The Way Forward
Smoking out industrial hog production
Has industrial pig farming ruined traditional North Carolina barbecue?
The New York food writer Jim Leff--founder of chowhound.com and a man whom I have seen eye a pulled-pork platter with a fervor a religious fanatic might reserve for a beloved icon--says no. Leff once told me he thought it was ridiculous that a certain restaurateur insists on using Niman Ranch pork, from heritage-breed pigs raised on small farms without industrial inputs, at his high-toned Manhattan BBQ joint.
Barbecue is about taking the cheapest cuts of pork and turning them into something sublime, Leff told me, or something to that effect.
I see his point. Surely, it's sacrilege that BBQ has turned into the latest Manhattan status food, complete with $20/plate price tags and accompanying wine lists. BBQ is working people's food, and yes, it must never live high on the hog. The barbecue cut par excellence is the shoulder--or, put more bluntly, the butt. Yes, the pork butt.
But must the butt--the pork butt--have no pedigree? Must we lovers of NC BBQ submit to the awful and growing hegemony of Smithfield Foods, that farmer-destroying, flavor-killing, environment-befouling, labor-exploiting profit machine? Does one have to go to Manhattan and sit among tedious Wall Streeters to get smoked pork that isn't raised in filthy crowded pens and pumped full of hormones, antibiotics, and genetically modified, mass-produced, and highly subsidized corn?
And here is the blind spot of Leff's argument. Fifty years ago, virtually all pork arrived to the pitmaster in Niman-approved fashion: it was produced on tiny farms and fed on forage, garden culls, and kitchen slop. Today 70 percent of pork is produced under contract with giants like Smithfield, meaning under tremendous pressure to pump out as much meat as possible as cheaply as possible. Not so long ago, small farms accounted for nearly all pork production; today, the USDA reports, small farms contribute just 11 percent of the nation's pork. The nation's 18-largest hog farms pump out an eye-popping 25 percent of the pork we consume.
As late as 1967, the US supported more than a million hog farms; by 2000, the number had plunged to under 100,000, even as pork consumption inched up more than 1 percent per year.
Here in North Carolina, an explosion in hog production has been accompanied by the economic slaughter of hog farmers.
In 1986, the state boasted 15,000 hog farmers and about 2.4 million hogs. By 2000, about 9.6 million hogs called North Carolina home, the vast majority of them stuffed into confinement pens. The number of hog farmers had tumbled to 3,600. (Source: North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.)
Who benefits from such trends? Well, Smithfield does, if its stock chart is any indication. (Note that its share price soared by a factor of nearly 10 between 1990 and 2000.)
Among the many losers I would place we aficionados of North Carolina barbecue, my esteemed friend Leff included. In short, I argue that barbecue must have tasted better before corporate hatchetmen hijacked hog production. These people have designed hog breeds to maximize meat yield at the expense of flavor--and their market dominance means that nearly every BBQ shack from Wilson to Memphis uses industrially raised pork.
At the same time, I join Leff in deploring the yuppification of 'cue.
I have seen a way out of this dilemma.
I'm somewhat ashamed--though not overly so--that the lightening bolt came to me in the form of Gourmet Magazine, specifically its July 2005 issue. There you'll find a profile of Ed Mitchell, a well-known pitmaster located in that far-eastern North Carolina BBQ mecca, Wilson. (Unhappily, I haven't sampled NC barbecue east of Lexington--yet.)
Until recently, Mitchell ran a renowned eponymous BBQ joint in Wilson; like his competitors, he paid little attention to the quality of the pork he bought. But then something happened. Here is the Gourmet article:
[Mitchell] had never thought of the inferiority of factory-farmed pork until, in the spring of 2003, he cooked a hog that had bred to be succulent instead of lean, a hog that had spent much of its life in pasture, eating sweet-potato culls and field corn. 'That pork knocked me down,' Wilson recalls. 'it tasted like the barbecue I knew from the tobacco days: juicy and full of flavor. I knew that was the pork my grandfather ate all his life. I knew that was the old-fashioned pork we lost when near about everybody went industrial.'
