From Pig to Porkchop

It happened once that I can remember specifically, but it probably happened many, many more times during the long years of my childhood, as it’s probably happening right now in kitchens around the country. The time I remember is when I’m about 8 years old. My mother is serving pork chops 1950s style—bone in, with a little bit of applesauce. In my family, I’m known as a “picky eater.” For example, I eat only the very outside of the meat because the bone terrifies me. There’s a black, chalky spot in the center, which—I know now but didn’t know then—is marrow. Some people order plates full of bones specifically to suck on the marrow—in America people do this, even—but I never will. Or at least, I haven’t yet.

The bone is unyielding and hard under the tines of my fork—a hardness that, in an instant, conjures the image of a whole skeleton, then an animal walking, an animal eating, an animal living.

And that’s when my mother says it: “You should know where your food comes from, Tory. If you don’t eat it, you won’t get any dessert.”

Should: the word of shame. It’s the word my mother, and I assume all mothers, use to measure the real child against the child she wishes she had, and the word we use on ourselves for the same purpose. I should floss. I should hang up my clothes the instant I take them off. I should wrap the gift in more than a paper bag.

But does should really apply to knowing where food comes from? My mother has mellowed over the years, but Michael Pollan and his celebrity chef posse have taken her place. Thirty years later, I’m still having the same old argument about a pork chop.

That pork chop started where all pork chops start: in the pig barn. There is only one smell in a pig barn, and it’s not a good one. From a distance, the smell is sweet, not as grassy as in a cow pasture, not as tangy as near a horse barn. But inside the pig nursery, where 50 or so healthy, hot pigs chug along like diesel trucks struggling up a climb, the smell cloys and sticks in the nostrils and the throat. Covering my nose doesn’t do any good. The smell remains hours after I’ve left the farm.

Petrene Moreland, my guide, seems to have a different reaction. She smiles and coos and leans down to pick up a piglet from the farrowing pen. The piglet has a big, wet smear of something on its side.

“Incense,” she says, ignoring the smear, sniffing along the spine. “Pheromones or something. All of Mr. Wrinkles’ piglets have it. I don’t know what it is.”

Petrene runs Sweet Briar Farms, the largest grower of natural pork in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. She’s a pretty 54-year-old, who doesn’t mind what you call her so long as you don’t call her late to dinner. She has dried blood on the cuticles of her left hand, and her toenail polish is chipping. I can see her toenail polish because she’s wearing flip-flops in the barn, which is brave and foolhardy, a bit like wearing open-toed shoes on a construction site: You never know what’s going to fall on your feet.

The piglet she’s cuddling is only about a week old, and she pulled it from the dam herself, just like she pulled nearly all the piglets in this barn. She doesn’t name them, but neither is she overly sentimental about their fate. The barn is only one of many structures strung along a central concrete path that leads the pigs from farrow to finish, or from the nursery to the rusted blue Chevy that will drive them to slaughter. A day after slaughter, they get loaded into a truck and driven to meat coolers in hundreds of restaurants along the I-5 corridor, from the Columbia River to Eugene. They get rubbed and cured and smoked and fried and ground and, finally, often with a bit of sauce, eaten.

I will follow them the whole way, my mother’s “you should know where your food comes from” rattling around in my brain. From pig to pork chop takes about six months, plus or minus. It all starts at the pig barn, with Petrene and Mr. Wrinkles, the ground zero of pork chop.

Petrene has two men in her life: Mr. Wrinkles, the pig, and Cooper, the pig farmer. Petrene started farming at about the same time she first laid eyes on Cooper.

She was working as a truck dispatcher when “here comes this man in his short shorts and muck boots,” Petrene says. “I fell in love with him, watching him carry 50-pound bags of feed. I figured that if he has half as much passion for me as he does for his pigs, I’d be OK.” When she met him seven years ago, the farm had 25 pigs. This year, it has 250 pigs and will gross around a million dollars.

Pearls to swine, my mother told me,” Petrene says. “So I said, ‘Mama, I got swine to pearls.’”

