Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Meat Meet!

Over the weekend of March 25, I attended the Carolina Meat Conference and met a bunch of great folks, talked up the pastured pork project (here's a video link to my endeavors, for the uninitiated), and generally confirmed for my self that - yes- studying pigs and pork across the Carolinas is a worthy endeavor. Imagine my relief.

Among the many events I participated in, the most engaging and performative (showing, not just telling!) were the butchery programs.  The Butcher's Guild was founded by Marissa Guggiana and Tia Harrison

both from the Bay Area, and both of them were on hand to co-ordinate a butchery class for novices and home chefs.  

Here's a link to Tia teaching us how to extract a pork shoulder. And here I saw off a pork shank.

I also had some great conversations with Tia and Marissa about the limitations of processing facilities, the perilous grip of food aggregators on small farmers and meat purveyors, and the prohibitive costs of land in Northern California, all of which conspire to make locally raised pork and beef extremely difficult to find, even in that mecca of foodiedom.  Marissa and Tia were great to talk with, and I look forward to getting back to San Francisco to check out their food.
The other exceptional culinary experience was meeting Craig Deihl, executive chef at Cypress in Charleston SC. (and current James Beard finalist for Best Chef in the Southeast).  I knew of Craig, because he had been working with the ALBC on developing a "cook sheet" for the American Guinea Hog - that is, a chef's guide to how to utilize each part of this animal.  Indeed, the ALBC is currently carrying out a swine initiative, which will entail developing a definition of Heritage Breed Swine, and profiles of seven other breeds of pig.

In addition to demonstrating some mad knife skillz (disassembling an entire lamb carcass for the crowd, 

as well as boning out an entire half-pig for the professional chefs – including this demonstration of how to turn a ham into multiple cuts for either charcuterie, or profitable restaurant portion, sirloin cuts) Deihl also brought with him an array of unbelievably good charcuterie.  His pork butter is simultaneously ethereal and gutsy.  It's a bit like rillettes, but rather than using all pork shoulder- itself a pretty inexpensive cut – Deihl takes fat back, renders it for lard, and then saves the bits and pieces of intrafat muscle (not exactly cracklin, more like streak o' lean in old-timey salt pork), and melts them down. He then roasts garlic and rosemary, adds them to the meat trimmings, and whips the whole concoction together with fluffy lard.  It is ridiculously good – salty, creamy, meaty depth of flavor. Wow. Craig regaled me with stories of how to extract the maximum use out of a whole hog, and tracing his interests in this kind of cooking back to his early interests in taking apart and rebuilding junker cars.  "The Art of Transformation", as he put it, turning otherwise useless matter – like the scraps of meat in render lard – into pure gold (like that pork butter) Here, Craig bones out a whole pork loin for the chefs.

The organizers of the conference – Casey McCissick and Jennifer Curtis with the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, and NC Choices, did a really fine job of putting together a compelling program.  The opening discussion of the relationship between meat producers and processors hit on some of the most difficult issue facing our food system today.  And the afternoon discussion of the Ethics of Marketing, which touched on questions of transparency and certification, was highly informative, and contentious in a very productive way.  Do you want a third party to certify the quality of the meat you consume?  Does a USDA label certifying that the meat you're buying is organic make a difference to you? Are these labels simply arbitrary criteria that the most powerful interests in the market use to drive smaller competitors out of business? Or do they assure some measure of quality control for consumers who might otherwise have no way of knowing anything about the food they eat? If you can meet your farmer, visit their farm, touch their animals – great. That's a wonderful way of developing trust, and assuring some kind of quality in your food.  But what about the consumers – still the overwhelming majority of us – who can't take the time or have the inclination to gather this information?  Can third party certifications – like those from the Animal Welfare Institute, or RAFI – the Rural Advancement Foundation International - help assure healthy food, sound environments, and workers' right?  How can we trust the very certification processes that are meant to generate trust? These aren't easy questions to answer, but the discussion had the room rocking.

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