Today is the first day of the Chinese Lunar New Year. It's a "golden" pig year, considered the pinnacle of good luck and prosperity, which only comes around every six decades. I was born during 1971, a "metal" pig year, and while I don't believe in astrology — neither the Chinese nor the Californian flavor — the cloven-hoofed animals do seem to be hogging my attention of late.
Take the White Marble Farms pork chop whose marquee appearance on a San Francisco menu piqued my curiosity last October. As I discovered and later chronicled, there is no such farm, only a brand name smeared like lipstick on a factory hog, albeit one bred by Cargill Meat Solutions to be slightly less lean than the typical "other white meat."
The two massive pork chops lying on a plate in front of me, by contrast, could practically be called "the other red meat." They are thickly veined with fat and colored a deep, blushing pink. I have been looking forward to eating this pork for more than three months.
That's how long ago I visited Clark Summit Farm for the second time, to write a profile of rancher Liz Cunninghame, who raises hogs, chickens, cattle, and occasionally turkeys in Tomales about an hour north of here. (The story appears in the Winter 2007 issue of Edible San Francisco, not yet online but available in various San Francisco retail outlets.)
At Clark Summit, open pastures stretch in all directions across rolling hills. The overwhelming smell is a duet of hay and grass in which the brass note of cow manure occasionally sounds. Sows give birth outdoors in A-framed huts built by Cunninghame's husband, Dan Bagley, not in narrow "farrowing crates" in which they spend their whole lives without ever being able to turn around. The piglets chase their littermates, plow pasture with their snouts when they're older, and get fat on organic whey left over from Cowgirl Creamery's cheesemaking operations. Regal-looking laying hens strut wherever they please, while the cattle leisurely hoover up the high pastures. (See for yourself in this slide show of photos I took in November.)
This is about as good as it gets for creatures destined for dinner. And destined they are, because Clark Summit is no petting zoo. Cunninghame wants her animals to have not just a good life, but also a good death, and that's why the hogs are harvested — the term she prefers — on the farm, instead of being trucked several hours to a big, USDA-inspected slaughterhouse where they would join an assembly line of hundreds of terrified, squealing others.
Because the hogs are not slaughtered in a USDA-inspected facility, the law says Cunninghame can not sell her pork retail — meaning no farmers markets. She is allowed, however, to sell the live hog and then have it slaughtered as a courtesy to the buyer for an additional fee; the harvester then takes it to a butcher, who turns it into roasts and ribs and if desired, does the curing and smoking for bacon and ham.
Meaning, if I wanted to try a Clark Summit Farm pork chop, I was going to have to go whole hog.
Most hogs (mature pigs) are harvested at around 250 pounds. Because Clark Summit pigs grow fast on their high-fat diet, they hit 250 pounds long before Cunninghame thinks they've had the chance to develop a sufficiently thick layer of fat on their backs and bellies. "Mine just taste better when they're bigger," she explains. Her hogs "go to market" at 350 pounds instead, which translates into about 250 pounds of usable meat, fat, bones, and offal.
That's a lot of pork, even for a born-again-with-a-vengeance carnivore like me. So I invited a few friends to share in the pasture-raised bounty — we were feeling greedy enough for me to buy two hogs — and mailed a deposit to Cunninghame.
The process ended up being much more complicated than I expected, certainly more so than pointing out which Niman Ranch boneless pork chops I wanted from the pale-pink dominos arrayed in Berkeley Bowl's meat case. First of all, I had to spend quite a lot of time talking to the butcher that Cunninghame uses about how best to divide my hogs.
"Do you want Boston butts or country-style ribs?" asked the kindly woman trying to talk me through the various options over the phone.
"I can't have both?"
"No, dear," she said patiently in her quavering voice. "They come from the same part of the shoulder."
After many hours spent poring over 1960s-era "Joy of Cooking" pork butchering diagrams, the "Field Guide to Meat," Paul Bertolli's "Cooking by Hand," and Bruce Aidell's "The Complete Pork Book" (which proved invaluable), I had a plan. One hog would be used for the butt roasts; the other for country-style ribs. No cured meats, as they would have added a few weeks to the order, just ground pork, fresh belly, and "fresh ham." Believe it or not, I was such a newbie that I didn't learn until well into Operation Pork that ham refers to the meat from the hogs' two rear legs only, and that there are myriad methods for making it.
The batch of hogs that included mine were slaughtered on a recent Saturday under conditions I had asked to hear in detail. A week later the butcher had 528 pounds' worth of neatly wrapped and labeled, frozen white packages ready for me to pick up. Between me and my adventurous friends, we found willing homes for everything from nose to tail, including the feet, heart, liver, kidneys, even the head — although not the intestines, as this butcher doesn't clean them for you.
Handling the paper-wrapped hog heads was spooky and somewhat unnerving, I confess. Someone else had dibs on them, but I was tempted to open one. After all, I had looked many of the Clark Summit pigs right in their intelligent, inquisitive eyes — perhaps even the one whose head now rested so heavily in my hands. As a society, we've become adept at compartmentalizing the animals we watch — Babe, Wilbur — from the reality of the meat that we eat. And so even though my conscience as a carnivore was clear, I could not bring myself to tear down that "chinese wall" by gazing at the face of the animal I had bought to consume. At least not this time.
When I finally had a free evening, a week later, to cook up the first loin chops from Operation Pork, I wanted to taste the pork as fully as possible, so I simply seared the thick chops in a bit of oil in a hot skillet on both sides, then turned down the flame a bit and covered them to cook to a still-pink but safe 140 degrees. While they were resting, I made a quick pan sauce reduction with wine, garlic, mustard, and butter, and a basic green salad.
As I prepared to cut my first bite, it occurred to me that I had never worked so hard for a piece of meat in my life. Of course the time I spent is nothing, a blink compared to the labor of those who raise these animals from birth, growing them from adorable piglet to sumo-wrestler-sized swine. Still, it pleased me immensely to know exactly where my dinner had come from — how it had lived, and how it had died. Studying the cross-section of rib bones embedded in the chop, I even had a good idea roughly where on the hog it had been cut from.
As I began to eat the chop, I thought my thermometer had lied, because of how pink the meat was. (The photograph doesn't do it justice.) But the meat was warm — hot even — and firm to the touch. I simply had never seen a pork chop this color before ... nor have I ever tasted one so robustly rich and juicy. In "the Complete Book of Pork," Bruce Aidell had recommended brining loin chops to replace some of the moisture that's been bred out of factory pork along with the fat, but I'd gambled the Clark Summit chops wouldn't need it. I was right. I'd say they were buttery, but the flavor was cleaner and lighter, almost milky — perhaps from the whey that made up a large part of their diet.
The chops were huge, and the Potato and I were hard pressed to finish half of them. A few nights later, I sliced up the leftovers and added them to some green cabbage, apple, and onions sautéed in butter. The large bones still had plenty of meat on them, so they went into a bag in the freezer; when I have enough, I'll make stock.
I cannot think of a more satisfying way to start the Year of the Pig than with a freezer full of sustainably, organically, locally, and ethically raised pork. Oink!