Saturday, February 2, 2008

Pork Guilt

For weeks I've been planning on a choucroute garnie with some homemeade sauerkraut that's been waiting in the fridge since almost a year ago. Yesterday I made the trek to Eastern Market on Capitol Hill for the pork part of the garnie and was suddenly overcome with a sinking feeling as I stood at my favorite vendor's meat counter.

The first thing you need to know about the famous Eastern Market is that it suffered a terrible fire last year that destroyed the roof. For months, the vendors were out of business until a temporary facility that looks a little like a circus tent was erected across the street. In fact, there's a lot to be said for the new digs. There's more light, and all the facilities are new and gleaming.

But now we come to the second thing you need to know, and that is it's been almost a year since I purchased pork at Eastern Market. In that time, the ground has shifted where our outlook on the meat industry is concerned. And as I stood there contemplating a meat display as long as a battleship, I realized I had never before inquired where my favorite vendor got his pork.

So this time I asked and heard the words I dreaded most: Smithfield, Iowa, North Carolina. In other words, my favorite vendor was and always has been a devoted, unabashed link in the confinement pork industry. From the pork chops and whole loins, to the hog maws, tails and chitterlings--the entire display is testimony to everything about the meat industry that the sustainable food movement (us included) is railing against.

As the owner gathered up my order--a pound of bacon ends, two smoked pork chops, a smoked shank, a whole shoulder--I mentioned a bit awkwardly that some people now are looking for more local products. But the words fell to the floor like lead weights. It was if he never heard me. "These chitterlings here come from Denmark," he said proudly.

I quickly changed the subject to when he thought the work on the old market building might be finished.

So is this feast the equivalent of a drunk's last bender before going on the wagon? As I looked at the incredible array of meats--all from the evil Big Ag empire--I couldn't help wondering where one would find anything similar using the local, sustainable products that are now de rigeur. In fact, it is rare enough to find a local butcher. But you'd have to go back to another century to find local pig turned out this way, in such glorious diversity. Or maybe another part of the country. Or maybe another country.

There is, in other words, a huge adjustment still to be made.

So it was with feelings of guilty and sadness and nostalgia all mixed together that I constructed this choucroute garnie. First trimming the pork shoulder--removing the skin, the fat, the bone--and turning it into big, fat links of fresh Kielbasa sausage. Then browning five of the Kielbasa and three weisswursts I had purchased and two smoked pork chops.

Then, at the bottom of a large, heavy pot, lightly brown with the lipid of your choice one whole onion, peeled and thinly sliced lengthwise. Peel a Granny Smith apple and grate it directly into the pot. Add about six cups fresh sauerkraut and a cup of white wine. Stir in 1 teaspoon carraway seeds and a dozen crushed juniper berries. Nestle the smoked pork shank into the kraut along with the bacon ends, cut into thick slices. Add the pork chops and on top of everything the sausages.

Bring the pot to a boil, cover, reduce heat and simmer for 1 hour. When the time comes, arrange the choucroute on a warm platter and serve with boiled potatoes, tossed with butter and parsley, and perhaps some glazed carrots. Our friends Helen and Jeff came over to help us eat our choucroute and Helen brought a wonderful loaf of bread she had made. We drank cold ale, but an Alsatian Riesling is traditional.

Enjoy, and try not to think too much about where your pig came from.


Kevin said...

I've envied your year-round access to a farmer's market, but I do have yeear-round acccess to local pasture-raised meat.

Jess said...

I am so looking forward to the H Street farmer's market reopening for exactly this reason. I miss the pork and cheese guy with his marinated feta, and the chevre guy and his MASSIVE pirogies. May is sooooo far away. At least I'm getting my share of a local cow next month.

Ed Bruske said...

Kevin, not only do you have access to local pastured meats, but to ducks as well. Lucky dog. We have local meats here, too. I haven't researched it enough. The pork products at the farmer's market are exorbitantly priced. I would rathery buy a share of a pig and process it myself. Still, what you don't see at the farmer's market are all these other great products, such as the bacon ends, the smoked shanks and smoked hocks. I'd love to know if someone is making those locally. We bought local bacon once, and it wasn't very good at all.

Jess, did you say pierogis? Now you've got my attention. Which market is that? Maybe you'd like to share with readers how you went about buying a share of a beef cow. Where do you plan to keep it?

Anonymous said...

Until USDA allows the farmer to process their own pork you won't see the likes of chitterlings, maw, wursts, etc. Even with my On Farm Processing Permit I am not allowed to 'further process' anything without an approved kitchen which I am working on. But there again, do I really want to do 'value added' products? Would I be able to move the quantity that would make it worthwhile?? Processors don't want the headache nor added expense or testing. Most small farmers are raising the same pork that is in the store, just not in confinement. Perhaps you need some tasty bacon from a heritage hog. You are correct, the prices at the DC markets for anything is insane. My sausage price is half what you paid. There are farmers out my way begging to get into a DC market to get all that money. I am content to be able to get local meat on the supper table of local people.
PS. You are allowed to purchase a live hog and process it yourself as long as it is not resold. That way you can utilize the entire hog.

Mimi said...

