Friday, February 24, 2012

Getting Piggy With It

A sign from the 1970s reading "Danish pigs are healthy; they burst of penicillin"

     When I was a little girl, I was obsessed with the “Little House” series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, especially the first volume in the series, Little House in the Big Woods. Contrary to the moralistic cheese dripping form the TV series, the book described man and nature “red in tooth and claw.”[1] Bears were bears. Deer was food (they killed Bambi?!). And for god sakes, don’t ever go out in a Wisconsin blizzard alone!
      To a 6-year old suburban girl, the idea you could live in the middle of nowhere, and you could still eke out a living was very cool. Cheese, maple sugaring, butter churning…you could make that stuff? Yep, you could make that stuff. But the best part? The section about pig slaughtering (This was the age before Babe came out).
“It doesn’t hurt him, Laura,” Pa said. “We do it so quickly.” . . . It was such a busy day, with so much to see and do. Uncle Henry and Pa were jolly, and there would be spare-ribs for dinner, and Pa had promised Laura and Mary the bladder and the pig’s tail.”[2]
Yum. Spare ribs for dinner. The bladder bit was explained later (used to make a balloon…early lesson in anatomy for me). But the pig’s tail? What the hell were you going to do with that?
          “Pa skinned it for them carefully, and into the large end he thrust a sharpened stick. Ma opened the front of the cook stove and raked hot coals into the iron hearth. Then Laura and Mary took turns holding the pig’s tail over the coals.
          It sizzled and fried, and drops of fat dripped off it and blazed on the coals…At last it was done. It was nicely browned all over, and how good it smelled! They carried it into the yard to cool it, and even before it was cool enough they began tasting it and burned their tongues.”[3]
       Oh. That’s what you did with a pig’s tail. In a pathetic attempt to repeat this tasty project, I asked the meat guy at the local grocery store whether they carried pigs’ tails. All I got was a “Where is your mother?!” I also tried to suggest this to my Brownie troop leader. Needless to say, it didn’t happen.
      So much for my adventures in pioneer food-hood. I would have to wait 32 years later before I would get my chance at the pig’s tail. And no, I don’t live on a farm or slaughter pigs. That chance was at St. John Bread and Wine in London.
Smoked Anchovy with Roasted Beet and Hen's Egg
       To those of you living in foodie land, this should not be surprising.  Fergus Henderson and Trevor Guilliver (re)-invigorated “nose-to-tail” eating practices that were basically forgotten, thanks to urbanization, industrialization and commercial food practices. But when St. John first opened in 1994, this was not “hipster” or “haute” food. Fine dining was French – definitely NOT British. Times have definitely changed. With a menu that consisted of hare with lentils and pig trotters (pig’s feet to us Americans), oxtail tongue hash with a runny duck egg, braised lamb with potato and seaweed, roasted beet with anchovy, and a incredible local peach sorbet (with an icy shot of vodka), I didn’t care where those parts came from. They were delicious. 
Hare with Lentils and Pig's Trotter

       The food is not particularly complicated. It’s not foamed-up-the-ass. There are no weird agar particles. And the only suspension that’s going on in these foods is a suspension of disbelief that offal is really NOT awful – it’s really, really good.
When I talked to Lee Tiernan, the head chef of St. John Bread and Wine about the dishes, he said, “My uncle used to eat like this.”
What exactly is “like this”?
I seriously doubt that Tiernan’s uncle had a nice Bordeaux with his meal (or maybe he did, and if he did, he’s a really lucky man!), but this is food of Britain’s pastoral past, not the food of Britain’s post WWI[4] industrial factories. The hares were brought in that morning. The fish are from the British Isles and coasts. The pigs were not from the Tesco meat cooler, but from organic, free-range farms with breeds that most commercial farmers would eschew in a heartbeat.[5] And the pig…it comes WHOLE.
      But the thing I was most impressed was a particular philosophy at the restaurant. Yes, all their sourcing is at the heart of trendy locavore practices. Conservationists love the fact that the food helps support a genealogical past that would be otherwise lost of industrial breeding practices and agriculture. Foodies love it for its “integrity” to British food traditions. And for Anthony Bourdain, it is the last meal he would want to have if he were sent to the executioner’s chair.
       In fact St. John might be called a BoBo[6] wet dream. But for all the hype the restaurant has received (well deserved!), the most poignant statement came from Tiernan: “I’m a chef. I just cook and I try NOT waste anything.”
      And that, for me, is the most impressive part of this restaurant. In an age where the wealth of nations has allowed fish to be flown in from the Mediterranean, foie gras to be served any day of the week, strawberries from Morocco eaten in December, waste is everywhere.
     Not in Lee Tiernan’s kitchen. Pig tails are made into crispy snacks. Ox-tongue that got a little overcooked becomes ox tongue hash.  Pig feet get placed in any soup or stock dish for a little oomph. Bones are roasted for marrow and placed into salad. Veal tails are brined and bones are roasted for soup. Chitterlings[7] (that’s pigs’ intestines)? They’re served with turnips. Not to mentions kidneys, livers, brains and hearts. And when I visited the kitchen, there was a giant pot of assorted pig parts that were probably going into some delicious dish. 
Stewing Pig Parts at St. John Bread  & Wine Kitchen