The other man in Petrene’s life is Mr. Wrinkles, a 700-pound purebred Duroc. He’s a beautiful, surly hog, as long as a man is tall, dark red and covered with bristles. His father was a $70,000 grand champion boar. His grandfather was equally blue-ribboned. The Duroc breed is known for its rich, porky flavor and its good feed-to-weight ratio. Though the origin of the breed is a little hazy, most sources agree that the namesake for the breed was a thoroughbred stallion, making the Duroc the only pig to be named after a horse.

The origin of breeds is a matter of folklore, science and speculation to purebred aficionados, and there are clubs, registries and interest groups that track breed sources and development. The American hog goes back as far as Columbus. Back in 1539, De Soto is said to have brought 13 pigs to what is now Tampa Bay. Pigs that escaped from his quickly growing herd became the ancestors to the razorback, which is now hunted in the wild. (Recently, one razorback killed in Georgia was claimed to be 12 feet long and was nicknamed Hogzilla.) By the time the Salem witch trials were heating up, pork was an American staple food. Where did New York City’s Wall Street get its name? According to one story, from the wall built to keep the Indians out; according to another story, that same wall was intended to keep the pigs in.

But back to Mr. Wrinkles, a spoiled pig if ever there was one. He spends his day listening to Top 40 country music, which calms him and gets him in the mood. While Keith Urban sings, Mr. Wrinkles eats, naps and waits for his sows to go into heat. He can mate twice a day but shouldn’t be mated more than 10 times a week, which might tire him out. Sows are rotated in and out of the pen in accordance with their 21-day cycles. Sows can have two litters a year, with up to 27 piglets per litter. Keeping track of which sows can be bred at which times and which are getting ready to birth requires a wall-sized chalkboard, which is posted just to the left of the radio.

Contrary to their reputation, pigs are clean animals—or as clean as an animal can be. Given the option, they’ll produce waste on one side of their pen and eat on the other, without mixing the two. Some natural farms let their pigs loose in fields, but Petrene wants to control what hers eat, which you can’t do if they’re out in the field, eating whatever they find. They don’t have sweat glands, so they like to roll in mud. Six months after birth, pigs’ skin is calloused and rough and covered with bristles. Their eyes are clear and sharp—thinking eyes. The pigs weigh between 230 and 280 pounds when they’re slaughtered. By that time, they’ve eaten about 1,000 pounds of feed, which is usually some mixture of corn and minerals. If a customer requests it, Petrene will finish a pig with hazelnuts or apples, which flavor the meat nutty or tangy. This is all the pig will eat during the last weeks of its life.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in the farm-to-table culture—a culture based on the perception of self-sufficiency combined with the perception of agrarian virtue, wrapped up in a whole lot of good eating—and it’s equally easy to forget how new that culture is. Though California was certifying organic farmers as early as the 1970s, USDA-certified organic wasn’t possible until 2002, when the federal legislation was passed.

Nationally, America has been on a trend toward bigger farms, not smaller. In 1978, for instance, there were 445,117 pig farms in America, selling $90 million worth of meat. Now, there are a quarter of that number, only 124,889 farms in all, but they sell almost twice as much meat. And pigs aren’t big business, not in the way cattle and poultry are. In Oregon, for instance, there are only 17,000 pigs, compared to 1.2 million cattle and 121,000 ewes. The value of the state’s hogs is less than the value of the state’s mink.

Small farms like Sweet Briar are going against the grain. Petrene could choose to sell her meat to a large processing plant, to be packaged and shipped with meat from other growers, but big plants “don’t even keep track of which head goes with which pig,” she says. Instead, Sweet Briar pigs go to Dayton Natural Meats, an organic processing facility an hour up the valley toward Portland.

“We’re small, but we’re not very small,” Dayton’s general manager Bob Dickson says, folding himself into an office chair. Bob is a tall man with blue eyes and hands the size of baseball gloves, a 57-year-old cowboy in manager clothing. He’s been with Dayton for four years, before which he ran the meat science program at Oregon State University, a position he held for 25 years. He’s a meat man’s meat man, the guy who can rattle off 20 of the 70 USDA-recognized “zoonotic diseases” (diseases that can pass from animals to humans), the one who knows—in both Fahrenheit and centigrade—how cold to keep the refrigerators. He’s also friendly and open, the kind of man who probably has a wood shop in his garage, who probably taught his son how to throw and catch a pitch.