I had the same experience as you awhile back. I live in Santa Barbara, CA. From what I've read, our harbor provides a huge catch of squid which is sent all over the world. The local gourmet market has always had cleaned "fresh" squid available. I don't buy it often so I never thought to ask if it was local. One day, they didn't have it available. The fish guy told me that there was some frozen in the freezer case. I went to look and it was a huge 5 pound block of frozen squid from... China! I went back to him to have the conversation and I was told that they always defrost the chinese squid, clean it and put it out in smaller portions.
Ridiculous but a sad, true story. Just a lesson that we should always ask and then make the best choices we can.

Donna said...

Just this week I was talking with a like-minded friend about the challenges we were having finding local foods and how you can't go back. We know too much to ever go back to what we used to eat, so we carry on as best we can. It's kind of like starting over again only this time we are pioneers in a new land.

Joanna said...

Your post - and all these comments ... it is SO complicated trying to "do the right thing", probably more so in a city, and certainly not just in the US.

I suspect that the very best we can do is consume less, waste nothing - that's a couple of huge shifts by themselves.



Nicole said...

You might want to give The Organic Butcher in Mclean a call and see what they can get:

It would involve more travel than the Eastern Market, but they might turn up some good leads.

Maureen said...

Thanks..I guess :-/ ..for this eyeopening post. Tho I haven't been to the Eastern Market or others in DC for a zillion years, I just guess I presumed that the vendors were local. I imagine I thought they adhered to the MD codes of you only sell what you produce. Now that I say that, I ought to check more carefully. In addition to the AA county market, I haunt the JFX market in Baltimore. Sunday is just easier a lot of times.

I too would be interested in a share of a pig or cow and this could certainly be a little research project.

Nicole, thanks for that link. I have family in Falls Church so that may be a future visit.

Anonymous said...

There are Producer Only markets and non Producer Only markets. Ask questions, check labels, perhaps visit the producer's place of business. Don't assume anything.

Anonymous said...

I just got fabulous local pork chops that are raised humanely at the Courthouse Farmers Market from Eco Friendly Foods. Their website tells the story of these happy, happy pigs.

It is not DC but close enough.

Ed Bruske said...

Kathy, thanks so much for that explanation. It figures there would be a good reason why we don't see those processed pork products at the farmers market. Again, it points up the tradeoffs we face when we require that absolutely everything pass through the government gauntlet, which favors the big, industrial producers.

Mimi, I think all squid is frozen after its caught. But you really do have to look closely. Some vendors are selling some really nasty stuff. The worst squid I've seen is at the waterfront market here in D.C. By comparison, the squid sold at Whole Foods is gorgeous.

Donna, I don't know about going back, I'm having a real hard time letting go in some instances. Plus, as you've see here and elsewhere, we local food advocates are subject to real price gouging. A proper balance has not been achieved yet. We can only hope.

Joanna, very sage advice. We really do need to start thinking about appetite shifts that will run us less afoul of the environment and what the local food supply is capable of offering. It will take some ingenuity.

Maureen, like you I had never given the source of the meat at Eastern Market a second thought. It's a gorgeous display, but come to find out it really isn't compatible with the new sensibilities. I wonder how long that can last.

Anonymous, Eco-Friendly is one of the original purveyors of local meats, closely alligned with Joel Salatin in Central Virginia. They also sell at the Dupont Circle market on Sundays.

Bonnie said...

"Enjoy, and try not to think too much about where your pig came from."

E tu, Ed...? I can't believe you supported Smithfield!

You must know other families you could go in with to split a local small-scale hog. (Four shares is ideal, eight can be done but is harder.) I know economics are a factor here, but even pork from my most expensive NorCal farmer friends is $5/lb bought whole, so yours would probably be less. If you buy it live, on the hoof, it can be slaughtered on the farm and you can get all the offal. The butcher will smoke bacon and do ham if you want.

Ed Bruske said...

It was the last place to fuel up before getting on the interstate,
Bonnie. A choucroute garnie to put on the flame, and no other options in
sight. I wasn't about to deep-six my dinner plans bacause of one (last?)
blowout on industrial pork. Believe me, there was some tightening in
the nether regions going on.

Did you read the other comments to this post? We are getting
seriously ripped off pork-wise at the farmers market. Plus, you just can't find
the nasty processed bits from local pigs that you get at the
butcher's. But I may have a good lead.

This is something that needs a lot more attention. Prices at the
farmers markets--especially the urban markets--and what a conversion to
local portends for all those great traditional products such as smoked
hocks, scrapple, head cheese, Kielbasa. A more sustainable, more ethical
food producation comes in the front door, and entire food tradition
exits the rear. It seems critically important to me, but I don't see anyone
talking about it.

Anonymous said...
Will all the foodies stand in line to try some of this 3 year aged imported pork instead of the same locally raised pastured with 'access to acorns' pork? Ys know it takes a lot of acorns to feed a pig. Spain must have thousands of acres of trees, but the picture shows a lot of dirt. Somthing is not quite right here. I quote the article : "Every morning at 6:15, the idyllic life for several hundred Iberian pigs comes to an abrupt end."