Thursday, May 3, 2007

Calling All Pork Butt

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?


stephen said...

Hi regard to "yearning for squishy livers, glistening kidneys, funky trotters...slabs of smoked bacon, gnarly hocks, fresh pork bellies" you might want to check out markets in areas with a more diverse the Northeast, anyway, these products go where there is a market for them: to stores where the local population's food traditions include these items. One of the supermarkets I go to regularly not only has the little signs announcing beef, pork and chicken above the cases -- it also has a whole case with an "offal" sign! Also, when I'm in Boston I always stop at the vast 88 Supermarket (Asian) where the meat section has all your favorites...Alas, not too much of the pre-marinated or already-skewered convenience meat products at these stores...

Ed Bruske said...

I totally agree, Stephen. One of the few places that proudly displayed the filtering organs and other offal to which you refer was Union Meats at Eastern Market here on Capitol Hill. Tragically, Eastern Market suffered a devastating fire this past week so we are left high and dry for an alternate butcher.

I do visit the Vietnamese markets, of which there are many in our area, for things like fresh pork belly. And there are occasionally interesting things to discover in the local Latin markets.

But you are precisely correct when you say that Washington, D.C., is a bit thin when it comes to Old World ethnic shopping. It's pretty much white bread around here. One of our favorite places to stop on our trips west in the West End Market in Cleveland. Lots of great Ukranian and Polish products there. One stall offers a huge selection of homemade pierogis. Definitely worth a detour.

MA said...

Ed! U the MAN! once again, telling it like it is: funky trotters and gnarly hocks. Yeah baby. At this very moment I have pickled pigs feet and herring sumthin sumthin in my refrigerator. Come on over.


Ed Bruske said...

Let me just grab some head cheese and I'll be right there, MA.

Kathana said...

Hi. I found this post via Google while looking for pork shoulder recipes.

It's possible you simply aren't far enough South to find pork shoulder commonly stocked. I'm just north of Atlanta and I've never had a problem finding it anywhere. It's very commonly used in pulled pork barbeque down here, so I can imagine the hue and cry if a store just didn't have it.

Anonymous said...

It's a tricky choice - if you want meat you can trust has been raised with a modicum of dignity (and so more flavor) you need more upscale butchers... But if you go to more gnarly butchers, while you might get the bits you want, it's more than likely that the animals they came from were 'grown' in a gruesome feedlot. Good, old-school local butchers that you get to know and can ask about these things seem the only way through...