Tag Archives: slow food

The Whole Hog: heads, hearts, memory, and mindful meateating

Happy hog hinds (future pork rinds?) at Blue Moon Community farm just ourside of Madison. This was one of the stops on the annual Bike the Barns ride a few years back... few friends and I drove up to help make grilled bruschetta and homemade ice cream sandwiches to serve to the riders at this stop- it's an annual fundraiser for local farms and a traveling feast for riders who nosh at each farm stop!

Sometimes I wish we had the space to do this… (warning, not for vegetarians or the squeamish): http://coldantlerfarm.blogspot.com/2012/01/pork.html

Maybe someday, if we get more land, or most likely out of the city we could pull this off… but perhaps our neighbors’ silence could be bought with bacon, or a winter pig tucked away in a garage, none the wiser?  After all, it worked for Nigella in Oakland, and if GWiv from the LTHforum has hog hooks in his backyard and posts photos of backyard butchering, perhaps one could pull it off without offending near neighbors, but then again those hogs of his come in dead, split, bloodless and eviscerated, their last squeals and the shot out of earshot (though if you timed the kill precisely, a New-Years eve pig dispatching would blend seamlessly into the din of drunken firearm owners illegally exercising their second-amendment rights into the sky, although it would be a rather hazardous work environment (what goes up, must come down… but otherwise just about perfect for a Hogmanay blót) but certainly a far cry from living next to one for weeks or months… but still… an invite to a pig roast might buy a bit of collusion?

All conjecture, of course. And completely crazy. Don’t worry neighbors, I’m daydreaming, not scheming… then again, there WAS once a plywood pig smoker in our backyard before we bought the house, now in our neighbor’s yard- they’d rented our place for awhile before moving to another similarly-sized but finished house across the street, leaving the smoker temporarily where it sat (it’s still there in my first pictures of the yard taken back when we were looking at the house, and then seemingly-forever in short-sale limbo) until they needed it again. This being a small town (for a big city) they are friends of friends, and invited us to their annual pig pickin’ late this summer, a clamorous affair with luscious porky sandwiches and all the trimmings, a rockabilly band on the back porch, roller derby queens, blissful babies toddling, kids and grownups alike throwing water balloons with abandon and two rescued pitbulls displaying heroic feats of strength at rope-tug and gnawing contently on pig ears (which in due precaution, all the children were dutifully warned against approaching while they were eating “their favorite things in the whole world”).  Welcome to the neighborhood.  They’re not the ones I would worry about offending though, but rather those near ones on either side.  You can’t have a pig, girl.  Get over it (no, not even one of those potbellies or teacup pigs, which while cute are too expensive and tiny to eat anyway, which kinda defeats the point in my book).

I raised a pig for an FFA project in high school- his name was also Bacon (I suspect it’s a common porcine moniker).  He spent a summer penned on a near-acre of woods below our house, fattening on acorns and hickory nuts, and mud wallowing. After the fair my dad bought him from me. He asked first if I would mind, or if I’d rather sell him to someone else, but I couldn’t imagine that- it seemed right that if he were to be eaten, it ought to be by those who’d cared for and respected his pigness… which was why I’d named him, as both a reminder of and testament to his future deliciousness. It felt good to help provide food for my family, from the farm that had fed us for generations in its small way.

