Saturday, December 22, 2007

Dark Days: My $28 Pork Butt

Don't get me wrong. I am all behind locally produced foods. In fact, in a perfect world, I think all foods would be grown within walking distance--more or less--of where they're consumed. That would mean a huge shift in the way affluent Americans approach agriculture and food production. Maybe we wouldn't eat so much meat. Maybe we'd all be raising chickens in our back yards.

Still, I am a skeptic by nature. And one of the things I find a little irritating is the knee-jerk hysteria of some foodies to any critical examination of how our local food system currently operates. A few stories questioning the carbon footprint of local foods have popped up in the mainstream media lately and from the reaction on the food blogs you'd think war had broken out.

As far as I can tell, the system we have for getting local foods to consumers is incredibly inefficient. You could start with all those trucks driving long distances with relatively small loads of food to our urban farmers markets, only to drive away again a few hours later having sold maybe half their goods. Wouldn't it be so much easier--so much less costly--for everyone involved if there were some kind of co-op that were open every day of the week, and where vendors and shoppers could all congregate indoors?

I think so.

Another thing I find disturbing is all the plastic at the farmers market. Plastic bags to tote naturally-grown fruits and vegetables. Every single piece of pasture-raised meat individually wrapped in plastic. How eco-friendly is that?

So I just don't see why everyone gets up in arms when the mainstream media bothers to point these things out. Sure, local farming is way better than industrial agriculture. Agreed. But hopefully we can do better.

Which brings me to my pork butt. I don't care what anyone says: shopping at the farmers market--hereabouts, anyway--is expensive. Too expensive for the average Joe. In fact, what we are seeing here in the District of Columbia is farmers markets geared toward lower-income shoppers going out of business. You simply cannot do your grocery shopping at the farmers market. Too expensive.

Last week at the Arlington farmers market I picked up this pork shoulder roast, aka pork butt. It cost me nearly $29, or $6.95 a pound. I felt my you-know-what constrict when the vendor told me it was a bone-in roast. For $6.95 a pound? I wanted to say. But I bit my tongue.

After I got the roast home, I decided to break it down. How much of this pork butt was actually edible? How much per pound was I paying for the meat portion I intended to turn into a stew?

Well, on the left in the picture above you see the fat cap and rind that I removed from the roast, along with the bones. I put them on the scale: 1 pound, 15 ounces. Next I weighed the meat: 2 pounds, 3 ounces. In other words, 46 percent of my pork butt was bones, fat cap and rind. The meat, meanwhile--or edible portion--works out to 80 cents an ounce, or nearly $13 a pound.

I ask you, when was the last time you paid $13 a pound for pork shoulder, a cut butchers typically turn into sausage?

But here's the real kicker: Boneless Niman Ranch pork shoulder sells at our neighborhood Whole Foods for $3.49 a pound. In other words, trekking to the farmers market for locally produced pork butt on a frigid Saturday morning costs me four times as much as buying already trimmed, humanely-raised pork in the comfort of a tricked-out grocery. Is there anyone besides me crazy enough to do that?

Not to say this meat is not worth $13 a pound. Lord knows, our local farmer has taken great care in raising this pig. The animal lived out his days and met his end in a humane fashion, no doubt. And we want to support our local farmers. My point, simply, is how many consumers can actually afford this? Do we really foresee a day when this product will become mainstream?

Currently, local foods account for about 2 percent of all U.S. food purchases. I sometimes wonder at which price inflection the other 98 percent will move into the local column.

But enough of my rant. What I did with the meat portion of my pork butt was cut it into large chunks, season them aggressively with coarse salt and pepper and brown them in extra-virgin olive oil at the bottom of a very hot Dutch oven. Do this in batches. Remove the meat and replace it with an onion, cut into medium dice and seasoned with salt. Lower the heat and stir the onion to deglaze the bottom of the pot. Then add two carrots, also cut into medium dice, and four garlic cloves, sliced fine. Continue cooking and when the onions have softened, add about 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar.

