pallid, plastic-wrapped chops or cutlets from the mega-mart, they could rest on the assurance that they’d never see the pasture — or the pen — where their meal spent its day like, well … a pig in shit.

Then came mad cow disease and liberal-guilt food culture. These days, “sourcing” is a buzzword, farms and even slaughterhouses are new hipster food havens, and we have “Top Chef” contestants cuddling the lambs they’re about to cook.

Here in Vermont, the Fresh Network uses its periodic dinners to make connections among food producers, restaurateurs and gourmets. That’s where I got my own wacky idea about how to “respect the protein” — and enjoy some great meals in the process. On November 12, 2008, Richmond’s The Kitchen Table Bistro hosted a Fresh Network meal that featured Herb Stuffed Chicken, Boyden Farm Beef Short Ribs and an Heirloom Tomato-Pork Ragout with Braised Kale Ravioli.

As is the tradition at these dos, the producers introduced themselves along with the food. Erin Buckwalter, 25, and Mike Shepard, 28, who put the meat in the ragout, said this was their first season raising pork at Starksboro’s Mountain View Farm. They mentioned that they were about to bring the last of the year’s pigs to slaughter.

My mind — and stomach — sprang to attention: I would get some of that delightful pig flesh and have my way with it — or perhaps share the pleasure with friends. But it didn’t seem practical to shell out $360 for the privilege of trying to find freezer space for 80 pounds of dead meat. So I came up with a master plan: The Seven Days office needed a mascot. Granted, the porker would no longer be squealing by the time she made it to Burlington, but we would name her, anyway: Daisy, as in our “Best-of” Seven Daysie awards.

I called Mike Shepard and reserved half a pig. Then I sent out an office invite to encourage pig-part participation. Food Editor Suzanne Podhaizer, Music Editor Dan Bolles and Account Executive Michelle Brown all got on board. Unlike me, though, they were not aware of the finer points of piggy anatomy. I printed out an anatomical chart, telling my new comrades in pork to meet me in the Seven Days archive — a room that we fittingly refer to as “the morgue.” Here, the “Pig War Room” commenced. Each armed with a colored pencil, we took turns reserving parts of the animal’s musculature.

The next day, I rose at 7 and headed south to the slaughterhouse. Watching the pig gasp its last wouldn’t be part of the experience — since I am not a licensed butcher, I had to leave the dirty work to professionals. Still, I felt very rugged when I arrived at Royal Butcher in Randolph and helped the blood-soaked behemoth of a butcher maneuver a bisected corpse — alive fewer than 24 hours before — into my hatchback.

Off I went to Sweet Clover Market in Essex, where resident butcher Cole Ward loaded the body onto his worktable. Last year, I apprenticed with him for a week. One of the prime goals of a true gourmet is to have a good relationship with a local butcher. For me, Cole is the man — my Mr. Miyagi of meat. I don’t think anyone else would be able to get me a whole lamb belly in less than a week. And surely no man off the block would let me roll up my sleeves, or assist me in learning to take apart a pig.

Within minutes of unwrapping the beast, my cuts-of-meat chart was bloodstained. “This is a beautiful pig,” marveled Ward.

It was. Meat almost as red as beef stood out starkly against the thinner-than-normal layers of fat. In less than two hours, Ward and I had reduced the animal to slices and scraps. I had even cleaned the vertebrae with a sculptor’s precision, trying to reserve every shred I could for sausage.

Scrubbed clean, but with some congealed blood stuck under my fingernails, I arrived at the office. I felt like a murderous Santa Claus, bearing boxes of meat for my coworkers. What we had not apportioned were the 4 pounds of bone and 8 pounds of pure fat that had once bolstered and cushioned Daisy. Suzanne, who makes her own stock, was happy to give the bones a home. Meghan Dewald, the calendar writer, glowed at the sight of my bags-o’-lard. A serious baker, she thrilled to the idea of rendering it into piecrusts for the Seven Days Christmas party.

I headed home, all excited to get my first taste of sweet Daisy. I already knew I wanted to pair my pork with tiny Eastern European-style dumplings called spaetzle. I freed two chops and set about improvising an all-American smothered pork-chop recipe, with the Vermont-y kick of apples instead of onions.

As the chops hit the pan, I realized olive oil would be unnecessary. Though the meat didn’t look particularly fatty, what lard there was rendered into its own grease. The result was sweet and surprisingly clean tasting. The pig’s apple finish was palpable. The real shock came later. The flesh was so juicy that, even after a satisfying dinner, I continued to salivate.

After tasting our pig, I wanted to know a bit more about its pedigree. So I paid a wintry visit to Mountain View Farm. Apple orchards run alongside the mountainous stretch of road, named for Shepard’s great-grandfather, that leads to the Starksboro farm. Shepard says his heritage pork stock — Tamworths, to be exact — feast on the fallen apples in autumn. In summer, the pigs eschew their organic grain diet to graze on whatever is handy, including compost from The Kitchen Table Bistro — an incestuous food chain if ever there was one.

