Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Whole Hog and the Nasty Bits

For several decades now, restaurant chefs have known that buying high quality meats requires direct purchasing of whole animals. In America today, there is rarely an alternative. This is the result of cheap commodity meats dominating the market, and placing enormous economic pressure on the small rancher and family farmer, who can rarely compete with the scale of commodity prices. At Park Kitchen, I have been directing a whole animal butchery program for the last four years, and seeing the difference in quality can be shocking. Sometimes, guests will ask what we've done to make the pork so juicy and delicious. It can be difficult to explain that we haven't done anything unusual, other than to buy a quality animal, and they may have never tasted that before.

When did this happen? And why? Several decades ago, America began an infatuation with diets. Diets that usually preached about eating leaner, not eating less, but lean meats and low-fat foods. Beef sales began to decline, and chicken was rising fast. Pork producers decided to market their product as "the other white meat," and indeed, that is what it became. The loin, the leanest and least flavorful cut, became the highest value, and pig breeds were selected and raised based on the length of loin. The marbling of pork fat, and the essential American staple of lard virtually disappeared from the market. Any old-fashioned pig farmer can tell you, pork used to be a red meat!

The pastures of Square Peg Farm

On about 40 acres of land in Forest Grove, Chris Roehm and Amy Benson have a variety of operations. There is an apple orchard on one side, what remains of a christmas tree farm on the other, some vegetables and a you-pick strawberry patch, a few hundred laying hens and a few dozen hogs. Chris has been developing his hog breeding program, and producing some very fine swine.

In order to balance desirable traits (keeping the hogs vigorous and healthy, and less prone to illness) Chris cross breeds black, red and white breeds. Of the purebreeds, Chris' favorite, and mine, are the black-haired Berkshires. Not only are they personable and intelligent, but delicious at the table. Some of the best crosses were the Berkshire-Durocs and the Duroc-Yorkshires. The hogs pastured in open fields of rye, clover and vetch, and are fed an all-organic feed of corn, wheat and barley. Organic is always more expensive, about twice the price. They buy the feed by the ton at about $0.32 per pound, and they feed about 40 hogs 2,000 pounds of feed per week.

Breeding on the farm is a calculated process. Chris has 11 sows in all. When a gilt is in heat, she will be penned with Harry, his three year old breeding male. The mating window lasts about 48 hours. Harry, weighing in around 700 pounds, wastes no time. The gestation period lasts about 4 months, and the sows are expected to carry 10 litters over a period of five years. A litter is usually 8 to 10 piglets, though one or two may be crushed by the mother.

Healthy pastured hogs at Square Peg Farm have a feed conversion ratio of five pounds of feed for one pound of weight gain. The miracle of pork is how quickly the young animal grows (by contrast, the feed conversion ratio for beef is about 16 to 1). A suckling pig can weigh 60 pounds after 10 weeks, and over 260 pounds in six to eight months. Chris was targeting a profit of $0.25 per pound, making his sale target $3.44 per pound, including the slaughter fee of $45 at Emmert-Buxton Meats in Sandy. There, the animal is hung for six days before Chris delivers it to me at Park Kitchen in his truck.

Getting what you pay for

Park Kitchen buys a half pig every other week until summer time, and we prefer to buy the head of the animal as well. The last half pig (with the head) I received from Square Peg weighed 114 pounds, and cost just over $380. That leaves me with 36 pounds of shoulder, 30 pounds of leg, 32 pounds of loin (including the ten pound belly and two pound tenderloin) and a 16 pound head. Although I could buy commodity pork as cheap as $1.70 per pound for a half carcass, it is so lean, pale, flabby and flavorless as to make $3.44 sound like a bargain. If I were to buy 114 pounds of cheap, rubbery pork loin, instead of the whole animal, at the shocking price of $3.10 per pound, what happens to the rest of the animal?

These are the questions of conventional purchasing. There are at least two middle-men taking a cut between the rancher and Park Kitchen. It makes me wonder how I can possibly buy that commodity pork so cheap? How could anyone make a profit from that price?

