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Did you see the “happy pig” Chipotle ad that ran during the Grammy Awards? Chipotle, a chain with over 1200 locations, loudly called attention to its commitment to, quote, "Food With Integrity". Chipotle’s policy to source meat from naturally-raised animals is a large-scale reflection of what’s happening in many local kitchens. This may seem antithetical, but in order to save heritage breed animals, we have to eat them.
Snout to tail dining is a much-needed return to traditional food culture as well as traditional farming. It might look like a high-end restaurant trend, but dig deeper and you’ll see that the movement toward in-house butchery, dishes featuring offal and housemade charceuterie echoes the way our grandparents ate – and reflects a growing commitment to quality over quantity in the culinary industry.
In the US, we spend less of our incomes on food than the rest of the world, but it comes at a cost that a growing number of us are unwilling to pay. The number of small family-run farms has shrunk dramatically as large factory farms have approached meat production from an efficiency standpoint and driven down prices. In fact, the USDA has reported that 2 percent of America’s hog farms produce 46 percent of pork. When it comes to poultry, the NRDC states that 10 companies produce 90 percent of the chicken we eat.
Agri-business leans toward monocultures, as again, efficiency is at the heart of this style of farming. The pink-skinned hybrids favored by the factory system generally aren’t suited to outdoor farming. Heritage breeds, however, are hardy … but they take more resources to bring to slaughter. Traditional outdoor farming systems cost more to run, resulting in a higher price for the end product, and in a system that has seen price as the top consideration, those farmers committed to maintaining their free range systems were forced out of business. Things are changing, though.
Cheaper doesn’t equal better – not for you or for farmers. If there’s no consumer demand for heritage hogs, chickens and the like, those breeds and the traditional farming methods used to raise them will simply die out and we will lose an important part of our cultural heritage. When you see a certain breed listed on a menu, like Berkshire pork, the chef has indicated this for a reason. First, these breeds simply taste better. Second, the chefs want you to understand what it is you’re eating and, in turn, support the farmers who raised your meal.
At Annie Gunn’s, chef Lou Rook III offers a Swabian Hall hog degustation, highlighting this German breed’s rich meat in a green ham as well as a chanterelle and golden raisin terrene. At Sidney Street Café, chef Kevin Nashan has a daily local pork preparation available and Gerard Craft of Niche is well known for his devotion to heritage swine – trotters, pork shoulder and pulled pork belly all make an appearance. But heritage pork isn’t relegated to fine dining. At BC’s Kitchen, the baby back ribs are from Heritage Acres and at Winslow’s Home, Missouri pork shoulder is given a dry rub, slow cooked and pulled, then served with white barbecue sauce on brioche.
Consumer choices matter – they directly support whatever or whoever produced the item you’re buying. The next time you savor the deep flavor of a Red Wattle pork chop or a Tamworth prosciutto, understand that incredible flavor is just one of the benefits of dining snout to tail.
(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)
Catherine Neville is currently the publisher and editor of FEAST Magazine. In 1999, Neville co-founded Sauce Magazine and oversaw its evolution for a decade. Neville serves as a judge for the James Beard Foundation’s restaurant and journalism awards. She sits on the advisory board for L’Ecole Culinaire, a professional culinary school in St. Louis, and is a member of the Association of Food Journalists, American Society of Magazine Editors and the National Association of Press Women.