The old white farmhouse, sitting at the bottom of a steep hill, has been in the Shepard family for seven generations; it pulled Mike back from a career in field biology on the West Coast. He met Buckwalter playing Ultimate Frisbee in Burlington. An heirloom gardener, Buckwalter — former master gardener for the Winooski Community Garden, now chair of the Middlebury Area Community Gardens — admits, “I did not eat meat for many years.” Now, though, she’d rather source flesh than shun it: “I figured I could eat soybeans from Argentina, or I could eat the meat from our own animals.”

It’s easy to see the love between the couple and their remaining sow, Maxine. They enumerate her personality quirks like proud parents of a 2-year-old as Maxine attempts to herd a cow and three calves that all appear to be terrified of her.

The pair hopes the feds will allow the state to enforce Vermont Senate Bill S.322, which would make it possible for them to slaughter on their own farm. An exception to the rigorous USDA slaughterhouse regs would apply only to animals that farmers have contracted to sell to individuals — not commercially. Buckwalter argues, “It seems more respectful to them to slaughter them in their own place.”

Last year, 12 pigs filled the orchards; three were sold commercially, while the rest went in halves or wholes to private buyers like me. I recognized Daisy’s head right away in the photos of the once-living animals. Turns out “she” was actually a boar named Wee Wee Wee. Whoops.

This year, Shepard and Buckwalter plan to sell the meat through community-supported “shares.” Despite last year’s 25 percent rise in the price of organic grain, Mountain View Farm nearly broke even. Business from The Kitchen Table had something to do with that, as did sales to The Bobcat Café. An upcoming beer dinner at The Bobcat will feature Mountain View bacon and blue-hued eggs from the farm’s South American Araucana chickens — available at Mountain Greens Market in Bristol. Look for Mountain View pork at Mary’s at Baldwin Creek later this year, too.

What is it that’s so miraculous about the roasts, chops and ribs made from Daisy and her — er, his — fellow farm denizens? The Kitchen Table Chef Steve Atkins puts it perfectly: “The flavor was incredible. It looked like pig — not ‘the other white meat.’”

Erin Buckwalter explains that in trying to breed the color out in factory animals, “they also bred out the flavor.”

At the Seven Days staff holiday party, Dan’s pulled pork was a lean, smoky hit. Meghan made two pies that might have come from Lancaster County. Suzanne and I have yet to concoct our sausage with Ward’s help; we still have a cheek in the freezer, which will become Italian guanciale in the summer. We did our best to use every part Daisy the Wonder Pig left behind — and, in doing so, honored its delicious memory.

2009 Animal Issue

This story is part of our 2009 Animal Issue. Click here for more stories.

Want a Taste? Recipes and Ordering Info

Contact Mountain View Farm about CSAs or prepackaged meat at 349-5785 or southstarksboro@hotmail.com. The website is www.mountainviewfarmvt.com.

“Apology to Allah” Pork Stew

I used a dirty pig in a tagine. I am sorry. But it’s more a North African-influenced dish than a whole-hog interpretation of the stew staple. For one thing, I’m pretty sure there are no guavas in Morocco. The preserved or pickled lemons eliminate any need for added salt.

2 pork hocks

2 sticks of cinnamon

1 teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon paprika

1 teaspoon coriander

1 teaspoon turmeric

6 cloves

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1/2 tablespoon fresh mashed ginger

2 pickled lemons (I got them at the Asian market in Winooski) or one full-sized preserved lemon, halved

1 cup chicken stock

1/2 cup guava juice

Heat oven to 300ºF. Trim silver skin from hocks. Sear hocks over medium-high heat until brown on all sides. (No need to add fat; they’ve got plenty of their own.)

Remove meat and toast all ingredients listed, down to the ginger, in the same pan. Add lemons, then stock and juice. Reduce for a few minutes, then cover and simmer in the oven for three hours. While letting the meat rest, return the sauce to high heat on the stove. Reduce until thickened, skimming off fat as necessary. Remove cinnamon sticks, cloves and lemon halves, and serve over quinoa.

Cranberry-Apricot Quinoa

1 cup quinoa

2 cups chicken stock

1/4 cup dried cranberries

1/4 cup dried apricots, chopped

Toast quinoa for two to five minutes. Add stock and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer, add fruits and cover. By the time the liquid is absorbed (10 to 15 minutes), the fruits will be reconstituted.

- Alice Levitt

Smoking 101: Smoke ’Em While You Got ’Em

Smoking a pork shoulder is not for those who need instant gratification. Given the average cooking time of one-and-a-half to two hours per pound, it’s a lengthy process requiring no small amount of patience and attentiveness. Got 14 or 15 — or, gasp, 20-plus — hours to kill? Read on.

I use a horizontal smoker with an offset firebox that rests just below and to the left of the cooking chamber. But a wide variety of smokers is available, all of which do an adequate job in the right hands.

