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GP 31 January 2007: High on the Hog

In Praise of Excess.  After last week’s rendition of the lush life in “The Cost of Things,” tributes to excess poured in from all corners of the globe.  From our Alabama antique man, in a backwater where road warriors abound and the fishing is suppose to be pretty good (see Howell Raines’ Fly Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis), came Robert Heinlein’s injunction: “Everything in excess!  To enjoy the flavor of life, take big bites. Moderation is for monks.” 

A bard and engineer from Connecticut reproved: “Don’t forget Mae West.”  Shame on us for omitting her.  She is full of unbounded exhortations to live it up: 

Anything worth doing is worth doing slowly.

He who hesitates is a damned fool.

I’ll try anything once, twice if I like it, three times to make sure.

Too much of a good thing can be wonderful. 

She so inspires us that we have come up with our own global truth: “Less than All is but Nothing.”  Mae was an antidote to her contemporaries, who, often as not, said, “Don’t.” 

Our Self-Indulgence.  We ourselves are not exempt from the world of outrageous, florid, conspicuous consumption.  We’ve been eating much more pork than we ought, but it’s become so much easier to put on one’s plate.  We can enthusiastically recommend, for instance, Kevin Callaghan’s Slow Roasted Pork Shoulder, which you will find on our sister site Spicelines

Mercifully we have not only learned how to cook pork better but we’re starting out with pig that has not lost its taste.  We previously told you in “Hog Heaven: Pork Sausage from Cane Creek” that we’re fond of the fare from Cane Creek Farm.  But pork as-it- should-be is widely available around the United States at places like Flying Pigs Farm, which you can read about at “American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.” 

Continental Drift.  Almost unnoticed a host of high-end pig restaurants have sprung up around the Continent and in Europe—all worth a visit.  Perhaps named after a Paris restaurant, Martin Picard’s Au Pied du Cochon in Montreal, as well as his similarly titled cookbook, have achieved wide renown. Grant Carter, one of our Canadian correspondents, reports to us about Kingston’s Chez Piggy, coming up on its 28th anniversary.  We suppose it’s irrelevant that there’s not much pork on the menu: 

An interesting intersection:  Back in the mid 1960’s I met a young aspiring rock singer in the Yorkville district of Toronto which was “home” at that time to Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, etc. in those post-Beatle-arrival days.  His name was Zal Yanofsky and his attire was intended to gain attention ... which it did.  The Toronto Star where I worked in the summers as a reporter/editor featured a story about him and his off the chart clothing.

Zal took off to New York in search of bigger gigs, eventually hooking up with John Sebastian and together they formed the nucleus of the Lovin’ Spoonful of the song “Do You Believe in Magic” fame.  Zal became a good friend of Mama Cass during those New York days.  Some of the stories published about Denny Doherty’s death refer to the early years of the Mamas and Papas and Cass, John, Michelle and Denny’s friendship with Zal.
Here is where it gets interesting and relates to your story about the “cochon” or “pig.”

Following the demise of his musical career, Zal retreated to Kingston, Ontario—located equidistant between Toronto and Montreal on the shore of Lake Ontario— and opened a fabulous restaurant named “Chez Piggy” that became a legend in haute-cuisine-deprived Kingston.  Zal died of cancer approx 5 years ago. 

Porcellian Club.  A chap in Shanghai, who has learned that we are porking out, wondered if we had taken up membership in Harvard’s Porcellian Club.  No, none of our immediate band put in time at Harvard.  The Porcellian is another one of those societies where the elect students can get inflated opinions of themselves while eating roast pork.  We’ve never heard whether the meals are much good, though that school has never been a breeding ground of fine cuisine.  We do like to read that “the club emblem is the pig, and some members sport golden pigs on watch-chains or neckties bearing pig’s-head emblems.”  In this global age, we think, rather, that we might become members of an International Porcine Society, which would be best headquartered on San Juan Island, site of the Pig War Festival

The Schizophrenic Chinese.  This is the Year of the Pig in China with the New Year ready to set in on February 18.  Having become one of the most capitalistic societies on earth, the Chinese people are about to spend money with abandon, the volume of holiday travelers alone more than equal to our Thanksgiving. 

But the celebration will be a bit attenuated, reports the Wall Street Journal, January 25, 2007, p. A1, “Pigs Get the Ax in TV Ads.”  China Central Television (the state-controlled network) has banned ‘pig’ ads in a worried gesture to the nation’s many Muslims.  Both domestic and international admakers are having to quickly retool their ads for the New Year.  That nation’s governors, always worried about restless peasants in the hinterlands, have come down with a sledgehammer.  This is one mildly hilarious sign of the tension slowly boiling up between the nation’s exuberant economy and a rigid government apparatus that is trying to keep the lid on things. 

Three Little Pigs.  Even in Taiwan, they’re having ‘pig’ problems

Recently, the Ministry of Education in Taiwan collected the phrase “The Three Little Pigs” into its online Chengyu dictionary on its official website.  This has caused some controversy.  For starters, the tale was attributed to Hans Christian Andersen, who did not pen this particular story.  That was a dreadfully embarrassing mistake. … 

Meanwhile, a reporter tracked down the committee of 12 scholars from the Departments of Chinese Language at four major universities who spent three-and-a-half years coming up with this dictionary.  When asked, the head of the committee said that “The Three Little Pigs” and those other terms were never intended to be included in the proper Chengyu dictionary itself.  These terms appeared frequently enough in daily usage and therefore they were placed into an appendix so that people can look them up easily.  This did not mean that those terms have the status of Chengyu.  Shortly after this disclosure, the “Three Little Pigs” disappeared from the Chengyu dictionary in the morning, and then it re-surfaced in an appendix in the afternoon. 

