Ronnie Suburban’s Not so Hog Wild

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March 17, 2010 at 4:36 pm

Editor’s note: One of the best ways to ensure a supply of local meat is to go whole hog or at least half-a-hog.  We know, however, that things do not always work as imagined.  Learn from Ron “Ronnie Suburban” Kaplan’s experience described below.

When a friend suggested that we share a locally-raised Berkshire hog and that he would make all the arrangements – including delivering my portion directly to my door – I jumped at the chance.  I’ve been dabbling in charcuterie for several years and had become more than eager for such an opportunity.  But the idea of approaching a local farmer directly intimidated me, for some irrational reason.  Perhaps it was due to the fact that in my job selling ingredients to large-scale food manufacturers, small customers are generally viewed as nuisances.  The last thing I wanted to do was become a nuisance myself to some dedicated local farmer who, if not for being inconvenienced by my puny order, could be busy doing far more important work.

In addition to getting some stellar, nearly-legendary meat, I would also be buying locally, which was a nice, added bonus.  Supporting the production of local food isn’t always as easy for me as I wish it were.  Living in the far northern suburbs of Chicago – with booked-up weekends – and having a full-time, Monday to Friday job, opportunities to buy local don’t always come a’knocking.  While I’ve purchased a CSA (community supported agriculture) share and try to buy local whenever I can, many of the best opportunities for locally-produced foodstuffs are just too far off the beaten path for me to enjoy with frequency.

A couple of weeks before the delivery date, the farmer sent me a fairly detailed, multi-page order form, asking me to specify my butchering preferences.  Seeing such detailed questions helped set my expectations.  In filling out the form, I did my best to communicate my preferences, explaining – in the margins beyond the provided blanks – that I wanted everything as minimally-processed as possible:  skin on, bones in, parts whole.  A follow-up e-mail from the farmer gave me a reassuring opportunity to answer a few questions pertaining to details about which I wasn’t particularly fluent or articulate.

As I awaited the delivery, I wondered what the outcome would be when I applied my well-tested recipes and methods to such distinctive, high-quality pork.  Would the sausages, bacon and pates that I’d made so many times taste different, better?  Would the items I’d never made before end up being worth the effort?  I certainly hoped so, and as the fateful date approached, I brushed up on my notes and recipes, restocked my supply of casings, curing salts, starter cultures and other supporting ingredients, and made sure that I had plenty of storage room for the bounty that I was about to receive.  I knew I’d be getting close to 100 pounds of assorted pig parts and – in the old-world tradition – I planned to work through as much of it as I could on the day it arrived.  I had a friend on-call who had agreed to help me.  Once the goods showed up, I’d call him and he’d be at my house 30 minutes later to help.

However, the reality was not really close to what I’d expected.  So many of my requests to the farmer had gone unfulfilled.  First, instead of fresh pork, which the farmer offered to provide, everything was frozen solid (I advised my on-call friend to go enjoy his Saturday).  Frozen meat meant, of course, that I’d have to thaw it just to work with it – and keep it frozen until I was ready.  Ironically, the one space I didn’t clear out was my freezer, so I immediately had to scramble to do so.  As I sorted through the parts, I was repeatedly disappointed by what I encountered.

Both the belly and the ham had been skinned, and the long bone in the ham had been cut off, along with the shank.  Since I’d planned on dry-curing the ham, the absence of the skin and the extra section of bone were real blows.  And since I hot-smoke my bacon, the missing skin on the bellies would make it more likely that they’d curl up during smoking.  The skin generally protects the belly from such peril and also prevents the exterior of the belly from drying out or becoming too hard while smoking.

What I learned after the fact is that the farmer had sent the hog to a processor that was not set up to scald the skin.  As such, they completely skinned it instead.  Of course, I wish this had been communicated to me by the farmer at some earlier point in the process.  All those pages and subsequent questions and still, it wasn’t until after the delivery was made that I learned that some of my basic requests were never even possible.  That’s frustrating, to say the least.

But other, more-easily-managed requests were also ignored.  The shoulder had also been cut into several small sections, rather than being left intact, as I’d requested.  Given the fact that ignoring this particular request actually required more work than honoring it, this was especially perplexing. Instead of being left as a whole slab, spare ribs were curiously cut into almost-useless, 3-rib-mini-slabs.  Similarly, country-style ribs were cut as single ribs.  No portion of the head or trotters was provided.  There was no liver or tripe.  I received one kidney, along with portions of the heart and tongue.  Hocks, oddly, were split into 3 sections that were left partially attached to each other – again more work than simply leaving it whole, as I’d requested.

