In his new Pig: King of The Southern Table, James Villas writes that he has “yet to meet a fellow Southerner who didn’t love, respect, and, indeed, understand pig like no other Americans.” The book’s exhaustive collection of recipes from across the region proves Villas’s case—and reminds me that not only do we utilize pretty much every pig part, but we save the leftovers to embellish almost everything else. We cook our beans with salt pork or ham hocks; we fry our chicken with bacon grease and/or lard. At Cochon in New Orleans, chef-owners Donald Link and Stephen Stryjewski go so far as to put a splash of pork stock in the Bloody Mary. And why not? Yankees have long imbibed Bloody Bulls, made with the rather less imaginative beef bouillon.
These days, with increasing gusto, Yankees are also imbibing our more soulful four-legged friend. Manhattan chefs, especially, are in the midst of a swine swoon that shows no signs of abating. The same fried head cheese with sauce gribiche, which happens to be my current favorite appetizer at Cochon, also turns up on the menu of April Bloomfield’s latest piggy shrine, the Breslin—along with slow-roasted pork belly and the suddenly ubiquitous fried pig’s trotters. Earlier this month, Jimmy’s 43 declared an entire Pig Week, featuring butchering demonstrations and beer-and-bacon pairings; it was another East Village tavern, PDT, that gave the world a bacon-infused old-fashioned. Eight years ago restaurateur Danny Meyer made a foray into pig territory with his barbecue restaurant Blue Smoke; last fall he went whole hog (forgive me) with the sublime Maialino, Italian for “little pig.”
Much of the pig’s current popularity is due to the fact that he tastes like himself again. The 1937 introduction of Spam, a terrifyingly pink “luncheon meat” made of pork shoulder, potato starch, and God knows what else, was followed, 50 years later, by the National Pork Board’s “The Other White Meat” campaign, aimed at health-conscious consumers. The result was pigs with such a low fat content that a typical chop or loin came to have all the flavor and texture of a chunk of drywall.
The backlash led enterprising chefs and small farmers to seek out breeds like Berkshire, Red Wattle, and Duroc. “You can see the marbling in the meat of a Berkshire,” says Link. “It’s like a strip steak. On a generic pig, the cap—the back fat when you take the loin off—will be about half an inch. On a Berkshire, it will be two inches.”
Maialino chef Nick Anderer says the growing “farm to table” movement is also responsible for the appearance on upscale menus of those pig parts once consigned to Southern kitchens—or the trash bin. “When you are buying whole pigs from small farmers, you use all the off cuts; it comes from respect for the animal.” It is worth stopping at Maialino’s bar for Anderer’s pure pig sandwich of loin wrapped in skin-on belly, braised and sliced and piled on ciabatta bread. The latest addition to the drinks list is the Pig and Pepper, featuring tequila infused with guanciale, a delicious unsmoked Italian bacon made of pig cheeks. When I ask Anderer if he thinks the craze for all things porcine might have reached the saturation point, he just laughs. “People are realizing how delicious pig is,” he says, “and chefs eventually impose their will on menus and cook what they want to eat. Belly is not going out of my life.”