There was a time in the recent past when Americans, even eager carnivores, didn’t like to know where their food came from. Picking up a package of pallid, plastic-wrapped chops or cutlets from the mega-mart, they could rest on the assurance that they’d never see the pasture — or the pen — where their meal spent its day like, well … a pig in shit.
Then came mad cow disease and liberal-guilt food culture. These days, “sourcing” is a buzzword, farms and even slaughterhouses are new hipster food havens, and we have “Top Chef” contestants cuddling the lambs they’re about to cook.
Here in Vermont, the Fresh Network uses its periodic dinners to make connections among food producers, restaurateurs and gourmets. That’s where I got my own wacky idea about how to “respect the protein” — and enjoy some great meals in the process. On November 12, 2008, Richmond’s The Kitchen Table Bistro hosted a Fresh Network meal that featured Herb Stuffed Chicken, Boyden Farm Beef Short Ribs and an Heirloom Tomato-Pork Ragout with Braised Kale Ravioli.
As is the tradition at these dos, the producers introduced themselves along with the food. Erin Buckwalter, 25, and Mike Shepard, 28, who put the meat in the ragout, said this was their first season raising pork at Starksboro’s Mountain View Farm. They mentioned that they were about to bring the last of the year’s pigs to slaughter.
My mind — and stomach — sprang to attention: I would get some of that delightful pig flesh and have my way with it — or perhaps share the pleasure with friends. But it didn’t seem practical to shell out $360 for the privilege of trying to find freezer space for 80 pounds of dead meat. So I came up with a master plan: The Seven Days office needed a mascot. Granted, the porker would no longer be squealing by the time she made it to Burlington, but we would name her, anyway: Daisy, as in our “Best-of” Seven Daysie awards.
I called Mike Shepard and reserved half a pig. Then I sent out an office invite to encourage pig-part participation. Food Editor Suzanne Podhaizer, Music Editor Dan Bolles and Account Executive Michelle Brown all got on board. Unlike me, though, they were not aware of the finer points of piggy anatomy. I printed out an anatomical chart, telling my new comrades in pork to meet me in the Seven Days archive — a room that we fittingly refer to as “the morgue.” Here, the “Pig War Room” commenced. Each armed with a colored pencil, we took turns reserving parts of the animal’s musculature.
The next day, I rose at 7 and headed south to the slaughterhouse. Watching the pig gasp its last wouldn’t be part of the experience — since I am not a licensed butcher, I had to leave the dirty work to professionals. Still, I felt very rugged when I arrived at Royal Butcher in Randolph and helped the blood-soaked behemoth of a butcher maneuver a bisected corpse — alive fewer than 24 hours before — into my hatchback.
Off I went to Sweet Clover Market in Essex, where resident butcher Cole Ward loaded the body onto his worktable. Last year, I apprenticed with him for a week. One of the prime goals of a true gourmet is to have a good relationship with a local butcher. For me, Cole is the man — my Mr. Miyagi of meat. I don’t think anyone else would be able to get me a whole lamb belly in less than a week. And surely no man off the block would let me roll up my sleeves, or assist me in learning to take apart a pig.
Within minutes of unwrapping the beast, my cuts-of-meat chart was bloodstained. “This is a beautiful pig,” marveled Ward.
It was. Meat almost as red as beef stood out starkly against the thinner-than-normal layers of fat. In less than two hours, Ward and I had reduced the animal to slices and scraps. I had even cleaned the vertebrae with a sculptor’s precision, trying to reserve every shred I could for sausage.
Scrubbed clean, but with some congealed blood stuck under my fingernails, I arrived at the office. I felt like a murderous Santa Claus, bearing boxes of meat for my coworkers. What we had not apportioned were the 4 pounds of bone and 8 pounds of pure fat that had once bolstered and cushioned Daisy. Suzanne, who makes her own stock, was happy to give the bones a home. Meghan Dewald, the calendar writer, glowed at the sight of my bags-o’-lard. A serious baker, she thrilled to the idea of rendering it into piecrusts for the Seven Days Christmas party.
I headed home, all excited to get my first taste of sweet Daisy. I already knew I wanted to pair my pork with tiny Eastern European-style dumplings called spaetzle. I freed two chops and set about improvising an all-American smothered pork-chop recipe, with the Vermont-y kick of apples instead of onions.
As the chops hit the pan, I realized olive oil would be unnecessary. Though the meat didn’t look particularly fatty, what lard there was rendered into its own grease. The result was sweet and surprisingly clean tasting. The pig’s apple finish was palpable. The real shock came later. The flesh was so juicy that, even after a satisfying dinner, I continued to salivate.
After tasting our pig, I wanted to know a bit more about its pedigree. So I paid a wintry visit to Mountain View Farm. Apple orchards run alongside the mountainous stretch of road, named for Shepard’s great-grandfather, that leads to the Starksboro farm. Shepard says his heritage pork stock — Tamworths, to be exact — feast on the fallen apples in autumn. In summer, the pigs eschew their organic grain diet to graze on whatever is handy, including compost from The Kitchen Table Bistro — an incestuous food chain if ever there was one.
The old white farmhouse, sitting at the bottom of a steep hill, has been in the Shepard family for seven generations; it pulled Mike back from a career in field biology on the West Coast. He met Buckwalter playing Ultimate Frisbee in Burlington. An heirloom gardener, Buckwalter — former master gardener for the Winooski Community Garden, now chair of the Middlebury Area Community Gardens — admits, “I did not eat meat for many years.” Now, though, she’d rather source flesh than shun it: “I figured I could eat soybeans from Argentina, or I could eat the meat from our own animals.”
It’s easy to see the love between the couple and their remaining sow, Maxine. They enumerate her personality quirks like proud parents of a 2-year-old as Maxine attempts to herd a cow and three calves that all appear to be terrified of her.
The pair hopes the feds will allow the state to enforce Vermont Senate Bill S.322, which would make it possible for them to slaughter on their own farm. An exception to the rigorous USDA slaughterhouse regs would apply only to animals that farmers have contracted to sell to individuals — not commercially. Buckwalter argues, “It seems more respectful to them to slaughter them in their own place.”
Last year, 12 pigs filled the orchards; three were sold commercially, while the rest went in halves or wholes to private buyers like me. I recognized Daisy’s head right away in the photos of the once-living animals. Turns out “she” was actually a boar named Wee Wee Wee. Whoops.
This year, Shepard and Buckwalter plan to sell the meat through community-supported “shares.” Despite last year’s 25 percent rise in the price of organic grain, Mountain View Farm nearly broke even. Business from The Kitchen Table had something to do with that, as did sales to The Bobcat Café. An upcoming beer dinner at The Bobcat will feature Mountain View bacon and blue-hued eggs from the farm’s South American Araucana chickens — available at Mountain Greens Market in Bristol. Look for Mountain View pork at Mary’s at Baldwin Creek later this year, too.
What is it that’s so miraculous about the roasts, chops and ribs made from Daisy and her — er, his — fellow farm denizens? The Kitchen Table Chef Steve Atkins puts it perfectly: “The flavor was incredible. It looked like pig — not ‘the other white meat.’”
Erin Buckwalter explains that in trying to breed the color out in factory animals, “they also bred out the flavor.”
At the Seven Days staff holiday party, Dan’s pulled pork was a lean, smoky hit. Meghan made two pies that might have come from Lancaster County. Suzanne and I have yet to concoct our sausage with Ward’s help; we still have a cheek in the freezer, which will become Italian guanciale in the summer. We did our best to use every part Daisy the Wonder Pig left behind — and, in doing so, honored its delicious memory.