The hardest part was getting him to go back up the ramp into the trailer- he remembered that sucker from the trip to the fair, and no sir, wanted no part of it, or the associated road rumblings followed by concrete stalls (well bedded with shavings, mine immaculate, getting the “Good Housekeeping Award” for the youth swine barn), baths with shampoo, rubdowns, and finally a parade through the arena- where were his oak trees? His melon rinds? His water trough (built by my dad and I before he arrived, hand mixing and pouring the cement into plywood forms filled with rebar and rock) whose two concrete compartments we would find him straddling on sweltering days, front end in the north half, hind end to the south- a hot ham roast, brining himself in coolness and contentment)? No sir, not getting back in that truck without a fuss. He came back frozen, wrapped in butcher’s paper- other than occasional deer, nothing larger than a catfish (and one memorable chicken, back before my granny and poppy gave up losing most to hawk and coyotes, that my brothers and I watched being cleaned with rapt curiosity, disappointed, but secretly relieved that we were barred from watching the hatchetwork and flapping) was butchered on our farm in my memory (days before my memory or existence saw many hog killins i’m sure, but I don’t think anyone was sorry to outsource that job.  I’d want to if I raised large animals again and it were possible- it’s so much less stressful for the animals to not have to travel to their ends). Never ate a happier blue ribbon pig, or more delicious pork than those chops, cornmeal-breaded and fried in a cast-iron skillet, with warm homemade applesauce from the trees in our yard on the side.

My grandparents would raise two or three hogs each year when I was a kid- they’d send them to a small local abattoir to be processed and fill all our families’ freezers, but sadly those little  community processors willing to take in a handful of hogs or beeves are now harder and harder to find. Joel Salatin writes about this at length in “Folks, this ain’t normal” (read it, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, kick some pillows, hopefully yell at some bureaucrats and maybe roll your eyes a bit occasionally, but the guy makes some great points) and the difficulty this creates for local, small-scale meat producers… I’m glad to read that mobile processors sized to the needs of very small farms are out there! Kudos to the chef-instructor who commented after this post that she is educating her students about the loss of small processing facilities in her culinary school gastronomy class. Chefs, cooks and eaters need to know about this real barrier to market access which is a major limiting factor to the scalability and profitability of the local, small family farmers that most are cheering on (and hoping to buy from).  Sadly, the very regulations meant to protect consumers from the abuses of industrial agriculture are also prohibitively expensive to comply with for most smaller, slower, arguably safer meat packers and farmer, either putting up huge barriers to entry or putting them out of business altogether. Well-meaning and intentioned (and for CAFO-scale, very necessary!) rules enacted to keep consumers safe can ultimately rob them of choice- I can sell my neighbor a chicken, and I can give them a live or dead one, but I can not legally sell them a dead one that has not been government-inspected and slaughtered in a licensed and approved facility (which are prohibitively expensive to build and operate, and must do enough volume to keep a USDA inspector on site during all butchering), and even if it has been processed painstakingly, while they watch, tests free from the harmful drug-resistant bacteria, manure, and chlorine residues that plague “safe” supermarket meats… it might be fit to eat but not for commerce as far as the USDA is concerned, which limits your ability to advertise and reach potential customers- you could be advertising for a gun-toting swat team to raid your farm and throw away any uninspected food, raw dairy, or other “hazardous” materials (perhaps a bit ironically, we actually have a neighbor who is on the SWAT team… and has dressed a few birds in their yard when necessary- they have about a dozen hens, and one remaining (from 5 this spring) turkey who lays enormous eggs that their daughters won’t eat). Crazy, right? This actually happens, all the time… http://www.farmtoconsumer.org/farm-raids.html

Even here in the city, small food producers (ice cream and candy makers and caterers to name a few) using licensed and inspected shared commercial kitchen spaces have been raided by the health department for technicalities and had hundreds of pounds of safe, locally-produced and preserved (frozen fruit purees, destroyed in the winter and putting one confectioner out of business until the next growing season- she couldn’t even save the food to bring home to eat herself)… all dumped into trash cans and covered with bleach because they lacked receipts and invoices for this food, which had been bought directly from small organic growers at farmer’s markets. It had never entered the Sysco supply chain, or any other distributor, and thus was labeled contraband. There was nothing wrong with this food until the health department destroyed it. Another tiny-batch ice cream producer (Nice Cream) has had to close up shop until she can find a dedicated ice cream only kitchen, and find some way to reconcile her recipes to the regulations- the fresh, local organic strawberries in one were deemed hazardous (might have E. coli or salmonella!) and the inspector suggested that if she’d replace them with an artificially colored, artificially-flavored, highly processed high-fructose commercial strawberry syrup or puree it would meet the acceptable “food safety” standard. I am not making this up. This stuff makes me furious, and really really sad.

