LEARNING BY DOING Julian St. Laurent and Andrew Lindberg participate in a hog-butchery workshop as writer Laura McCandlish gathers audio of the event.
Bacon is so 2010 — no one is surprised to find cured and candied pork belly in cocktails and chocolate bars anymore. We make our own bacon (and even guanciale), grind our meat, and stuff our own sausages now. Charcuterie plates are ubiquitous on restaurant menus, though some have argued the fine art of climate-controlled, dry-cured salumi is better left to the pros. We now know to ask for heritage hogs and pastured pork. And we're over nose-to-tail dining as macho, competitive sport, where more offal (the "odd bits") is always better.
Still, for many, pork remains the king of meats. It's the world's most widely consumed meat, with poultry ranking a close second. Pork looms large here in New England, especially with our salt-pork-based Franco-American and Yankee culinary traditions. Farmers find pigs relatively sustainable to raise, especially free-range ones that forage for acorns. Grain feed, especially organic, is expensive. Some, such as Mike Brooks of Bowdoin, fatten their hogs up on food waste, the tons of free scraps discarded by college dining halls and food banks, or the whey that's a byproduct of Maine's vibrant cheese-making scene.
Our best chefs in Maine are ever enchanted by these most human-like beasts (though swine brains are substantially smaller than ours; they use their gray matter more efficiently). Chad Conley learned to slaughter and butcher pigs while working on Eliot Coleman's Harborside farm. He then raised pigs while managing Masa Miyake's Freeport farm before opening the acclaimed Gather in Yarmouth last fall. Conley gets all his pastured pork — mostly unpopular cheap cuts to keep Gather's menu prices down — from butcher Ben Slayton of Farmers' Gate Market in Wales. Jay Villani (of Local 188 and Sonny's) pigged out in North Carolina and soon goes to Austin, to collect the best recipes for his forthcoming Salvage BBQ and Smoke House. Finally, though he sold Hugo's (where pork belly once had to be billed as "fresh bacon"), Rob Evans is raising rare black American Guinea Hogs, which take three years instead of six months to fatten up. Evans also hopes to unveil a new charcuterie menu at Duckfat, perhaps as soon as later this year.
For juicy, flavorful pork, we embrace bones and fat, not discard them. In Oregon, I learned to love Red Wattle hogs for, not despite, their unctuous fat-cap. The fat better absorbs a marinade and melts off, self-basting the meat, during grilling or searing. So we seek out bone-in chops, bone-in ham roasts and bone-in shoulder or Boston Butt for prime pulled pork. The "other white meat" is dry no more, and the bones remain for a second meal of stews, beans, or stock. Fortunately, variety packs of sirloin-end chops are less expensive, due to increased fat and connective tissue, but also much tastier than center- or loin-cut pork chops. (Thanks to Michael S. Sanders for sharing that tip on the food radio show we've just launched together — see Table Arts Media on Facebook.)
Maybe you've resolved to eat less meat in 2013, for your own health's sake — or the planet's — or just to save money. Pork, more than any other meat, lends itself to frugal meat-as-a-condiment scenarios, where just a bit of rendered pancetta or lardons imbues a vegetable-forward dish with umami. Salting and curing those cuts yields maximum "flavor per calorie," as "hamthropologist" Peter Kaminsky prods us to do in his latest book, Culinary Intelligence: The Art of Eating Healthy (And Really Well). Baking or frying with lard, in moderation, is another cheap way to capitalize on a pig's distinct flavor. Lard, after all, is the new olive oil, as the butcher case at Rosemont Market on Brighton Avenue reminds us. It would be wasteful to discard the leaf lard, lacey caul fat, and ample fatback.