The hidden cost of big business, and mountains of Shit!

Who is Square Peg's competition? In general, it is the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation. Instead of Chris' 40 animals, these CAFO's can maintain tens of thousands of animals in a very small building, and their numbers are rising. Over the past twenty years, the number of CAFO's has gone from 3,600 in 1982 to over 12,000 in recent years. The number of animals raised on large farms over the same years rose from 257 million to 900 million. It's easy to see that if Chris needs to make $0.25 per pound on his 40 pigs, the big guy can bring his 50,000 pigs to market for a fraction of that cost. But there are costs that never make it to the bottom line.

Lester Brown, a fascinating agrnomist and author, wrote the article Massive Market Failure, in which he writes about unaccounted expenses in various "free market" industries, and their effect on the economy. Because of the enormous assets that CAFOs muster, they are able to reserve all the benefits for the company while assigning all the risks to the public. The most glaring example is the shit! CAFOs own the hogs, and the profit from their sale, but they somehow don't own the shit, or the costs of managing it. The EPA exempts CAFOs from reporting certain toxic gas emissions above 100 pounds per day. Now consider this, the Government Accountability Office studies show that CAFOs annually produce more raw waste than is generated by the citizens of major U.S. cities.

Because they control most of the policy lobbying and advertising dollars that flow to the local media, it is difficult to promote awareness of these hidden costs that pollute water and air. It is up to the taxpayer to build the infrastructure and to clean up the mess. The CAFO will often get into a community promising to bring (low-wage) jobs, but they require subsidized infrastructures, sewer systems and roads, and their costs to the community always outweigh the tax benefit realized from their creation.

When its dinner time, remember that every dollar spent is a vote for the future. Support restaurants that buy whole animals, and grocery stores that buy sustainable meats, and if they only offer conventional pork, tell them what you want. Their purchasing power is determined by the buyer. If the price of something seems too good to be true, it usually is. For some reason, everyone recognizes this when it comes to anything else besides the food they eat!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Groundhog Day

Somewhere in the distant past, an idea emerged halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox that the groundhog could tell us the future on this day. This year, it was a sunny Groundhog Day, which means a longer winter. This is usually sober news for chefs and farmers anxious to bring some vegetables to the table. On Groundhog Day, I had a dinner date with some of Oregon's finest winter farmers, and I was anxious to see what the coming months had in store.

Sheldon Marcuvitz and Carole Laity tend the 11 acres of Your Kitchen Garden. Their farm lies just south of Canby, and they have harvested some of the best produce I have seen in the Portland area since I moved here over six years ago. They have three greenhouses, two for growing, and one heated for starting seed. Most of their crops are fully exposed to the elements, and they are very proficient at keeping their land productive.

While Sheldon was showing me the digs, he told me that there had been a film crew at the farm. It is a documentary project called Ingredients, which connects a local farmer with a Portland restaurant that uses their produce. The segment featuring Your Kitchen Garden will be released this spring.

At the beginning of February, they are digging sunchokes, salsify and leeks, cutting cabbages, brussels sprouts, kales, radicchio and treviso chicories, inspecting the turnips and celery roots to see which have survived the snow and frost, and checking the crowns of their cardoon and artichoke. Their mache and spinach are small now, but growing well. In the greenhouses, they have a variety of herbs and greens. They are cutting mizuna, shungiku, claytonia (minor's lettuce), sorrel, watercress and arugula. Things are coming along handsomely.

Of course, the challenges of winter farming are that things must be planted in the fall while they can still grow, but they must survive the weather for 90 days before anything can be harvested. It's risky. A farmer stands to lose a lot of money if they have a crop failure, and working in the rain and mud isn't easy work. There can be some advantages to keeping things in the ground during these difficult months. One of my favorite ingredients of spring are the rapini shoots that start to pop out of the stalks of brassicas that have already been harvested. Nothing else is really growing in January and February, so you leave the kale and brussels sprouts stalks in the ground, and you have another crop in March!