Place the meat back in the pot and add about 1 1/2 bottles of stout, dark beer. I was happy to find a Brooklyn Brewery Black Chocolate Stout at the local Whole Foods. My wife and I served Brooklyn Lager at our wedding many moons ago, so we have a soft spot for that brewery. The left-over half-bottle, of course, is for the cook to drink while she is contemplating her next step.

Bring the pot back to a boil. Then cover it and put it in a 250-degree oven for three hours. Meanwhile, cut up some other root vegetables, such as celery root, parsnips, potatoes. We had all that on hand already, plus some baby corn on the cob left over from a cocktail buffet. When the three hours are up, stir all these vegetables into the pot and put it back in the oven for another hour.

When everything is tender and aromatic, strain the solids out of the stew. Ladle some of the dark juice into a bowl and mix in 2 teaspoons corn starch. Bring the pot to a boil on the stove top and stir in the corn starch mix. Stir until thickened, just a minute or two, then mix all the solids back into the pot. Serve hot in shallow bowls.

What I served with the stew was a braised Savoy cabbage we bought last weekend at the farmers market. Chop the cabbage into pieces, then cook in a pot of boiling water seasoned with salt and cider vinegar. Strain the cabbage into a bowl and season with extra-virgin olive oil, more cider vinegar, salt and ground pepper. Stir in plenty of chopped parsley and chives from the garden.

I think you'll agree, whatever the price, this is a killer stew.


El said...

That looks great, Ed. And I hope you had lots of leftovers.

You got me thinking, though, so I went downstairs, moved everything in my deep freeze and found my pork shoulder from Francine (actual pig name), boneless, 3.08 lbs., that I got from my meat co-op and, well, I paid $3.25 a pound for this. It's grass-fed, organic, all that.

Lots of all this local vs. whatever hoo-ha is pure economics. In recession-prone Michigan, $3.25 is what the market can bear, best case, from a co-op where people are seeking out quality meats. Obviously, DC farmers' markets can charge more, and they do.

Anonymous said...

Ed, I am often on of the warmongers against the local food criticism. When approached in the clear discussion minded manner seen here the dialoge can and will be fruitful. I agree entirely that there is much improvement that can and must be made to the local system.

But working at a Fortune 500 all week long, I see countless examples of citizens entrenched in The System using articles such as you describe to justify no sustainable actions at all. The stats in the articles I have read were severely flawed in the data they used in drawing their conclusions-typically taking an overly simplified approach without accounting for the Triple Bottom line, sociological factors, or subsidy props in our current system.

Our local food system is more hobby -like going to a fair- than real economics. Many of the farmers are legit, but as you mention, the means for them to get to market are severely limited. Our Whole Foods (Madison, WI) does an amazing job reaching out to local farmers-their produce section is often 50% local (100 miles) in mid/late summer. That is a system that can we work with.

Mia wrote more here:

Janet said...

Ed, I think you have a valid point, as does El. It's been interesting to me since I started blogging to see the difference in prices I pay for local goods what people in other locales pay. Another factor, I'm sure, is the relative cost of real estate in Michigan or Kansas vs. the DC area or San Francisco area. I don't know what the answer is, though, but I'll eagerly await hearing it!

Pattie said...

Ed: I loved this post of yours. Fabulous, fabulous points. I've been following the attack-on-local argument and I want to add another point: where I live, Coca Cola and the biggest concentration of factory chicken farms are both LOCAL. Should I be supporting them? No, thanks!

For me, organic trumps local, yet I do anything and everything I can to support organic, local farmers. But co-ops, Whole Foods and other consolidated marketing efforts that pay farmers fairly while marketing products broadly at affordable prices are truly important.

Ed Bruske said...

El, our friend Larry, a superb cook and a savvy shopper at the local farmers markets, also is from Michigan (east side) and returns regularly to be with family. He also sees a huge difference in prices between what we are used to here and what the farmers charge in Michigan. What I may need to do is conduct a little price survey of our area markets. I will definitely be going back to the farmer who sold me the pork butt to pick his brain.

