My Love Affair with Pork

I was just watching Anthony Bourdain in Chile. (I finally set my DVR to record all of the No Reservations that I’ve missed over the years.)   He was eating a sandwich called The Lomito in the restaurant called La Fuente Alemana. It consists of a beautifully fresh baked “Frica” bun slathered with avocado, tomato, mayonnaise and a HUGE portion of thinly sliced slow cooked pork. I’m ashamed–actually, I’m not sure if I’m ashamed or proud–to say that the sight of that sandwich literally brought tears to my eyes. There is nothing, my friends, (as Tony would say) as wonderful as slow cooked pork.

Growing up, pork was really not on my radar.   We would have pork chops pretty often but they were BORING!  (Sorry, mom.)  To give her credit, it’s actually pretty difficult to cook a pork chop well.  I’ve had very few in my life that I’ve enjoyed except of course The BIG CHOP at Cooper’s BBQ Pit (more later.)  And we would have spareribs every now and then but, again, they just weren’t that great.  They were kind of chewy and stuck in your teeth and had too much sweet barbecue sauce on them.  So pork at home?  Eh.

My true awareness of pork began when we started going to Chinatown in San Francisco and getting the barbecue pork (and duck) hanging in the windows of the butcher chops.  Oh My God!  That is pork!  The incredible crispy, fatty skin and that red ring of smoke on the ribs and that succulent sweet meat  falling off the bone. Watching the butcher with that 6 inch cleaver raising it up over his head to WHACK those pieces into bite-sized bits and slide it into the take-0ut box was truly a thrill.   We would usually end up eating most of it in the car before we ever reached our picnic destination point because it was SO FREAKING GOOD!!!!!!!  The juice would just run down our chins and our fingers would be covered in that wonderful, wonderful fat.  Ah yes.  That was pork.

Somewhere around my teens my Mom found a recipe for carnitas in a Sunset magazine that all of us still use to this day.  The recipe calls for boiling a pork shoulder or butt with spices and carrots and onions and then baking it and then shredding it and serving it on a warm tortilla with pico de gallo, guacamole and cheese.  Very, very yummy.  However, it’s even better the next day when the shredded pieces are thrown in a pan and fried.  THRICE cooked pork.  Crispy, fatty, heavenly.  Thus began my fascination with the slow roasting of pork and my preference for the shoulder and butt.

I was never a fan of smoked pork products such as sausage, hot dogs, (till I went to Chicago and had a Chicago dog and Italian Beef Sandwich.  Wow), ham and your basic German styles of pork so when I found myself in Munich in 1984 I wasn’t that excited to be sampling the wares.  However, one day, my sisters and I escaped a Museum and found ourselves in a little sandwich shop eating the most heavenly pork sandwich I’d ever had up until that time in my life.  The bun was crusty and soft and the same time, the mustard was deliciously spicy and the pork was rich and succulent and delicious.  (And we were just so damn happy to be out of that museum.  Jordon had reached her limit:  “I refuse to look at one more painting of you-know-who”–meaning Jesus.)

Coming into my own as a cook I would include pork in my repetoire, oh, about once a week.  After watching Once upon a Time in Mexico I became a huge fan of Puerco Pibil. ( By the way, if you get a chance to see Robert Rodriguez’s little 10 minute short on that DVD on how to cook Puerco Pibil, watch it!  He is absolutely adorable and you will fall in love with him as I did.)  Puerco Pibil is, again, a pork shoulder or butt, cut into big chunks, marinated in chiles, achiote, citrus and tequila and slow cooked in banana leaves…served, as Johnny Depp says, with white rice, black beans and a shot of tequila.

My sister, Jordon, found a recipe for Star Anise Pork which is, again, a shoulder or butt, boiled in chicken stock, soy sauce, sherry, Chinese 5 Spice and Star Anise.  We shred it and serve it on homemade sourdough buns.  Absolutely heavenly.  It was always a huge hit when I served it at catering events.