“Ready to see the floor?” he asks.

He hands me a hard hat and a hair net, but he has trouble locating a clean smock, so I wear the one that’s on the hook, a white apronlike covering that has spots of red on it—not blood, but the cellular fluid that seeps from meat as its cells break down. It’s OK. I’m wearing long sleeves.

Bob—who must be the world’s best grandfather—smiles patiently while I futz then leads me downstairs, left down one hallway, then through a door with a “no cameras” sign prominently displayed.

I ask why he doesn’t allow photography.

“It’s easy for somebody to use a picture out of context,” he says, aware of the political issues that surround what I’m about to see. In 2008, undercover videos of an Iowa pig farm made by the animal rights activist group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals sparked an investigation into farm practices, and an undercover video of cattle in Chino, Calif., made by the Humane Society led the USDA to recall 143 million pounds of beef, the largest beef recall in history. Animal rights activists have done everything from deliberately poisoning meat supplies to lighting themselves on fire outside of fur stores. (This last act was done just up the street from me, in Portland.) At a conference Bob attended 15 years ago, a man in a Holstein cow costume hid under a table, waited until the talk was well under way, then jumped up and screamed, “Meat is murder; meat is death,” before running away.

When Bob tells me this story, I think about that man in the cow costume, how his mother, like my mother, probably told him he should know where his food came from. He went one way; I went another.

Dayton Natural Meats was built in 1949. The original cinder-block building is now enveloped inside a climate-controlled, germ-controlled exterior, creating a mazelike system of rooms inside rooms and coolers inside coolers. “Places like this,” Bob says, “you get used to the cold.”

Tours of the plant run backward, from the clean “reefer” units (refrigerated shipping trucks) to the dirty slaughterhouse floor. Everybody in the plant wears hard hats and hairnets, and they step through foot baths between each part of the facility. Small bits of animals—a slice of fat here, a hair or two there—float in the shallow tubs after the men have stepped through them.

Animals come in direct from the farms, and they leave in one of three ways: as carcasses and half carcasses covered with plastic bags; as individual cuts vacuum-sealed and packed in boxes; and in plastic jugs labeled “inedible,” which are sold directly to the rendering factory to make industrial-grade animal products.

“Everything has animal byproducts,” Bob says. “How did you get here today? You drove. Your antifreeze has animal byproducts. Your tires. The asphalt. Everything.”

Sweet Briar pigs arrive from the farm in the back of the rusted blue Chevy. They pull up to one of four unloading gates, which lead to the chute, which itself leads down to the stunning pen, where the pigs get two shocks: one to the head to stun them and one to the heart to put them under. “We don’t want to see any animals blinking,” Bob says. The pigs are hung on hooks and held over the exsanguination drain, which catches their blood, some of which is later sold to Asian-food markets as a specialty item. The carcasses slide on hooks to a 140-degree water bath, in which they stay for two minutes. The bath loosens their hair, which is first scraped off by mechanical paddles, then hand-scrapers, then singed with a propane torch just to be sure. Hair continues to grow on the carcass after death—technically, the skin shrinks around the hair, which makes it seem as if it’s growing—which is why a pig carcass sometimes feels stubbly, like my legs two days after shaving. Carcasses cool overnight and are processed the next day. Nine butchers stand around a table, bandsaw and conveyer belt running assembly-line-style, cutting sides of pig into useable parts. Almost everything is used—skin for chicharrones, head for headcheese. “If we could figure out how to eat the squeal, we would,” Bob says.

The plant is run to organic standards. It is very, very clean and surprisingly bloodless. But the smells are hard to handle. In the cutting rooms, which are kept cold, the smell is a combination of cleaning solution, refrigerator air and the sweet smell of meat. In the kill room, which is not refrigerated, the smell is sticky and metallic—the smell of wet, dead animal, the kind of smell that sits in your nostrils and worms its way into your very spine. This is an unsavory stage between the farm and my table. I’d rather not know that my food once smelled like this.

At the end of the tour, I take my hard hat off, throw out my hairnet and hang the smock back on the hook where I found it. Quickly I take my leave, wishing I was still a smoker so I’d have something to replace the kill room smell that’s crawling down the back of my throat.