One of Sheldon's favorite vegetables is cardoon, the lesser known and under-appreciated cousin of the artichoke. He protects them in the dark of winter by placing straw-filled boxes over the crown until they establish themselves. On a recent trip to Italy, I had seen that the Italians will use these blanching techniques all the way through harvest, which results in an elegant, mellow white stalk.

My favorite winter vegetable from Sheldon's farm is the Japanese turnip. There are two prominent varieties, the hakurei and fuku komachi (you can order seeds from Kitazawa). They are firm and sweet, a perfectly white globe with delicious leafy greens. In Japan, I fell in love with a traditional dish called Kabura Furofuki, which is simply braised turnip or daikon covered with a sweet miso sauce. The beauty of these turnips is that the skin doesn't have to be peeled so long as they are scrubbed clean. They also make wonderful pickles.

One of the most admirable of Sheldon's philosophies about farming is not just the high quality of his produce, but that he chooses crops which actually have a high yield. He selects crops with good yields, and staggers his plantings, which staggers the harvest. He's not selling pristine baby vegetables or micro greens to high paying restaurants and grocery stores. He actually wants to feed people!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

$10,000 and a Strange Invitation

It was an ordinary day at the restaurant, just before we began preparations for the mayhem of Valentine's Day, when a strange invitation arrived in the mail. PETA is sponsoring a cooking challenge this year with a $10,000 prize. The contest is called the "Fine Faux Foie Gras Challenge," to see "which top chef will develop the world's first authentic-tasting faux foie gras." The foie gras issue has been raging in the States for several years now, with some dramatic clashes in Chicago and San Francisco. Even here in Portland, there have been controversial picket lines protesting its sale. It seems PETA has the idea of winning this battle with a substitution, by producing "a faux foie gras that contains no animal ingredients whatsoever and is as close as possible in taste, texture, and form to the foie gras that is prepared in the world's finest dining establishments."

I couldn't put my finger on the paradox, but something didn't seem quite right about this. I went home and wrote a letter to PETA in fairness, to share why I didn't think this was the victory they were looking for.

Dear PETA,

After giving some consideration to your "Fine Faux Foie Gras Challenge," I hope you will give some consideration to my protest. As a chef, one of my missions is to give consideration to the integrity of ingredients. I prepare my ingredients in such a way that they can each be what they are, and express their own greatness. There is a reason why foie gras is used as a luxury ingredient. It has certain innate qualities, which are achieved by certain methods, whether they are humane or not.

It is here that I find confusion in your intention to spend money and resources on a contest which imitates the flavor of something which your members ethically oppose, when there are so many great and honest flavors which could be promoted in its place, with less effort and less manipulation.

There will certainly be chefs who will submit their creations for the contest, and it can only be "through the use of advanced technology and molecular gastronomy" that this contest will be determined. Only through the elaborate transformation of ingredients (and I imagine, through the suspension and stabilization of fats which the body cannot easily metabolize) will this flavor and texture be imitated. When it is accomplished, the end result can hardly be considered food at all, and the cruelty which you sought to spare force-fed ducks will instead be imposed upon those fine dining patrons who sought the ethical treatment of animals other than themselves.

Sincerely Yours,

David Padberg

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Welcoming the Year of the Ox

It felt like the whole world was ready for change. People were celebrating Obama's inauguration with hope and inspiration, and wondering what lies ahead. Well, everyone, the Chinese say it's the Year of the Ox, and that means hard work. Fortunately, this is my year. I was born in 1973, and I can feel the ox flowing through my blood, waking me early in the morning with eager anticipation. I've been making some big plans for this year, even before I realized this would be my year. This blog is one of the many things I wanted to do, and the many things that come after, I can share with you here. I hope you can find new ideas, new insights, and new connections here. I'd like this to be a place where we can make American food better than it is now. To do that, we have to go to the source. We have to know what to eat, where to buy it, and how to let our voices be heard and vote. This is our year!