Traveling to Texas when we were thinking of moving here, I got my first taste of Texas barbecue.  And,oh yeah, I liked it!  Although Texas is known as a beef state I’ve had some damn good ribs and pulled pork sandwiches here and basically, any time I see that on a menu I order it.  I don’t think I’ve ever had a pulled pork sandwich that I haven’t liked.  Even a bad pulled pork sandwich is a hell of a lot better than an o.k.  ham sandwich.

There’s a restaurant outside of Austin in the tiny little town of  Driftwood called The Salt Lick.  They have some of the best barbecue I’ve ever had.  Aside from the great food it’s a wonderful experience.   You drive out to the country, bring your cooler of beer or wine, sit at a wooden table on benches and chow down!! The brisket is succulent; the ribs are falling off the bone and I even like the sausage.  And the barbecue sauce is perfect.  Not too sweet, not too hot, not too vinegary.  Just the perfect amount of all of those flavors.

Then there’s Cooper’s BBQ Pit in Llano.  There’s not a wholel lot in Llano besides a very pretty river, a dusty old museum with quite a collection of different types of barbed wire and Cooper’s BBQ Pit.  You can smell it before you see it and you know you’re there when you see the line snaking around the building.  You stand in line and slowly more toward Nirvana (i.e. the barbecue pit) where you tell the guys working it what you want.

“Uh, give me 2 of those jalapeno sausages, and one of the regualr, mm, about 1/4 lb of brisket, 1/2 lb of ribs, oh, that’s 1/2 lb?  better make it 1 lb.  No, I don’t think I’ll waste my time on chicken thank you very much, say, what’s that?  The big chop?  Yeah, I think we’ll have one of those.”

They shove it all onto a tray that you bring inside to be weighed, you buy a couple of sides, maybe some beans, some coleslaw or potato salad, if you’re with Gino, some cobbler, get yourself a Shiner Bock, find a place to sit and eat and eat and eat till you can’t eat no more.

The Big Chop is simply unbelievable.  I don’t know how they got a piece of meat that thick so tender and  juicy and perfectly smoked.  Something to aspire to.  I must admit, I am a very bad smoker.  My stuff comes out way too smoky and not at all tender.  I don’t think I have the right mind-set for it.  But, I would like to learn. 

So, when my son, Gino signed up for an Agriculture Class last year and asked if he could raise a pig the answer was a resounding, “YES!”  I knew it was going to be expensive (which it was), I knew it was going to be a lot of work for him and me (which it was) but I also knew that at the end of the semester I would have a freezer full of pork (which I did.)

The pig was kept up at the Ag barn behind the high school so all I really had to do was buy feed and supplies and drop Gino off there to feed, water and walk him.  He really did all the work.   I just put in all the money.  When we first picked out the little piggy I must admit he was pretty darn cute.  Gino named him Winston.  As he grew however, the cuteness kind of went away.  I mean, come on!  It’s a pig.  How cute can they really be?  As Samuel L. Jackson said in Pulp Fiction, “That better be one charming mother-fucking pig.”  Winston was not.  He was a pig.  Big, lazy, smelly and pretty darn mean.

I almost worked up the nerve to see him castrated but chickened out at the last minute.  I had to drive Gino to the high school the night it was getting done.  There was some kind of sporting event going on so there were all kinds of traffic guards.  I so wanted them to stop me so I could say, “Let me through!  Pig castratation!” But, no one did.

Anyway, he ate and ate and ate and grew and grew and grew and Gino showed him at a pig show in the middle of bum-fuck nowhere which wasn’t all that fun to watch either.  Gino got a pink ribbon, which is like 11th place.  But as Frank said, “Maybe the ones who come in last are the sweetest.”

The week before the end of Winston we fattened him up with deer corn…and then it was time.

The following program contains content that may be inappropriate for some viewers.  Parental discretion is advised.

This warning is displayed before every No Reservations show.  Does anyone beside me find this incredibly ironic?  Is it because Tony says “fuck” every now and then? (which is bleeped out)  Is it because he drinks a lot? Because he’s a bit of an anarchist?   No, it’s because every now and then they might actually show an animal being slaughtered.  Heaven knows we all love eating the meat but, for God’s sake, don’t show anybody killing it!  (The only thing more ironic than that warning are the Olive Garden commercials shown during the show.   Our Olive Garden culinary school in Florence?  Please!)