From Dayton Natural Meats to the restaurant coolers is an hour drive through the Willamette Valley into Portland, a track of highway that runs smack through the middle of some of the most historically fertile agriculture land in the country. During the pre-industrial farming years, which ended about the time that World War II ended and nitrogen fertilizer allowed farms to increase productivity a thousandfold, the valley was one of only two landscapes in the West that received enough rain to make farming possible without irrigation.

Sweet Briar deliveries are made by Kim Dougherty, a 39-year-old mother of five and grandmother of two, who drives the repurposed bread truck as if she was born into it, leaning forward and talking over the diesel hum. The reality, though, is that she’s only been doing this for two months, ever since the last driver backed out and she had to pick up the slack. Before she worked at the farm, she “worked all over.” The place she mentions most is the ceramic pot factory. “If I see another ceramic pot, I’m going to die.” She came out west with a man but divorced him shortly after they arrived in Oregon. It’s a messy story. She found the job at Sweet Briar through him because he knew somebody who told him the farm needed help.

She’s too polite to say it, but I think Kim’s mystified by my desire to sit in the passenger seat with her—next to a pack of Pall Malls, a McDonald’s bag and a hammer rolling around the passenger well of the delivery truck—and hop in and out of the cab, following her through the back passageways of kitchens, waiting while she does the paperwork then following her back out again. I have a clipboard notepad, which, while moving, I find easier to write on than a normal floppy notepad. But food industry people regard the clipboard warily, as if I might be a health inspector or some other official come to complicate their lives.

On the day we deliver the pork, Kim is dressed in a T-shirt, running shoes and shorts, and, if our conversation in the truck wanders from the personal to the professional and back again, when she gets out of the truck, she’s all about business. At 5 foot 6 inches, she is at least 3 feet shorter than all of the cooks and kitchen staff we meet over the course of the day, but she hoists a 100-pound carcass as if it’s nothing.

“OK,” she says, knocking on the kitchen door of Laurelwood Pub around noon. “Where do you want the pig?”

The cook says he’ll take it.

Kim frowns. The pig, intended for a summer luau, weighs 82 pounds. It’s slung over her shoulder like a dead man.

After a moment’s hesitation, she hoists the carcass from her shoulder to his. It’s covered in plastic, cool to the touch and has the stubble feeling Bob from Dayton meats said it would have.

“Oh, it’s heavy,” the cook says.

“Yeah,” she replies. “It’s heavy.”

Later, she laughs.

“They’re surprised a woman can get it,” she says. “The looks on people’s faces when a girl is pulling a half a hog out of a truck. You should get Petrene to tell you this story, but one day she was delivering and she lifts up this carcass and the head rolls right out onto the road. Then everybody’s looking at this woman carrying this pig head down the street.”

In the back of the truck, the carcasses are laid over each other, foot to foot and chest cavity to chest cavity. The day I ride with her, Kim delivers 11 carcasses, totaling 1,350 pounds—a little more than a half-ton. Most of the cooks say the same thing when they see her: “Wow” and “Whoa” and “That’s quite a pig.” She leaves Portland around 3 p.m. to drive the two hours back down the I-5 to Eugene. Then she’ll log the deliveries at the farm and help with whatever they need, ending her day 13, 14, 15 hours after she began.

She drops me back at my car just before she hits the road. I tell her thank you and ask if I can call her if I have questions later. She agrees.

“I love this kind of work,” she says, “but you’ve got to do the work to understand. Until you do, you have no idea.”

Now this is a higher standard, I think as she pulls the truck away. Not only should I know where my food comes from, but I should do the work of making my food myself. I like to think of myself in a certain flattering light, but could I really handle a day at the farm, an afternoon shouldering carcasses, a morning spent on the kill-room floor? I’m a city girl. A pig tourist.

At least the dinner part should be easy, I think. I’ve contacted chef Scott Ketterman at Simpatica Dining Hall in Portland and asked him if I could come watch him prepare and serve a Sweet Briar pig. Simpatica is known for its simple, pure plates—dishes that preserve the nature of the food being served. I’d never been there, but I’d heard raves. Absolutely, Scott says. Come on down. My stomach gurgles with joy.

