I was preparing to grind meat for sausages yesterday and for the second time in two weeks called my local Whole Foods for pork shoulder (aka pork butt) only to be told there wasn't any.
That's not a problem any more. We are so used to the local Whole Foods not having what we need that my wife has written into our address book the phone numbers for all three Whole Foods located here in the District of Columbia.
We're not dummies. We don't drive around looking for stuff. We use the phone. In fact, if I get to Whole Foods and can't find something, I just park myself at the "customer service" desk and ask a clerk to make the calls.
Last week when the nearest Whole Foods didn't have pork shoulder I found it at the store about three miles away. No big deal. They packed it up and had it waiting for me.
But this week, none of the Whole Foods stores had pork shoulder.
"They (meaning the local distribution center) never delivered any," said the meat clerk who answered the phone at one of the stores. "This has been happening for years. It doesn't matter if we order something. If they don't have it, they just don't bring it. They don't tell us they're not bringing it and they never give an explanation. It's just a mystery and it's very frustrating."
Frustrating for the meat clerk. I, meanwhile, am pulling my hair out. I can't make sausages without pork shoulder. I had to call the local Safeway, where the butcher (I'm being generous with the term) not only had pork shoulder, but trimmed it off the bone for me and put it aside under my name.
Sometimes I forget how friendly the people can be at our poor, old, run-down neighborhood Safeway.
My disappointment is that the pork at Safeway is the kind raised in a dim, stinky corporate factory, "the other white meat" bred to contain as little fat as possible and consequently missing what I am ultimately looking for: the flavor of pork.
Whole Foods, meanwhile, carries the Niman Ranch brand of pork, a beast that has been raised by independent farmers to be fat and happy in a more outdoor setting. Just by virtue of not having the fat bred out of it, and being allowed to live its life more like a pig and less like a hamster, the Niman Ranch pork has more flavor.
Which raises the question: Why in the world would the meat department at Whole Foods be out of pork shoulder in the first place? Other than perhaps the cheeks or the shanks, cuts you rarely see for sale to the public outside restaurants and specialty butcher shops, the shoulder is the most flavorful part of the pig. It's a standard item--or at least it used to be.
Yet a stroll along the typical meat counter these days reveals that America's taste for meats runs more in the direction of style than flavor. The modern, tricked-out meat case, all chrome and glass and awash in soothing fluorescence, has more in common with a Paris fashion runway than with a true butcher's display.
Pork tenderloin marinated two different ways. Fancy shish kabobs with multi-colored vegetables you know won't be cooked when the meat is well past done. Filet mignon at $25 a pound. Miniaturized lamb loin chops. Chicken sausages a dozen different ways. Giant pork chops stuffed like Thanksgiving turkeys. To gaze upon this stylized cornucopia of protein as like standing in front of a diorama at the natural history museum: so lifelike, yet no real life there, all soul drained away.
The selection looks like something dreamed up in an editorial meeting at Bon Appetit magazine, all glitz and glam with one important component missing: the flavor.
I'm yearning for squishy livers, glistening kidneys, funky trotters. I want to see slabs of smoked bacon, gnarly hocks, fresh pork bellies.
It's the absence of these products, the backbone of our meat tradition, that tells the tale of our modern appetite. Meat these days has mostly become just another delivery vehicle for the latest magazine sauce or fruit salsa. Our concept of carnivorous has been conceptualized to the point that we don't recognize any more where the flavor comes from if not from the tropical, out-of-season marinade foisted upon us in the latest installment of Food Network.
Our meat has been mango-ized.
Again, it is those busy chefs and food writers and editors, all the stylists and studio visualists, trying to justify their salaries and cook up another trend. The consumer in his hapless disconnect from tradition, his disassociation from collective memory, his alienation from any sense of season and place, follows along, cruising for his next recipe fix.
And that brings me to the ultimate paradox: I thought the fatty flavorful cuts were the trend. I thought Fergus Henderson had made it clear--finally and for for all time--that it is the shoulder and the cheeks and the shanks we should be eating. I thought Nose to Tail Eating was the breakthrough that had finally led us home again to where the flavor is.
Could I have been mistaken? Because again I must ask: How can Whole Foods be out of pork shoulder two weeks running?