Monday, September 20, 2010

Hog Heaven and the Taste of Karma-lized Pork

To say the Willis family farm stands in stark contrast to the factory farms that surround it doesn't do it justice. To me this is literally hog heaven vs. hog hell.

I was invited by Niman Ranch to attend
their 12th Annual Farmer Appreciation Dinner in Des Moines, which was lovely, but the real highlight of the trip was meeting Paul Willis, and touring his family's hog farm.

Joining a large, diverse group of chefs, purveyors, restaurateurs, and reporters, we headed north by bus about 100 miles to Thornton, Iowa.

Along the way, Ashley, one of Niman Ranch's field inspectors, pointed out the many CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) we were passing. The destruction that these "farms" do to our land, water, and arguably souls, is well documented.

Having read books by people like Michael Pollan, and seen movies like Food Inc., I knew about such places, but there was something eerie and ominous about driving by so many (there are over 8,000 CAFOs in Iowa alone) on the way to the Willis farm. By the way, if you are into horizons, you should really take a bus trip across Iowa's flat plains.

When we got to the farm, we were greeted by Paul Willis, the man most responsible for Niman Ranch's thriving network of over 500 hog farmers. Niman's motto is "Raised with Care," and after hearing Paul talk about his animals, his farm, and his mission, you could tell this is much more than just an advertising slogan to him.

Before we hit the field, someon
e from Niman Ranch showed us some pork raised in a factory farm (on the left) vs. pork raised under their strict guidelines. As the photo here illustrates, pork is not suppose to be "the other white meat." Real pork is marbled with fat, has a beautiful pink/red hue, and firm texture. Conventionally raised pork is pale, squishy, and almost devoid of the naturally flavorful fat. Hey, at least it's really cheap.

Then we got to meet the pigs, but not before being made to put on these clear plastic boots. I'm not sure why we were all made to slip these on, but I assume it's some sort of odd Iowan fashion thing.

I kind of liked the look, but I
was amazed at how much my calves and ankles sweated. The good news is my lower legs have never looked more toned.

After a short walk through native grasses and alfalfa, we were right smack in the middle of Paul's 300 hogs, which could only be described as "happy." I know that may sound Pollyannaish, but that's exactly the vibe I got. Pigs are very intelligent animals, and quite emotive, and to watch them frolicking around, and interacting with this large group of strangers, you got the clear sense they were enjoying every minute of it.

I swear some were actually smiling at me, although in fairness it could have been gas, but still. Some of the larger sows seem to gravitate towards the photographers like attention starved, albeit overweight, Hollywood starlets.

In general, I'd have to say most of these pigs were jus
t big hams. Wow, it took eleven paragraphs before I resorted to a bad pig pun. Not bad.

The stars of the show were clearly the newly born piglets, some small enough to juggle (which I was asked to stop doing for fear of injury). They darted here and th
ere, disappearing in and out of the tall alfalfa. There's cute, and then there's baby pig cute. Here's a very short video I hope captures some of their adorableness.

So why are these hogs so seemingly happy? Niman Ranch points to their strict protocols, which Paul Willis helped develop. The animals must be given plenty of room to graze, be fed only high-quality, vegetarian feed, and never be subjected to antibiotics or growth hormones. As Paul joked, his hogs really only have one bad day.

So your thinking, sure they're probably happier and healthier, but do they taste good? Oh yes, they do. After our tour, we stripped off our plastic booties (which by that time I'd grown strangely fond of) and headed down the road to the Willis' family home for an amazing whole hog roast, complete with a table full of delicious food prepared with obvious love and pride by Paul's wife Phyllis.

The scene was right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. The sweet smell of manure, weathered barns, tall grasses bending in the breeze, cats bouncing, dogs begging, cocks crowing, and a hayride.

Here you see me along with Paul, and two fellow bloggers, Danielle from Bon Vivant, and Tina from Carrots 'N' Cake. The setting was so perfect, and the characters so authentic, we three joked that these must be actors brought in by Niman Ranch for the weekend.

After a gorgeous sunset, we headed back to Des Moines, bellies full of pork, hearts full of joy in the knowledge that people like this really do still exist, and that their numbers are growing. My sincerest thanks to the Willis family and Niman Ranch for an unforgettable experience.

The following evening we enjoyed a wonderful meal at the 12th Annual Farmer Appreciation Dinner, and I will post a photo recap of that tomorrow. Stay tuned!

All photos (c) John Mitzewich, except hayride photo (c) Tina from Carrots 'N' Cake.

Disclosure: All travel, lodging, and food on this trip were provided for by Niman Ranch.


Carolyn™ said...

That pork sure looks good.

Unknown said...

i work at whole foods richardson in texas. i work the deli/juice bar/prepared foods area and we sell niman ham in the deli case. i knew it was my favorite thing in that case for a reason. :)
wonderful report on a GOOD company!

Jill Drapcho said...