So now Wilson, an African-American, is working with small-scale African-American pork farmers in his area to identify a pork breed and develop a raising protocol that can produce pork worthy of the smoking pit. He wants to create a small chain of barbecue joints that will buy directly from those farmers and produce 'cue that would have pleased Mitchell's grandfather, at prices that may be a bit higher than average, but well within reach of working folks. At the same time, he'd like to train a new generation of pitmasters to sustain the craft of slow-smoking meat.
The article says that Wilson has signed a development and marketing deal with North Carolina A&T, an historically black college in Greensboro.
Here lies the way forward, a chance to support great food, struggling farmers, and culinary populism all at once. I am encouraged that John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, penned the Gourmet piece. I hope he'll throw any institutional power he wields behind the effort. If the US branch of Slow Food is to have any relevance, than the effort to revive real barbecue, while at the same time giving small farmers a key lifeline, must rise to the fore of its agenda.
The Gourmet article hints that Mitchell's project may be fragile, in danger of collapse. That's not surprising; sustainable ag requires a commitment not just from farmers and food professionals, but from society as a whole, including government--a commitment that, outside of an elite of well-heeled, status-conscious consumers, is almost wholly lacking.
Mitchell's is the sort of effort that can expose the link between delicious food and a vibrant small-scale farm economy.
Note: Jim Leff responded to my post; I have pasted his response below to give it more prominence. Look for my rejoinder soon. --T.P.
"Leff once told me he thought it was ridiculous that a certain restaurateur insists on using Niman Ranch pork, from heritage-breed pigs raised on small farms without industrial inputs, at his high-toned Manhattan BBQ joint."
Hmm...if you say so, I'm sure I said this in some context. And I'm glad if discussion of the issue helped spur some insights. But this isn't actually how I feel - about food in general or about that particular Manhattan BBQ joint.
I've eaten food made from crap ingredients where the final result tasted so ecstatically delicious I was made to gasp. And I've gasped over food made from fussy foodie fixings (FFF's), as well. Ingredients are irrelevant, really. Unless you're eating a single raw ingredient (i.e. gnawing on an artichoke), all that truly matters is the skill, care, and touch of the chef. I'd vastly prefer soup made by a loving genius from canned supermarket ingredients to soup made from FFFs by someone just going through the motions. This might sound reverse-snobbish, but it's not.
If a chef feels the need to pour 1959 Chateau Lafite into the stock to give it that certain oomph (and someone else is footing the bill), I'm all for giving that chef what s/he thinks is needed. But same if the secret ingredient is Jiffy Peanut Butter. I don't take a materialistic view; ingredients don't interest me. Great cooking is more than the sum of its parts, and I aim to live entirely in that margin.
By the same token, I'm never impressed with glib adjectives or pandering to status...though that, too, could be mistaken for a reverse-snobbish attitude.
The place you're talking about is Blue Smoke, a barbecue restaurant run by Danny Meyer (of Gramercy Tavern and Union Square Cafe). They use blue chip provisions, and the chef is a fancy trained fellow, not some backwater 'cue meister. The result doesn't taste like folkloric 'cue; the meat is infinitely more subtle and rich, and everything's extremely refined...and there's soul to the food and I deem it delicious. It's not "authentic", but who cares? It's just another manifestation of deliciousness.
And it's Blue Smoke's deliciousness that impresses me, not its refinement in and of itself. Refinement is merely a parameter. The spectrum from sophisticated refinement to guileless simplicity is horizontal, not vertical, and there are peak experiences (and soulless crap) to be found at every point of that spectrum.
Both snobs and reverse snobs miss good stuff, and I strive to be a universal receiver for every manifestation of treasure (there's so little of it, we mustn't disregard an iota!).
--Jim Leff, chowhound.com