An Iowa Heirloom – Pork with Real Flavor – New York Times

New York Times

By R.W. Apple Jr

AGRICULTURE, they tell you the moment you get to Des Moines, no longer rules the local economy. Corn and pigs are no longer kings.

Well, maybe not, but farm traditions die hard. Although almost half of Iowa’s pork producers went out of business between 1992 and 1997, the surviving family farmers cling to their debt-ridden, often economically marginal farms the way grand old English families hang on to their country houses, even when the roof leaks and the servants are long gone.

Hogs still outnumber people here five to one. Lots of people eat pork sandwiches, made from breaded, deep-fried tenderloins, instead of hamburgers. At the Iowa State Fair, an 11-day extravaganza each August, hungry Hawkeyes in bib overalls and print dresses flock to a huge dining hall called the Pork Tent.

And Iowa still chooses a lissome young thing every year to wear a crown and a pigskin sash that identifies her as the Iowa Pork Queen.

Pork queen? Anywhere else, call a young woman a pork queen and she breaks down in sobs, heads for the guidance counselor and asks her mother where she went wrong. In Iowa, the title is a badge of honor.

Big corporate operators have taken over the bulk of Iowa’s pork production, with dire results not only for the small farmer but also for those of us who were raised on succulent pork chops and pork roasts. Fat gives pork some of its flavor, but modern hogs are bred to minimize fat; producers noticed that Americans were choosing chicken over beef. Raised in close quarters inside enormous metal buildings, the hogs foul the air for miles around, and their meat is bland, dry and tough when cooked.

”Pork, the other white meat,” the ads say. Right they are; much of it, as Edward Behr wrote last summer in his erudite newsletter, The Art of Eating, ”is as lean and characterless as factory chicken breast.”

A marketing group called [Berkwood] Farms, sells pork from their farm and 85 other family farms that raise pigs known as Berkshires, which originated in England 300 years ago. The breed is well known for its flavorful meat, well marbled with fat.

Try the gingered pork tenderloin at Bistro 43 in Des Moines, and you will taste the difference. Jeremy Morrow, 32, the chef, told me that he always has Berkwood Farms pork on his menu, prepared in a number of ways. The meat is moist, tender and almost buttery, with a bright, fresh taste. You know that you have hold of a piece of pig.

[Berkwood Farms] know[s] that their pork tastes better, but for them, what is more important is that it commands a premium price. It has enabled them to escape the trap of commodity pricing.

Overproduction has driven the price of everyday pork below the amount that it costs a small farmer to produce.  As a rule of thumb, it takes about $100 to raise a hog for market, and the price has fallen below that level more often in the last few years than it has risen above it. Most small farmers struggle to break even.

Things are bad for little guys everywhere. Glenn Grimes, an economist who does studies for the National Pork Producers Council, estimated recently that 8,000 hog farmers across the country quit the business in 1998 and 8,000 more quit last year.

At the moment, it costs about 40 cents to produce a pound of pork, which then sells for 38 to 39 cents. [Berkwood] Farms pork, however, fetches roughly 50 cents a pound from its customers, mostly clubs and restaurants in central Iowa.

Hogs that are too lean cannot stand the cold outdoors.

A second factor is P.S.S., for porcine stress syndrome, which is caused by a gene often carried by breeds used for factory farming. It makes the animals more efficient — that is, they produce more pounds of lean meat per pound. But they often produce meat that [is described] as P.S.E. The letters stand for pale, soft and exudative. Exudative meat loses much of its moisture as it cooks, which is why a fried pork chop can taste like leather.

Beef is classified by the federal government, with ”utility” at the bottom of the scale, ”prime” at the top. The more marbling, the higher the grade, but no such classification exists for pork.

Ken Prusa, a professor of food science at Iowa State University in Ames, argued that moisture, not fat, is the key to flavor. Low-fat, high-moisture pork, if not overcooked, can be delicious, he asserted, although most top chefs pay top dollar to get pork with a higher fat content.

One problem is that most home cooks and some chefs overcook pork in their determination to kill any lurking trichinae, the parasites that cause trichinosis. But with the disappearance of pork produced from pigs fed on garbage, and improvements in hog-rearing methods, Professor Prusa said, the chances of contracting trichinosis are nearly nil.

In any event, he added, no one need fear pork cooked to medium — 160 degrees, with a bit of pink at the center. Other food technologists assert that medium-rare pork, cooked to 145 degrees, is perfectly safe. Some professional cooks here and abroad cook pork less than that. Heston Blumenthal, the chef at the Fat Duck near London, which has two stars in the Michelin guide, cooks his chops, cut from the loins of Tamworth or Middlewhite hogs, less than that, serving them at 135 degrees, still rosy-pink.

”The chances of someone getting sick from eating pork are a thousand times smaller than those of picking up bacteria from chicken,” Mr. Blumenthal said. ”I think that pork is probably the safest thing we serve.”

Breed also counts. Berkshires produce somewhat smaller loins, which means fewer pounds of salable meat, but the meat has very fine fibers, which give it greater water retention capacity, and more tiny veins of intramuscular fat, which give it a more full-bodied flavor.

[Iowa hog farmers] raise both purebred Berkshires and Berkshire hybrids, for which Berkshires are crossed with other breeds like Durocs, one of the major commercial breeds. The hybrids, 75 percent Berkshire, grow faster, and the sows give birth to larger litters, while retaining the desirable characteristics of purebreds.

His charges are fed soybean meal, ground corn and vitamins and minerals, but no animal byproducts and no antibiotics, which are standard for many factory pigs. They are energetic, curious beasts, mostly black with an occasional splotch of brown. Almost all of them have a white flash on the face, a white tip on the tail and white markings on all four feet.

As I watched them, I thought about Wilbur, E. B. White’s lovable pig, who learns the hard facts about life and death in ”Charlotte’s Web.”

EVENTUALLY, [Berkwood Farms] wants to sell [their] pork nationwide. Already, [they] noted, Berkshire pork has attracted a wide following; Japanese customers, who are notoriously picky about meat, like Berkshire pork so much that they buy most of the production of farmers affiliated with another marketing group, American Berkshire Gold.