On the positive side, the meat was truly delicious.  Double-cut pork chops (one request that was honored) were well-marbled, had a nice amount of fat on the outside and were succulent – both on the grill and in the oven.  Fresh Italian sausage I made from some of the scraps I received was remarkably flavorful.  Bacon turned out very well, too, with only minimal curling.  I was also able to render nearly a quart of leaf lard out of the portions of fat that contained it.  As for the ham, I decided to give it a go without the skin.  After a several day dry-cure in salt, I now have it hanging in netting – since there is no bone from which to hang it – and am hoping for the best.

So, all in all it was a mixed experience.  My total cost was just under $270.  Even though the yield was significantly smaller than the hanging weight, considering the high quality of the meat – and the chance to support local producers (both farmer and processor) – the cost was completely reasonable.  My regular butcher carries very good pork and this Berkshire was no pricier than what he sells.  On the other hand, his pork is raised in Iowa, which isn’t much less local than Wisconsin, where our hog was raised.  His standard cuts are more recognizable and he fulfills customer requests with a religious-like devotion.

In the end, while I may not have placed a nuisance order, the net result was about the same.  I say this because I felt like it was not a natural or easy fit between myself and the providers.  The large gaps between us left me feeling less than satisfied with the experience, and made me feel that my needs simply could not be met.  I’m certain that in order to make this supply line eventually work, I’ll have to make some adjustments.  But I’m equally sure that if local providers truly hope to reach the full capacity of their potential market, they’ll have to do the same.

I haven’t given up, though, and will go at this again very soon.  Next time around, however, I plan to research and question the processor much more thoroughly.  And even if it means purchasing the hog and hiring the processor separately, that’s what I’ll do.  I’ve already obtained a few promising leads from friends who’ve been down this path, so I’m hopeful that I can get what I want out of future transactions.  For those who are content buying their meat from unknown sources at the grocery, all this must seem beyond ridiculous.  But for those who share my passion for food and cooking – and who desire the very best ingredients available – this is what we do, and the extra steps are not a burden but actually a labor of love.

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3 Comments

  1. Mark Mendez says:

    For what it’s worth I am the executive chef of a 600 seat restaurant and I still can’t get my pork butchered the way I want either. The processing facilities most of the farmers use usually remove the skin so and jowl meat for some reason.You also can’t get innards most of the time. The only way around this is buying whole hogs but we don’t have the facilities to butcher 10 hogs a week so we have to buy primal cuts. Some of this is also the farmer being a farmer and not a butcher. It has taken years for us to get some of the things we have wanted and some we just can’t. We actually buy pig skin from one farmer and pork from another, kinda silly but sometimes this is how things work out. There are no easy answers, part of working with local farmers is dealing with these issues, sometimes improving them, sometimes accepting them. Buying local meat will always be challenging because they don’t have the processing facilities of Smithfield or Hormel. It is still very much a work in progress to get the farmers to understand the needs of the chef, let alone the consumer.Even though we have come very far there is still a ways to go. To be honest though, while frustrating at times, it is still part of dealing with these problems that I enjoy. These little things are what make working with local farmers enjoyable, there is always a new challenge to overcome or deal with, and as a chef I have learned to very flexible and understanding especially if the quality is worth it. These challenges are even more pronounced for the individual consumer, and frozen meat is definitely the norm. As more people embrace local eating and demand becomes higher maybe these issues will work themselves out, at least I hope so.

  2. Brad Moldofsky says:

    Thanks for a well-detailed story, Ron. Hearing about someone else’s difficulties and hassles can be more instructive than hearing about an easy success.

  3. Ronnie says:

    Thanks, Brad, for the kind comments.

    Chef Mark: I very appreciate your insight and perspective. While it makes me feel better to know that I’m not alone with these issues, it’s also a bit discouraging that even someone with your volume can’t get it done the way they want. Hopefully, as I mentioned in the piece and as you say, this conduit will become more user-friendly as it continues to develop. I haven’t taken on another hog yet but I hope to do so this fall.

    =R=

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