Responding to consumer demand for lower-fat foods, the U.S. pork industry began raising slimmer hogs in the 1980s, touting its refashioned product as “the other white meat.” But lower-fat pork can be bland and dry, and the factory farms that raise hogs by the thousands are inhumane and environmentally destructive. Preference is shifting back toward lusciously fatty pork from pastured pigs, often of heritage breeds that not long ago were in danger of disappearing.
The silly-sounding term pork belly is anatomically correct, referring to a slab of fat-streaked meat from the belly of a pig. Braised pork-belly dishes have long been centerpieces of Asian and Eastern European cuisines but rarely appeared on American menus before the fatty-pork revival. In the U.S., pork bellies were mainly used for one purpose: to make bacon. Seasonal swings in sales, which rose in summer (BLT sandwiches!) and fell off in winter, made bacon an agricultural commodity that figured importantly on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. As Ralph Bellamy condescendingly explains to Eddie Murphy in the 1983 comedy Trading Places, investors bought futures on frozen pork bellies when the market was down, anticipating its climb back up when the time came to sell. But by the turn of the 21st century, Americans’ hunger for bacon had expanded along with their waistlines. They were yearning for the smoky, greasy, salty, crunchy comestible year-round, in everything from summer salads to winter soups, even trying it in ice cream. That trend caused the market for pork belly futures to go belly-up in 2011, when the Chicago exchange—epicenter of futures trading in agricultural commodities—took the pig’s paunch off its menu.
Americans are pigging out on bacon—consuming, on average, about 18 pounds per person per year. And they’re no longer confining the meat to the breakfast plate or the occasional cheeseburger. Entire cookbooks are devoted to it, offering recipes for using bacon in every course of the day’s meals. Several internet emporia and at least one brick-and-mortar shop (New York City’s Baconery) are dedicated to bacon-flavored edibles, ranging from treats many carnivores may find weird but tempting (bacon brownies) to products likely to appeal only to the most bacon-obsessed (bacon-flavored soda and lollipops). Bacon mania isn’t confined to foodstuffs, either; if you can overcome the ick factor, you may even consider bacon-enhanced dental floss or sexual lubricant.
When it comes to bacon, will enough ever be enough? LA Weekly blogger Elina Shatkin posed that question in a 2011 review of a local food truck, Get Your Lardon. The establishment’s punning name alludes to the strips of pig fat used to keep meats moist while roasting. “Even excess,” Shatkin wrote, “has to pause once in a while, lift up those triple chins and take a hard look in the mirror. Does Los Angeles need a bacon truck? Does the world?”
TThere’s no denying that animal fat tastes good. Before concerns about cholesterol led people to choose lean meat, marbled cuts—its muscle tissue richly interspersed with fat—had always been preferred. The fat not only imparts flavor, it also prevents the meat from drying out when it’s cooked. As far back as the Middle Ages, European cooks larded meat, adding fat to baste it internally when braising or roasting. Bacon can serve the purpose, but the better choice is fatback, which, as its name betrays, comes from the back of a pig and is almost entirely fat. Larding is enjoying a comeback, and truly trendy cooks have mastered the larding needle, a tool for threading strips of fatback through a roast. Those fat strips are known by their French name, lardons; in France lardons turn up in numerous dishes, including cassoulet and coq au vin.
Fatback is also rendered to make lard, a pure form of pig fat, which, in the wake of scares about the health dangers of hydrogenated vegetable shortening (trans fats), is likewise enjoying a revival. But lard from fatback isn’t as desirable as another form, leaf lard, made from the fat surrounding a pig’s internal organs.
Fatback, from which lardons are cut, is subcutaneous fat—it’s right under the pig’s skin. When you buy a slab of fatback, it may still have the skin (referred to as the rind) attached. If so, you’re in luck: You can fry up the rind to make the scrumptious snacks known, variously, as cracklings, fried pork rinds or, in Spanish, chicharrones. Although larding meat is in vogue, pork rinds, especially the commercial products available in supermarket snack-food aisles, have always been rather down-market. When George H.W. Bush claimed pork rinds were his favorite snack, many suspected the patrician-seeming president was touting the vending-machine staple in a clueless attempt to prove he was “just folks.”
The thought of eating pig hide appalls some people (a few of whom, no doubt, relish the skin on crisply fried chicken). And the health ramifications of eating greasy, salty fried pork rinds put off many. But while these snacks are generally much higher in sodium than other snack foods, they are extremely low in carbs—unlike potato or tortilla chips—and much of the fat they contain is either unsaturated or the kind of saturated fat associated with LDL (“good” cholesterol).
Merely curing your own bacon or joining a bacon-of-the-month club does not get you far up the ladder of foodie trendiness these days. You’ll have to apply yourself harder, perhaps by enrolling in one of those classes in whole-hog butchering that are popping up around the country, especially in its hipper precincts (the Pacific Northwest, the San Francisco Bay area, Brooklyn). That largish numbers of urban Americans might want to spend their leisure time butchering their own meat would have been unthinkable as recently as the early 2000s, but learning to carve up animals (not just pigs, but cows and sheep as well) has become a nearly de rigueur rite of passage among the food forward—not counting, of course, the vegans. But let us not scoff. Hands-on butchering is a natural extension of the movement to reconnect people with the food they eat and to reconnect that food—animal or vegetable—to traditional, sustainable modes of agriculture. To that end, the carcass you encounter in a hog-butchering class is likely to have been pastured instead of grain-fed and, possibly, to belong to one of the heritage breeds of swine that small, nonindustrial farms have rescued from extinction.
The pig (Sus scrofa) was one of the earliest animals domesticated, about 11,000 years ago. Communal roasts of adult or suckling pigs date far back in history and are common across cultures from the ancient Chinese to the present-day Cajun. There is more than one way to roast a pig—you can skewer it on a spit, lay it across a grill or place it, with hot coals, in a pit dug in the ground, as Hawaiians have traditionally done—but the result is always greasy-fingered social harmony. The contemporary craze for eating high, low and everywhere on the hog has begotten a more elaborate pig-centered shindig: Cochon 555, an annual cross-country gastronomic competition culminating in the Grand Cochon (French for “big pig”) cook-off in Aspen, Colorado, where one crowd-pleasing chef is crowned the King or Queen of Porc. At each stop of the multicity tour leading up to the finale, five chefs use pigs of five different heritage breeds to prepare a snout-to-tail menu of porcine delectables accompanied by vintages from five winemakers. The festival promotes the family farms that raise heritage breeds and, not incidentally, glamorizes hog butchers, too.
People who go hog wild for pig butchering are the sort likely to describe themselves as snout-to-tail carnivores. They’re determined, in other words, to treat the entire animal, or as much of it as can be eaten, as good food. That means not forgoing the “nasty bits”: the ears (crisply delicious when deep-fried); the cheeks (fork-tender when braised); the trotters (surprisingly delicate when pickled); and all the edible innards—heart, liver, kidneys, even intestines. (Caveat: Processing the intestines, better known as chitterlings or chitlins, may present a challenge to even the least squeamish cooks.)
But of all the culinary treasures a pig’s gut contains, the most valued may be the soft, visceral fat surrounding the kidneys and other internal organs. When rendered, this fat produces leaf lard, prized by cooks for its high smoke point and by bakers for the superb flakiness it lends piecrusts and biscuits. Ordinary lard, rendered from hard, subcutaneous fat from fatback and other near-the-skin trimmings, is also good for frying and likewise trumps butter for pastry making. But leaf lard is the best. It’s also expensive and hard to find, though nowadays it’s being purveyed by an increasing number of heritage-hog producers.