As near as we can make out, good humor and celebrations seem to be enemies of the state almost everywhere on earth: governments do a better job at funerals. 

Dissertation on Roast Pig.  What a pity that China’s bureaucrats are turning aside China’s glorious association with the pig!  The great English essayist Charles Lamb, in one of his tongue-in-cheek offerings, even attributed roast pork itself to canny Chinese peasants.  By accident, a peasant burned down his house one day—with pigs inside.  Afterwards, the unlucky householder tasted the warm pig and found it finger lickin’ good.  It wasn’t long before he was burning down huts all over the village—with pigs inside, of course: 

Thus this custom of firing houses continued, till in process of time, says my manuscript, a sage arose, like our Locke, who made a discovery, that the flesh of swine, or indeed of any other animal, might be cooked (burnt, as they called it) without the necessity of consuming a whole house to dress it.  Then first began the rude form of a gridiron.  Roasting by the string, or spit, came in a century or two later, I forget in whose dynasty.  By such slow degrees, concludes the manuscript, do the most useful, and seemingly the most obvious arts, make their way among mankind. 

One devout, rightwing captain of industry once told us that he was ever grateful that Communism came along in Russia.  He thought this sweeping ideology stalemated what would have been a vibrant economy that would have given America a run for the money.  Right now, the Chinese are licking us, but maybe censorious leaders will banish the pig, roast pork, and other marvelous things, letting America surge once again, as orthodoxy smothers the flaming dragon of commerce and annihilates pleasure. 

Grass-Fed Pork.  Back in the 1950s we would go out of our way to avoid pork chops. They were greasy and tasted terrible.  But then we raised six of our own on grain and discovered the promised land.  Pigs, fed properly, are wonderful. 

We are witnessing nothing less than a revolution in agriculture.  Old, mainstream producers turn out awful pork—in factory fashion—with less and less labor, espousing a monoculture that leads to just one breed of pig, and creating pollution problems of a very high order.  North Carolina, for instance, which has soared from number 11 to number 2 in pig-production, has bought itself a heap of environmental and economic problems with piggery run amok, undermining its agricultural base and its whole economy. 

But there, as elsewhere, a different kind of livestock farmer is springing up.  He or she raises diverse heritage breeds that will not be wiped out if a virus should come along that can attack one dominant breed.  They have more taste to them.  And they are, oft as not, grass-fed.  In state after state, pigs and other farm animals that add to our health and add to many pocketbooks are cropping up.  Eat Wild has assembled a pretty good list of them. 

The smaller farmer has become desperate, pushed to the wall by corporate agriculture.  In dire straits, he’s had to adapt.  And so he is putting out animals and crops for which he can get a bit more money, which have taste, which have health, and which have terroir, a sense of place, a local flavor, a regional greatness that megabrands and global enterprises cannot capture.  Little noticed, terroir farming symbolizes a transformation in American agriculture that shows it, rather than Fortune 500 businesses, to be the leader in adapting to a global economy. 

It’s this new world of taste and health-giving agriculture that Peter Kaminsky surrounds in his Pig Perfect: Encounters with Remarkable Swine and Some Great Ways to Cook Them. In a footnote on Ruhlman’s Blog, we learn from him that Berkshires, Ossabaws, and Ibericos all devolve from the same species, but that still allows for plenty of variety which the post-industrial world encourages, rather than represses. 

Gong Xi fa cai in a pig’s year!  Happy Chinese New Year. 

P.S.  John Thorne’s Serious Pig, by the author of the food newsletter Simple Cooking, holds more of his essays, all of which teach us that good cooking demands good food.  That’s impossible to have unless you start with the right ingredients and never more so than when you are dealing with pork.  It takes a righteous pig.  We recommend you take a look at the “Writing of John Thorne,” if you have not heard of him. Also see John Thorne’s chicken on Spicelines. 

P.P.S.  We promise sometime to get into ‘pig’ literature.  More than one professor has said that you know you are reading Southern letters if a pig crops up in it.  We were pleased to see some English potters who have relocated to the South and who have a pig or two nicely penned up 500 feet from their kiln.  Clearly they also understand you can’t have culture there without a pig or two in evidence. 

P.P.P.S.   Michael Pollan has an immensely complex, too-long article in the New York Times Magazine, January 28, 2007, pp.38-47, 65-70 called “Unhappy Meals.”  Basically he is telling us that all the nutritionists’ prescriptions to improve our health amount to locking the doors after the cattle and horses have gotten out of the barn.  Our modern American diet is flawed in a 1,000 ways, and our scientists try to get us to ameliorate things by doing away with a few of the bad things in the mix.  “Four of the 10 leading killers in America are linked to diet.”  “After several decades of nutrient-linked advice, rates of cancer and heart disease in the U.S. have declined only slightly….”  Pollan would get us back to a pre-industrial, pre-processed food world.  He would move us away from monocultures and monobreeding for a host of reasons, not the least of which is that “the greater the diversity of species you eat, the more likely you are to cover all your nutritional bases.”  In other words, to affect our health, we will have change our whole dietary system: doing away with a few no-no’s will do very little.  Many of the food-and-health truisms with which we are bombarded turn out to be based on very bad science, indeed. 

P.P.P.P.S.  Marty, the local grocer on Potrero Hill in San Francisco back in the 1970s, would regale one and all with tales of the wonderful, tasty melons he could offer his customers before World War II.  “That was when,” he would say, “the Japanese farmers would hand till and weed their crops.”  The taste never came back when agribusiness-farming took over.  Once in a while, a few foreign imports will have some panache and gusto. 

P.P.P.P.P.S.  Read more about our view of where global business is headed at “Free Association.”  The trick is not cost cutting but value-infused, very innovative differentiation.


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