Maybe this is the true luxury of modern day life: having the time to cook and eat food that does not come from a freezer, has been freeze-dried into pellets or packaged in swaths of plastic. Food that is honest because it has been honestly raised and made. That’s worth its weight in gold.
Crispy Pig's Tails (Pan is for presentation)

Crispy Pig Tails
While pig tails have now become all the rage in restaurants, Southerners (in the United States) have been eating them for years, mainly as part of Carribo-African-American food culture. Pig tails are tough to come by in any grocery store, so go to the most reputable butcher you can find and ask them about it. They can probably get them from you. Also, if you are near a good farmers’ market that sells pork products, you may be able to order them. And one more thing – make sure they are free range and/or organic. You don’t want to waste your time eating antibiotic laced crap.

8-10 pig tails (look for ones that are fairly meaty), rinsed thoroughly
8 cloves of garlic, peeled and halved
1 onion, coarsely chopped
2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
1 tsp. salt (you can also use a salt blend like Old Bay or any Cajun seasoning-it works nicely)

1.     Place pig tails in a large stock pot and fill to cover. Bring to a boil over medium heat, and cover the pot for 15 minutes.
2.     Drain pig tails and return to a clean stock pot. Cover with enough cold water to cover. Bring to a boil and then add garlic, onion, red pepper flakes and salt. Boil over medium-low heat for about 2 hours or when the tails are almost falling apart.
3.     In the meanwhile, preheat oven to 350F. Line a roasting pan with aluminum foil and grease with vegetable oil.
4.     Drain pig tails (save the cooking liquid for beans, stock or soup – it’s SO good) and place them on the roasting pan. Roast tails for 30-40 minutes or until skin crisps and browns (If the skin is still is a bit flabby at 40 minutes, you can broil them at bit until they do. But this shouldn’t be necessary.)
5.     Take out of the oven and serve immediately with beans, rice or cornbread.

[1] English nerds go gaga. This reference of course is to Alfred Lord Tennyson’s famous poem, In Memoriam A. H. H., from 1850 :
Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation's final law
Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek'd against his creed
(From Canto 56)
[2] Wilder, Laura Ingalls. Little House in the Big Woods.  (New York: Harper Collins, 1971), p. 16.
[3] Wilder, 17.
[4] As much as British food gets knocked on as vegetables-boiled-to-a-blandness, a quick history of British cooking would tell you otherwise. 18th and 19th century England, due to its trade prowess, had spices galore from the West Indies, India and the Caribbean. Cakes and ices (ice cream or sorbets) were molded into decorative tins. Game meat was a regular in the fall. What killed it? WWI and WWII when food rationing and food industrialization came together in a pretty unholy alliance (at least for taste buds). Local cooking and food never quite recovered. Until about now.
[5] An excellent example of this is the pig breed “Middle White.” A pig well regarded for its meat in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the breed has basically gone out of pig production due to industrialization and a preference for bacon and lard producing breeds.  Considered “endangered” by the Rare Breed Survival Trust, a conservation organization to preserve and protect native animal breeds, the Middle White numbers have bounced back.
[6] Just in case you are not familiar with the term, “Bobo” is a mash-up of the words “Bourgeois” and “Bohemian,” coined by the New York Times columnist David Brooks, in his book Bobos in Paradise.
[7] Chitterlings, contrary to what many Southerners (people from the South of the US) might thing, is actually a word from the mid-Middle Ages England, between the 11th and 15th centuries. While originally used to refer to pig’s intestines (and in the South they still do), they can also refer to any type of intestine, such as veal or cow.
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