How to Reap the Benefits of Local Pork

My Iowa-farm-raised grandmother cooked pork chops so fine, fork-tender and juicy, we grandchildren would salivate waiting for the platter to pass. We’d eat her mashed potatoes with red-eye gravy, the succotash and the sliced tomatoes with the knife-and-fork manners of civilized children. When we finished the dainty process of cutting and eating our chop, however, we gnawed on the bones like savages. In the 1960s, the words factory and farm weren’t linked, pigs still wallowed, and pork had a taste worth remembering.

Since then, consumer demand for low-fat diets drove the pork industry to breed leaner hogs. And taste took a nose dive. “Fat is where the flavor is in pork,” said Bryan Truemper, owner of Farrar Out Farms. “We decided to raise pigs because pork is my favorite meat. I wanted a better-tasting pork.”

When Truemper began farming, he chose the Berkshire hog. The meat, a darker red, is well-marbled and tender. “Customers tell me it’s the best pork they’ve had, the pork they remember from when they were kids.” Berkshires take longer to finish than common hogs, coming to market a full two months later than a conventional hog. Truemper credits pasturing, his custom feed mix and slower growth for producing a tastier pig.

He recommended slow cooking techniques for the more muscular pasture-raised pork. For tender chops, he browns both sides, then braises them in chicken stock over medium-low heat for 45 minutes to maximize flavor. He makes a mean pork picatta. “I start the pork with onions in a chicken stock with white wine, then add a lemon and finish with capers. I don’t pound it or flour it, but flouring the chops would help thicken the sauce,” he said.

I’ve tried Berkshire bacon – words fail. Best BCTs I ate last summer. Slap slices of Cherokee Purple tomatoes on toasted sourdough, top with Berkshire bacon cooked so crisp it’s a hair from burnt, add Tasty Jade cukes sliced wafer thin, slather on plain old Hellman’s mayo, a little salt and fresh ground pepper. Grab a napkin. That’s a food memory to rival my grandmother’s chops. Imagine that bacon on the holiday breakfast table, or a fine Berkshire roast in the oven. Pass the mashed potatoes and gravy.

This year, in his pursuit of perfect pork, Truemper’s raising super-tasty Red Wattle hogs. Red Wattles made the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy’s priority list of critically endangered breeds about 15 years ago. “We register fewer than 200 hogs annually,” said Anneke Jakes, breed registry manager for the ALBC. “We are starting to see a market for them because fine restaurants are serving Red Wattle.” Look for Truemper’s Red Wattles to appear on menus at Monarch Restaurant and at Erato on Main sometime this winter. Next spring, Truemper plans to offer the Red Wattle meat at Kirkwood and Maplewood markets.

Other local pork of note comes from Hinkebein Hills Farm, where Karlios Hinkebein pastures Chester Whites and Tamworth hogs. He’s recently opened a state-inspected plant on his farm where he makes sausage, and smokes bacon and hams. Hinkebein also runs a small store at the farm. “Customers drive up, and sometimes the baby pigs get excited, squeeze under the fence and run out on the gravel drive,” he said. “That’s free range.”

Hinkebein butchers, too, with customers favoring pork chops, except for summer, when pork steaks rule. “Everybody loves the pork tenders, shoulders for pulled pork and for smoking. I’m selling fresh bellies, too, for people who want to do their own curing,” he said. Whole tenderloins, cured hams, sausages and bacon are good holiday sellers for Hinkebein, but he asks customers to order the whole tenderloins ahead of time.

Like Truemper, Hinkebein cooks pork slow and low. “I do most everything slow-smoked. For ribs, I use the smokers, at 225 degrees. I let it go four and a half hours, pork loins a bit longer. I get it to 155 degrees, then take it out, wrap it in tin foil. It cooks itself up to 160 degrees in no time.” Ribs for New Year’s, anyone?

Buying these fine pork products is easy. You can visit both farmers at the Maplewood Winter Farmers’ Market, and Farrar Out Farms will continue delivering to customers at the Kirkwood Farmers’ Market. Hinkebein Hills Farm products will be at the St. Louis Community Farmers’ Market and Local Harvest Grocery this winter, as well as at the farm. When you buy, you help preserve breed diversity in the hog population.

Today, all heirloom breeds of pork make up a very small percentage of pork production in the United States, according to Glenn Grimes, professor emeritus of agricultural economics at the University of Missouri. Breed diversity in hogs is narrowing rapidly, but Grimes predicts a future for heirloom hogs. “I see niche markets developing. People are somewhat more concerned about where their food is coming from.”

Just researching this article convinced me I only want to eat pork from pigs roaming free. It will cost a bit more, but the taste, supporting diversity and the salve to my conscience will be worth the price.