After growing up eating mostly meat raised or hunted on our farm, I became a vegetarian after moving to the city for college- I knew where that dining hall meat came from, and it wasn’t appealing. I held out for awhile before taking the plunge, and wondered aloud to some friends, “Can I be a vegetarian who only eats bacon and ribs?  Because I really like bacon and ribs.”  We all laughed at the absurdity of a “vegetarian” gnawing on pig bones and I said farewell to a few of my favorites for awhile. put PETA stickers on my notebooks, and felt very real nausea at the idea of eating flesh.  I was never an evangelizer though; my least favorite thing about my new diet (which was certainly cheap, healthful, and simplified menu-choices at restaurants for this slow-decider) was the constant need to explain myself.  No one goes around asking omnivores why they eat animals (ok, I know some people probably do) so why should I have to constantly explain why I chose not to?   I stuck with it for four years, during which time while home for holidays my brothers took much delight chasing me around the kitchen, waving bloody steaks and chops in my face, and other good natured forms of ribbing and torture.

“But you still eat chicken, right? Chicken’s not meat.”, said my mother one Thanksgiving early on, grasping at the concept (or rather, what to feed me). Growing up, we bought chicken from the store like everyone else, and ate lots of it- this was after all, in the Ozarks, the poultry capitol, home and headquarters of Tyson, body and belly of the beast, where confinement poultry houses dotted every other hillside (and stank up twice as many). My aunts had worked plucking chickens in high school, and a common refrain and threat was to get good grades or you’d wind up working in a chicken plant (slitting throats, rather than than envelopes in the front office, which is what many hoped to do, and some did, which sounded equally dreadful to me… but I digress).
After tiring a bit in my conviction to not eat anything with a backbone (I broke this rule only for sushi, which I could only very occasionally enjoy- beans and eggs are cheap, handrolls are not), I broke my meat-fast late one night with weakened resolve while hanging out listening to records and drinking beer with a good friend, whose freezer contained only ice cubes and pork potstickers, and so… it seemed like as good a time as any.  They were delicious, and I ate them with soy sauce and perhaps not enough trepidation, for they took their revenge with a wicked belly-ache. The first meat meal I ate after that I prepared for myself with much intention- a cornish game hen, stuffed and roasted on a bed of rice in a covered clay pot. If I was going to eat meat again, I wanted to fully acknowledge the animal origin, and could think of nothing more undeniably carnivorous than dispatching a small whole bird. I carved it mindfully, chewed long, and made soup with the leftovers. I still remember the first burger, weeks later at a barbeque on a friends porch overlooking the beach on the far north side of the city… I still eat a vegetable, grain, and bean-based diet, but use meat and meat products liberally as seasoning and celebrations.  I buy very little but consume quite a bit.  It’s not a perfect world, but it’s alright.

As far as the offal (sounds like she did keep the best bits, heart and liver, after all) I’ll second someone’s suggestion that she add head cheese to her repertoire in the future… I was always skeezed out by the sound of it until we made it in class: garde manger, taught by a rotundish and somewhat stern Frenchman, who could work miracles with pork fat and chicken livers in a robot coupe (“roh-bow-coo” = fancypants food processor), dispatch a side of pork at 6 AM into various components of sausages, sides of bacon, primals and chops, and then carve a fruit into a flower, basket, or birdcage by noon with only a half-hour break for breakfast)… but you do not need to repeat such feats. Homemade souse is as simple as simmering the heads (cleaned and split by your butchers) with spices, straining the broth, chopping the meaty bits which are now fall-off-the-face tender, and putting it all back together again to cool, sans bone.  If you throw the pigs feet in with the head halves, the broth may not even need additional gelatin- hooves are mostly collagen which gives good stock its unctuousness (as are cheeks, snouts, ears… you get the picture- this is rich stuff!).