Years ago, I sampled a pork loin dish in a cooking demo cooking class. The pork. which was bred to be lean, was almost too tough to chew, and as dry and flavorless as overcooked chicken breast! Around the same time, I sampled roast suckling pig raised organically and humanely--truly devine! Thank you, Chef John, for putting this on your website!

Liza/SkeeterNYC said...

Those baby pigs were adorable...what a great experience to visit the farm. Changes how you think about food, no?

Hope to see you in NYC next month Chef ;) - Liza -

Chef John said...

Yes, I think my conventional pork days are over. I've always been a fan of Niman, but was guilty of buying regular (ie cheep) pork as well. You will see me for sure!!

Luatica said...

Maybe the foot thingies were in case there was some piggie poop around?

Chef John said...

Yes, I believe that was the actual purpose. It was a lame attempt at humor.

KrisD said...

Mmmm, marbled pork! Seems to me that the newly-bred lean tasteless pork hasn't helped either our collective waistlines or heart health or whatever (which was one goal of breeding said lean meat).

Give me happy pigs or give me nothing!

sequimteeth said...

Besides the pig litter, I bet it has something to do with disease control too. Really looks like you had a good time. The whole pig looks awesome.

Anonymous said...

You are my FAVORITE food blog. Your recipes are so much fun and so easy to follow.

This is simply a curiosity. Why is "the pioneer woman cooks" not on your list of food friends?

Chef John said...

Not personal, but I don't read her blog. The better question is, why isn't my blog on her links list?! ;-)

Anonymous said...

Oh, Oh .. the pale one looks like the pork chops I get at Costco. (Head down in shame.)

Anonymous said...

Chef John,
About the "Pioneer Woman" thing, you are so right. The better question IS why are you not on hers.

Anonymous said...

After seeing all the pigs and baby pigs, it was a shock to see the cooked whole pig. It makes me sad.
I was at a grocery store Saturday and they had a whole pig head in the meat case. They also had a whole cows head, complete with teeth. It was a little shocking to see.

Don Madrid said...

Mmmmmm pork.

Chef John, if you ever get to Spain, you have to sample the meat from Iberian hogs. It's marbled and tender and fatty in a good way. There is a cut called "secreto" I think its a flap they cut off where the loin meets the ribs...awesome!

Anonymous said...

Could we see a larger image of the "bad" vs "nice" pork chop?

Chef John said...

Sorry, I only took these smaller low res pics for the blog.

Anonymous said...

Hello Chef John,

Those plastic "booties" are issued to visitors to the farm to prevent you and your fellow guests from tracking any foreign viruses or sicknesses that may be on your shoes into the areas where the animals are, thus making them sick. It is always better to prevent an outbreak of disease that to try and cure it with antibiotics etc. The added bonus is that you don't take pig poo back on the plane for your fellow passengers to enjoy the smell of!

Call me Big Goat Roper

Chef John said...

Yes, thanks! I did know that, but was trying to be funny.

Anonymous said...

How horrible you guys are sick!!!!!!!
Animal cruelty for REAL!!!!!!!!!

w3bd3v said...

Oh please, this is not animal cruelty. They at least get to roam free and have a good little life. Animal cruelty is not letting them be the pigs that they truly are, and feeding them hormones, and other things that don't belong in their diets. This is the farthest thing from animal cruelty in the meat industry.

Carrie Oliver said...

I would have loved to have been included on this trip! I've heard and read a lot about the pork program at Niman Ranch but haven't had the chance to see it in person. Sadly, they don't have distribution in Toronto and there's no equivalent program.

I'm curious, what breed(s) is Mr. Willis raising? Are all of the producers raising the same breed(s), too? It would be great to include their pork in my next Artisan Pork Tasting event.

Thank you for the great post.


Chef John said...

Thanks Carrie. I will be sure to recommend you for next year's press trip! It looked like their were several different breeds from the appearances of the animals, but not sure which.

Anonymous said...
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Kristi Mc said...

I have never chimed in here, but since I am an Iowan, this caught my interest! I grew up knowing that there were more pigs in my state than people! Chef, John, I love your site! I can't wait to try some of your pork chop recipes!
Oh, and the sunsets are gorgeous here!! ;-) 'tis a great place to raise a family (which is why I have six kids and a need for recipes that will satisfy all!)

Sally said...

A couple of years ago we won a half a hog at a local fundraiser which had been raised organically (like Nieman Farms). Oh. My. God! Having eaten pork all my life (I am an Iowan, after all) I had no idea how much more flavor that meat has compared to what I have been eating. Not only is there more fat, but the muscle that has been exercised and not stressed just has so much more flavor; it's just incredible. Sadly we're down to a few packages of chops left from that hog and we're saving them for the grill this summer. Nothing better than Iowa Chops on the grill! (Of course, basted with Jay's "secret" baste...)

Unknown said...

Hi Chef John! We are such big fans of yours. Would you ever do a video about Roast Suckling Pig?