Rob, all these issues of local vs. non-local, or local/organic versus whatever/industrial make my head hurt. What we really need to do is clone you a couple hundred million times over. You represent the best hope for a generation of concerned growers/eaters. My overarching point being, we should embrace the points the skeptics are making. These are very complicated issues that go to the heart of our culture. We need to convert a nation of consumers into a nation of citizens. It's not just about the price of a pork butt, rather engaging in a "One Straw Revolution" where we completely overhaul our relationship with the land, the planet, each other and live in a sustainable fashion. That's a pretty tall order. Everybody has to be on the same page, and at the moment, the local food movement is dwarfed by trends moving in the opposite direction.

Janet, I'm not sure what the answer is. But being the author of a daily blog, I can't always wait for a complete answer. All I have are little glimpses into the issues.

Pattie, I love to give Whole Foods a hard time. And I have farmer friends who don't think much of their "buy local" scheme. That said, Whole Foods has a lot to offer compared to the other corporate grocers.

Isn't anyone going to comment on what a great job I did trimming out my pork butt? I don't know if a trained butcher could have done much better...

Kevin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kevin said...

Your points are certainly valid.

Down here in East Tenn. I pay $4/pound for pasture-raised pork shoulder from my local rancher. That's about $1 more than what it usually sells for at the supermarket -- and in this case well-worth it for the difference in quality.

In general Tracy's prices are competitive with our version of Whole Foods. Where he can't compete is in convenience -- there's no running out to pick up a couple steaks from him.

Anonymous said...


Sorry to shunt your culinary skills to the side! Even to a virtual vegetarian, the stew looked fantastic. And if there is a contest for it, I am entering this post for "Best Title Ever!"

Nicole said...

I like to think that Philadelphia has a good system in terms of food miles and local farmers - in addition to tons of farmers markets [and it seems most of the farmers sell out of the majority of their produce, as near as I can tell], there are dozens of coops and markets that specialize in locally grown produce. A farmer could drive an hour and a half, but deliver produce to half a dozen markets in the city and then sell at two farmers markets in one day.

I've also been able to beat the price issue. One of Philly's farmstands that sells local produce and meats and dairy from local farms offers a 30% discount if you volunteer there for three hours a week. I have three hours on a Saturday to get a hefty discount on my food bill!

Ed Bruske said...

Kevin, I think I need to go back and have a chat with the farmer who sold me that pig and see if he didn't make a mistake with his pricing. Sometimes I'm not sure all the vendors at the farmers markets know what they're doing.

Nicole, Philly is ahead of D.C. in many ways (oh, how we hate sending the Redsking there to play the Eagles). And you have so much good farm country in the environs. I'm still looking for a week I can make the trip there to hang out at the markets. Especially the Italian market.

Donna said...

Sorry your roast was so expensive, but wow, the stew sure looks great! I have found in Oregon that individual cuts of local meat are ridiculously expensive (up to $18/lb!), but if I am willing to buy a "package" or even better, half of an animal, I pay $3-$5/pound. Usually closer to $3, and it's not just the cheaper cuts.

Ed Bruske said...

Donna, we are considering purchase of a chest freezer so we can do as you suggest--buy large portions of animals or even an animal-share arrangement to bring the cost down. I think that's much smarter than buying these expensive little pieces.

Anonymous said...

Not to say this meat is not worth $13 a pound. Lord knows, our local farmer has taken great care in raising this pig. The animal lived out his days and met his end in a humane fashion, no doubt.

You got to understand, Ed, this pig had a full staff to support. His personal assistant who scheduled all his slop feedings. His private chauffeur who drove him to and from the sty every day. And let's don't forget about the sty, a magnificent bijou residence, worthy of the Empress of Blandings herself! To eat a pig of such stature, I'd say $13 a pound is a bargain.