Actually, even if you don’t make head cheese (time, always more scarce than projects…) or have the time or inclination toward pickled pigs feet, save the trotters to throw in your next batch of stock (or any long-braised meat or bean dish, really) and you will have the most ridiculously rich, almost aspic-thick broth. Then you are only a hot saute pan and a half hour from a delicious dinner: pan sear a pork chop, set it aside, deglaze the pan if you want with some wine or good beer, then ladle in some of that super-stock, simmer for a minute, and finish with cream, mustard, or mushrooms for a fancy but fast dinner that’s easily done for one. Ok, now I’m hungry.

Stock is one of the easiest things to home can if you have a pressure cooker (and you’ll free up a lot of freezer space if you do) and so much better than anything you can buy in ascetic foil boxes at the supermarket. Freeze your bones and vegetable scraps until you have enough saved up for a batch (or until you need your freezer back… whichever happens first), then do up a big batch at a time. Put it all in a big pot, throw in a bay leaf and some whole peppercorns, cover with cold water, and bring it slowly up to a lazy bubble. How long depends on the bones, and whether you want a light or a strong stock, and could be two or many hours. Further complexity comes from roasting some or all of the bones and veggies first. Stock is cheap or almost free to make, fills your home with yummy soup-scents, and is the building block to flavorful stews, sauces, and starches (rice, polenta, and other grains are great prepared with stock instead of all or part of the water)- you’ll be glad to have it in your pantry ready-to-use!

I’ll leave you with some images of our much-missed (move back!) friend Fox slicing his all-day smoked brisket and ribs (shortly before doing a deft deep carve into his fingertip… thankfully, the meat was fine, and the cut was was quickly sanitized, then superglued in lieu of sutures by our resident scout medic).  What a trooper.  In the background is a white pyrex bowl of “meat butter”, softened butter seasoned with ground dried chiles, lime juice, and a bit of the spice rub reserved from the meats- equally amazing on a roll prior to topping with slices of brisket, or on grilled elotes… and the best popcorn topping ever invented.  Enjoy!

Slow food, fair food, and other ponderings…

A friend of mine shared this article on facebook recently… it brings up a current divide in the Slow Food movement about whether “good, clean, and fair food” also must be expensive. Some pit fair wages for farmers against the needs of those on a budget.
http://www.chow.com/food-news/101027/slow-food-usa/

And here’s a response by Slow Food’s president, Josh Viertel, whom I met when I was a youth delegate (youth meaning under thirty, which I was a the time, and delegate meaning we cared enough to get there, and were given spots in the homes of locals to unroll our sleeping bags) at the infinitely inspiring Slow Food Nation event in 2008 that he mentions in the article.  He’s in my notes as “the Yale guy” though the direction he’s taken the organization is not the one that that title might suggest.

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/01/the-soul-of-slow-food-fighting-for-both-farmers-and-eaters/251739/

Edible Gardens in front of City Hall at SFN'08


Three Sisters and the Dome

My thoughts are, you can spend money, or you can spend time. Most people have some of either, or could shift their priorities and make it happen. The trick is making them WANT to make it happen. I’m a member of Slow Food, but only because of their “any gift makes you… a member” campaign, and because I could afford a student membership while in school. I wish the Chicago chapter had more low and no cost events like, say, Madison… about the only events I can afford to attend (or am interested in) are potlucks at the honey coop and whatnot. Expensive dinners downtown? Not in my budget. Unfortunately that’s what most people think slow food is about.