You would think after that paragraph that I witnessed the slaughtering but I didn’t.  One of Gino’s friends father’s carted him off to a slaughterhouse in Johnson City and about a month later we got a call to come pick up the meat.  (Sweet!)

Gino and I set off around 12:00 one Saturday.  It’s not a short drive to Johnson City, especially with Gino behind the wheel.  I was pretty much plastered to the ceiling the entire drive with my foot pressing on an imaginary break.  Gino is not a good driver.  If you ever get a chance to get in a car with him, just say no.

So, we finally arrived, only to find the butcher shop/slaughter house closed.  I could’ve sworn  the lady said the hours were 12:00 to 4:00 but apparently they were 8:00 to 12:00.  I must admit I said a few very choice words not fit for the virgin ears of my son (Hah!)  He however, noticed someone inside the store and started banging on the door.  Luckily for us the lady took pity on us and told us we could get our meat but we’d have to help her look for it.  Rummage through a butcher shop?  SURE!

She led us back through different freezers as we sifted through boxes and boxes of pig parts all labeled with the Future Farmers of America’s names.  We found our Miceli boxes and piled up about 10 of them on a pushcart.  Then Gino said, ‘Oh, my friend asked if we could pick up his pig’s head.”  (I had declined to have our head included as I really had no idea what to do with it.  Later, too late, I learned you make tamales out of it).

“Well,” she said.  “That will be in this here  freezer.”  So, we went into yet another freezer and began poking through a bunch of frozen bagged pig heads.  We simply could not find our friend’s head.

“Let’s just take one from the kill floor,” was her next suggestion.  So, we wound our way through hanging pig haunches, trees of livers and tables filled to overflowering with pig’s heads.  We were both loving it.  Finally we just chose one at random, which wasn’t frozen, by the way, but still kind of life-like and a little rubbery.

We were going to drop it by Gino’s friend’s  house on the way home but no one was there and it would’ve been just too Lord of the Flies tol leave it on their front porch.

The meat from Winston was not as succulent and fatty as I would’ve liked, I’m sad to say.  Apparently you had to pay more money for a better (tastier) pig and walk them more diligently than Gino was willing to do.  But, I’ve gotta say, it was pretty damn good.

Did I mention the bacon?  Winston bacon was the best bacon I’ve ever had.  It was so meaty that there wasn’t even a hint of it curling up while cooking.  We use Niman Ranch (nitrite/nitrate free) at my ridiculous job (for which I’m grossly overqualified) and it can’t hold a candle to Winston.

Sadly, all the bacon is gone now as is the ground pork, the ribs, the shoulders, and the butts.  All I’ve got left are some 2″ pork chops, an uncured ham (I carted the other one back to California at Christmas, brined it, seasoned it and baked it and it was darn tasty) and a few neck bones and skin.

My goal is to learn how to smoke properly so I can make my own “big chop.”

I’ll let you know how it turns out.  I’ll invite Tony over.

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6 Responses to “My Love Affair with Pork”

  1. jordon Says:

    Pork ….yum. I’m with you. I need to learn to smoke stuff. It’s not easy but SOOOOO worth it! Great article. I’m proud to be in it. JORDON

  2. Robert Says:

    Your blog was wrapped in bacon, which as we know makes anything better. This is good shit. This is what I love and make a body think about moving to Texas. Here’s a link to Tony on A Cook’s Tour and you can see how Winston is treated in Portugal. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ryAL3VxftM here’s part 2, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YOTY1r8xEQU&feature=related

  3. Kc Says:

    you rock, jill! although, there should be a warning not to read your blog while waiting for lunch break… I can taste everything you describe. Kc

  4. Lois Pickett Says:

    These are very enjoyable blogs. They should be seen by the restaurants that you visit. Keep them coming.

  5. Lois Pickett Says:

    As for smoking–it is hard to keep a pork loin lit. Ha Ha Ha Ha! You knew someone was going to say it.

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