Welcome to the Mercury's Pork Issue, a celebration of all things edible and porcine, from ham hocks to bacon-topped donuts.
Why devote an entire issue to pork, you might be wondering. Is it because pork is the only meat that can also be used as a verb? Am I that immature? Do I want Portland's entire vegan community jumping down my throat? No, maybe, and please, not again.
There are a number of reasons for celebrating the pig. In fact, once you start thinking about pork, it's hard to stop. Half the vegetarians I know lust after bacon; piggies pack some serious cultural and religious significance; and, as Le Pigeon's Gabriel Rucker put it: "Every cook loves the pig." Chefs love pork both for its flavor—the flavor of the fat, in particular, can be remarkably expressive—and for its versatility: Every part of the pig can be consumed, from the snout down to its curly little tail.
Rucker is known for featuring some less common cuts of meat on Le Pigeon's menu, like pig tails and trotters, but he balks at the notion that he's doing anything particularly innovative: "America is just so far behind. I'm not breaking any boundaries, I'm just doing what people in Europe have been doing for years."
But America hasn't always been so pork ignorant.
According to Ben Dyer of the incomparable Viande Meats and Sausage, charcuterie (the general term for smoked or processed meat specialties, usually pork, like pâté or salami) originated when meat was a scarce commodity, because "people didn't have the luxury of using the prime cuts and leaving the rest." People ate the parts of the animal they could afford.
Eventually, with the evolution of industrial farming, it became easier and cheaper to mass-produce meat, and so-called "prime" cuts of meat got cheaper too. Suddenly, middle-class Americans could afford to have pork chops for dinner—and offal (what we think of as the weird bits of the animal, like intestines, brains, cheeks, tails...) fell out of favor: Several subsequent generations of Americans grew up thinking of "pork" as "pork chops," something you buy pre-packaged and shrink wrapped.
Now, though, "nose-to-tail eating" is coming back in vogue (ironically, as a luxury meat for which people pay a premium), and the pig's versatility makes it the perfect mascot for the movement.
Dyer broke it down for me. Every few weeks, Viande receives a whole pig from Laughing Stock Farm (an organic farm in Eugene that also provides meat for Alice Waters' Chez Panisse in Berkeley.) The entire pig is then used, and it goes something like this: The head is brined for head cheese; sausage is made from the shoulders; pork chops and roast are made from the pork loin; the skin is made into lard; the leg becomes prosciutto; the ham hocks (the lower part of the back legs) are smoked; and the pork belly is cured for panchetta or bacon. Not only are these many pork products totally delicious, but they also make the pig a poster animal for sustainability: The more meat you can get from one pig, the fewer pigs you need to slaughter.
Like half the people in this town, I used to be a vegetarian. Now that I eat meat, I try to be conscientious about where the meat I purchase comes from. I have my lapses—moments where through laziness or dire financial straights or because I'm drunk at a Taco Bell, I end up eating some seriously sub-par shit—but for the most part, it's possible and even easy to be a conscientious meat eater in Portland, thanks in part to the ubiquitous pig. Chefs love cooking pigs, and I love eating them. A marriage made in heaven.