I like to start with a large base of coals in the firebox. Initially, this brings the temperature in the cooking chamber well above the desired 180 to 220 degrees, so you’ll need to wait a bit before you start cooking. But the solid base of coals makes it possible to add fuel in smaller increments and helps maintain a consistent temperature, which is any smoker’s greatest challenge — especially in colder months or inclement weather. I also like to keep a healthy supply of coals burning in a separate grill to add as needed.

Speaking of fuel, use hardwood charcoal when possible. If you absolutely must, you can use briquettes. But never, under any circumstances, try instant-light charcoal — unless you really enjoy the taste of lighter fluid.

Once you’ve reached temperature, add a few chunks of wood and get a good, rolling smoke going. I prefer a blend of hickory and apple, but it’s really a matter of personal taste. It’s a good idea to allow your wood chunks to soak in water for half an hour or so before adding them to the firebox; otherwise, they burn too quickly.

Place the pork in the center of the cooking chamber, keeping in mind that every time you open the lid, the temperature will drop. Once you’ve added the pork, you will probably need to make adjustments to return to temp. For my smoker, this usually means opening the air intake vent on the firebox and damping the chimney on the cooking chamber. Depending on weather variables — cold, wind, etc. — you may even need to add more fuel. Pay close attention to temperature, especially during the first hour or so.

Once the smoker has settled into a good temp and level of smoke, I like to check in about once an hour. It’s always easier to increase the temperature than it is to bring it back down, so add coals and wood in small increments. I also like to brush the pork liberally with a “mop,” which helps keep it moist. (It’s better to do this only when adding fuel, to lessen the impact of opening the lid.)

The general consensus seems to be that most of the flavor is imparted to the meat during the first six to eight hours of smoking. Though purists might cry sacrilege, after that point, you can transfer the pork to an oven, set at 200 to 220 degrees. Be warned: You will lose some of the crunch on the shoulder’s outer layer. And be sure to wrap the pork tightly in foil to retain moisture.

Once the internal temperature of the pork reaches 190ºF, remove it from the smoker — or oven — and allow it to sit for at least one hour; the shoulder bone conducts heat and actually continues to cook the pork. Once the pork has cooled, remove the bone. If the meat’s cooked properly, you should be able to slide it out effortlessly.

Now it’s time to pull. If you don’t mind getting (really) messy, you can do this by hand. Personally, I prefer to use a knife and a large fork.

Once the entire shoulder has been reduced to a pile of moist, stringy chunks, serve on large bulky rolls with warm BBQ sauce on the side. Recipe follows…

Finnegan’s Wake BBQ Sauce

1 onion, diced

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 cup cider vinegar

1 cup coffee

1 cup ketchup

1/3 cup brown sugar

1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce

1/4 cup Irish whiskey or bourbon

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 tablespoon chili powder

1 tablespoon kosher or sea salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

This is a basic American BBQ sauce with an Irish kick. Sauté garlic and onion until soft. Add remaining ingredients and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring frequently, until sauce thickens, about 20 minutes. Once the sauce has cooled, blend in a food processor until smooth.

- Dan Bolles

How to Render Fresh Fat

It’s a good idea to do this when you’ll be in the kitchen for a few hours anyway. If the fat is frozen, allow it to fully thaw and chop it into quarter-inch cubes. Add enough cold water to a large, heavy-bottomed pot to cover just the bottom — it should be enough to get all the fat wet on all sides when you stir it. (This keeps the fat from sticking and crisping before the centers of the cubes heat up.) Add the chopped fat, and bring the water in the pot to a boil. Immediately turn the heat very low, stirring once every 10 minutes or so after the water has evaporated.

After one to two hours, depending on the amount of fat you’re rendering, the shrinking cubes of connective tissue will stop sizzling and start to turn a light golden color. Turn the heat off while the fat is golden — you don’t want it or the remaining crackling cubes to become brown, as this will affect the flavor.

Let it cool a bit, then strain the hot fat into a non-plastic bowl through a sieve lined with cheesecloth. If you like, you can press the cracklings with a spoon to release a bit more liquid fat.

When the strained lard is room temperature, pour it into plastic containers. It will keep in the freezer for a year or more. (Freezing the lard in premeasured amounts suitable for a two-crust pie recipe is particularly handy.)

If your cracklings are completely rendered, they’ll be light and airy, and you can salt and eat them — better-quality pork rinds cannot be had at any convenience store. If they’re still fatty, freeze them and use them to add flavor to hash or baked beans.

This procedure rendered 2 1/2 cups of solid fat into 1 1/4 cups of liquid fat and about a cup of cracklings.

- Meghan Dewald

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About The Author

Alice Levitt

Alice Levitt

Bio:
AAN award-winning food writer Alice Levitt is a fan of the exotic, the excellent and automats. She wrote for Seven Days 2007-2015.

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