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High on the Hog 



The pig first evolved in Asia around two and one half million years ago before extending its habitat north into Russia and Japan and west into India, Mongolia, Central Asia, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and eventually into Europe. Fossil remains of the earliest swine indicate there existed both pigs with a vegetarian diet and those with a decidedly more omnivorous palate, which sometimes included carrion and humans. This unscrupulous scavenging undoubtedly contributed to the pig’s unfortunate reputation even at the dawn of civilization—although they existed in Ancient Egypt, there are no paintings of pigs to be found in Egyptian tomb paintings—and subsequent banishment from the Jewish and Muslim diet. The pig, a member of the Suidae family, encompasses 16 species of pigs and hogs in eight genera, including the modern domestic pig—Sus scrofa or Sus domesticus. Generally, pigs are divided into two races—the white, so-called Celtic pigs, which include all of the familiar northern European and American pigs, and the black such as the iberico. The fat of the black pig is naturally rich in monosaturates and when fed the right diet combined with exercise, it develops a lot of intramuscular fat which makes for tasty meat. White pigs lack this propensity for both intramuscular fat and monosaturates.

The whole hog
Despite popular conjecture, snout-to-tail eating (that is, utilizing all parts of the pig for food) is not something that current locavores, slow foodies, the environmentally conscious set, or the new generation of farmers have recently discovered. Ancient Romans were joyous ingestors of pig; some bits—such as pig vulvas and teats (no account of patrician Roman banquets fails to mentions these)—are still too racy for today’s porcine renaissance. Ancient Greek culinary repertoire indicates the allantoupoles or specialist prepared dishes like roast suckling pig, fattened on grapes and stuffed with herbs that are quite similar to modern charcuterie. The modern meat eating world of post-industrial America can lay claim to the ignominious fact of being the first of several generations disdainful of whole pig (or cow or sheep or goat, for that matter), opting for luxury cuts of chop, cutlet, loin, round, brisket, butt—cuts cited as least flavorful.

Snout-to-tail eating, championed by several Hudson Valley farmers and chefs, favors a world view that is one part environmental—“eating the whole animal is certainly a smaller footprint,” says Rich Reeve of Elephant wine and tapas bar in Kingston—and one part economical; obscure cuts are less desired, and thus less expensive. Nearly every single farmer and chef swoons over pig fat.  “Pork fat rules,” says Reeve. “The Chinese call pig belly the ‘five layers of heaven’ because it is meat-fat-meat-fat-skin.” Roasted pig bellies are really popular at the Country Inn in Krumville, according to chef Spencer Mass. Chef Rei Peraza, executive chef at the Rhinecliff Hotel, loves pig fat for its flexibility.  “Cure it, slice it paper-thin, and serve it over anything, warm toast, a piece of scallop,” he says. “Pig fat’s melting point offers great mouth feel in pates and sausages. Braised pork belly has awesome richness and depth of flavor.” Josh Applestone, owner/butcher at Fleisher’s Grass-fed and Organic Meats in Kingston, favors pigs’ feet slow cooked “forever and ever so they become beautiful globs of fat and skin.” Jeffrey Gimmel of Swoon Kitchenbar in Hudson salt-cures pig belly first, then confits it in duck fat for hours so the belly “ends up incredibly luxurious and succulent.”

Inherent in snout-to-tail is the old-fashioned prudent fiscal ethos, creative in a pioneering, intelligent manner and the antithesis of consumerist reliance on replacement instead of imaginative and alternative use. Farmer Carol Clement of Heather Ridge Farm in Preston Hollow says that historically, pigs were essential for providing fresh meat, meat for curing, and versatile pig fat to preserve meat or make soap. “New trend? Hardly,” says farmer Denise Warren of Stone and Thistle Farm in East Meredith. “The rest of the world has been eating the whole animal for centuries. Only gluttonous Americans have the luxury of eating the chops and not worrying where the rest of the animal goes.”

“Complete pigs offer such a variety of flavors, textures, and techniques, making for a true gastronomic experience,” says Peraza. “The history of pigs within different cultures offers an interesting look into the survival of these cultures. What would we have done without the pig, salt, and fermentation?” Chef Josephine Proul of Local 111 in Philmont recalls her grandfather’s post-holiday tradition of “putting whole leftover hambones into the meat sauce and brewing it for hours on the stove until the meat was all stripped away from the bone and the sauce was meaty and rich.” At Swoon, headcheese terrine and guanciale (jowl) terrine appear regularly on the menu, and Gimmel sources local because “of the real joy in having to buy the entire hog, not just one or two prime cuts. Figuring out how to utilize and make every last piece delicious is a labor of love.” The curious gastronome might readily venture forth into uncharted pig territory at a restaurant but the implementation of snout-to-tail eating at home lags behind. “Pig trotters are not in mainstream demand, although we do get a lot of culinary kids asking for the off-parts,” says Fleisher’s Applestone. “We need people who are not afraid to try pig’s ears or cheeks. Don’t yuck the yum until you’ve tried it. In our store, no one’s allowed to yuck the yum.”

Speaking of...

  • Karin Ursula Edmondson reports on the regional pork renaissance.

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