The pig on the menu was about 6 months old and 240 pounds live-weight before it was trucked to Dayton, slaughtered, butchered, chilled and delivered by Kim to Simpatica, where it was unloaded in two sides, plus the head, totaling 180 pounds of meat, tendon and bone. “A little of this pig is going everywhere,” Scott says. “The cheek and the tongue are for dinner tonight. The loins and shoulder are for tonight. The chops are for brunch. Ribs are for the staff meal, and the spleen is a Sunday snack for my family. I’m going to wrap it in bacon.”

Spleen? Have I ever tasted spleen before? I wonder, imagining Scott’s children spooning up spleen and sucking marrow from bones with abandon.

Scott sets me up on a stool next to the stainless steel counter on which most of the prep work occurs. My stool is across from Jesse, a wide-eyed, willing cook who is wrist- deep in cooked shoulder meat. The shoulder had a dry rub, followed by a 200-degree, 16-hour smoking.

Jesse’s fingers glisten with fat. After the servings are separated and weighed, he pulls two large trays from the walk-in fridge and scrapes a solid layer of fat from the top with a spoon. What’s left is the gelatinous brown collagen drippings the shoulder secreted as it smoked.

“It’s got a mind of its own,” Jesse says, trying to wrangle the fat off the top of the jelly.

Scott walks over, grabs a spoon and demonstrates the proper method of scraping. Jesse watches silently.

“Got it?” Scott asks.

“Yeah,” Jesse replies.

“This course is going to crush people,” Scott says, admiring the hunks of shoulder Jesse had spent the last half-hour pulling.

Dinner seating starts at 7:30, by which time the prep work is done and the music has changed from ’80s rock to jazz. Two of the first guests to arrive are Mike and Joan Priwer. They wave to Scott, call him by name, come into the kitchen to say hello. They eat at Simpatica at least once a week. They are regulars. Fans.

“We really like to eat,” Joan says, turning to the menu, which includes a terrine with grain mustard, pickled cherries and crostini, followed by roast loin sliced so thin you can see a shadow move behind it. The meal crescendos to the slow-smoked Danish shoulder with a sweet corn succotash. “That’s a whole lot of pork,” Joan says.

Back in the kitchen, the staff are plating the first course, the tongue and cheek terrine. To make this particular terrine, Scott explains, his cooks “basically took the head and sawed it in half ” then “took out the icky stuff, the brains and the glands, and injected the head with brine. The meat turned pink. We cooked it slowly then took out the cheek and tongue meat. We made a clarified pork stock with egg whites and veggies, chilled that overnight, then cubed the meat, checked the gelatin levels, put it in the molds and chilled it so it can hold its shape. You want to be able to slice it, but you want it to melt in your mouth.”

He holds the knife and gently depresses it into the soft, wobbly gelatin. “Could be a hair tighter,” he says. “This is going to be a bitch to slice.”

Between each slice, Scott wipes off his blade. The rest of the staff are spooning pickled cherries and grain mustard onto plates, cleaning up any spots before taking the plates to table.

He also makes a plate for me. I’ve never tasted headcheese before, so I don’t have anything to compare it to. I imagine the head sawed in half and the icky stuff falling out. Then I banish this image from my mind. The forkful tastes like a soft, buttery soup with a hint of gravy. It’s good. It’s honestly, legitimately yummy.

After the meal at Simpatica, I go home, wash the kitchen smells off me and crawl into bed. I wake up with a fuzz on my tongue and no taste at all for pork. I have a freezer full of sausages and bacon from Sweet Briar, but in the freezer they will stay. Why? The research is done; my questions have been answered. I now know where my food comes from, with the effect being that every time I taste pork, I taste the manure of the barn, the wet animal smell of the kill room and the smoky, fatty air of the kitchen. I have lost my taste for pork.

The taste comes back—suddenly and with a vengeance—with a nice big hunk of bacon one Sunday morning.

I know where you come from, I tell the piece of bacon, and I know where you’re going.

I take my first bite, and then I take another.

About the Author

Victoria Blake

Victoria Blake is a graduate of the Warren Wilson Program for Writers. She is the publisher of Underland Press—an award-winning press, which publishes science fiction, fantasy and dark fantasy—and Fourth Chapter Books.

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