It doesn’t have to be one or the other as the first article suggests… you can support local farmers with fair prices AND eat cheaply. I’ve bought organic wheat for anywhere between forty cents and a dollar a pound by buying bulk 50# bags. You have to buy a mill (get a well-made used one, they last FOREVER) and have a little bit of room to store it, but you get food security (grain in the pantry), food justice (the farmers get the money, not middlemen, and you don’t have to be rich to afford it) AND amazing quality. If you bake no-knead bread, you don’t need a lot of time, skill, or an expensive mixer or bread maker- just an oven safe pot and an oven, about 10 minutes of active time, four ingredients (flour, water, salt and yeast), and a little planning ahead… presto, you now have a $5 loaf (or more) of real bread for pennies.
(one of many excellent how-to’s for this baking technique is here:
http://www.nwedible.com/2011/06/just-what-internet-doesnt-knead.html)

No-Knead Bread (this one with walnut fudge chunks- a fantastic save for a batch of siezed candy)


It’s attainable and as cheap or cheaper than ramen (don’t get me wrong, without ramen I would probably not have made it to adulthood, or at least would be skinner and have lower blood pressure, heh… but homemade whole foods are a much healthier alternative). I’d like to see more inexpensive workshops for this sort of thing as activities. I guess that means, get up and make it happen rather than just talk about it, huh.

Organic arugula (or kale, or lettuce, or whatever) from the store is expensive. Organic greens from your backyard are almost free. Good food does not have to cost a lot, and I’m glad they’re breaking this myth down. Yes, if you want to buy the organic equivalents to processed foods, you will break the bank. Learn some life skills (cooking, growing, buying in bulk, menu planning, food preservation) and you can have a rich diet on a poverty pocketbook.

Another friend raised a very valid point: “but one can’t have a rich diet on a poverty pocketbook without a wealth of knowledge which many folks don’t have access to.”

And this is so true. Most people didn’t grow up on farms with quasi-hippie parents and Rodale Press Home Food System encyclopedias on the shelf. I was baking yeast breads at home (which I learned from books- my mom only made quick breads),… reading about cheesemaking and daydreaming about a dairy cow while the pre-teen next to me on the school bus was reading Seventeen. But you don’t have to be that out-there to figure a lot of this out… you do need knowledge, and access to information. We still have libraries, albeit with shorter hours… but most people aren’t going to do this until someone reaches out and shows them first that it’s possible, and second, why they should bother, and then, how. Organizations like Share our Strength do a good job getting kids into the kitchen and cooking from scratch… I realize that a school system that is struggling to get our kids up to snuff on basic reading and math is hard-pressed to fund Home Economics. One of my resolutions for this year is to reach outside my comfort zone and do more teaching and skill-sharing.

Even when you're living paycheck to paycheck, eating should be hand to mouth (or teat to mouth- notice that this milk is bypassing the bucket)... the less steps between your food's origins and you, the more affordable and healthful it is likely to be.

I’ve been thinking a lot about food access, food justice, and the knowledge gap that keeps most folks with limited means from accessing a healthy diet. There’s a heated debate going on in the local food and urban farming community about the best way to address this problem. Our mayor and some others think that getting local foods and fresh foods into Walmart and Walgreens is the easiest solution to the problem. While, yes, this may help put a bandaid on it in the short term, it won’t solve the root problems of poverty that are the real cause of the problem, and the knowledge gap that prevents people from making healthy choices when they are available and affordable. Local businesses with ownership in the community will be better able to meet the needs of their neighbors and keep scarce dollars flowing in the neighborhood economy. No, not every neighborhood can support a Dill Pickle coop, but there has to be a happy middle ground.
http://www.examiner.com/political-buzz-in-chicago/nutrition-expert-warns-rahm-emanuel-chicago-food-desert-problem-likely-worsening

People need access to resources and educational programming to teach them how to be more self-sufficient. Growing, cooking, and preserving food at home isn’t hard if you know how… these are basic skills our grandparents had, and vital if we’re going to meet the demand for local healthy food and overcome the health problems associated with poor nutrition- obesity and diabetes are serious problems that can only be solved by changing the way we eat.
This is a really good examination of the issue on a national level:

http://www.grist.org/food/2011-12-30-eaters-beware-walmart-is-taking-over-our-food-system