Traveling culinary competition makes for swine time

Two garish, heavily-tattooed girls approached me and my friend Adrienne, and pointed their weapons at us. “Pig liver mousse?” asked the blonde, aiming a whipped cream dispenser at me. Her brunette counterpart stood silently, wielding a squeeze bottle of barbecue sauce and a tray of meaty tidbits.

Welcome to the second annual Cochon 555, a lard-fueled, traveling circus of five chefs, five winemakers, and five pig carcasses. It’s actually a 10-city tour, with each destination’s chefs engaging in “friendly competition” for a great cause: “to promote and preserve heritage pigs, and breed diversity in local and national communities.”

Heritage livestock are domestic breeds that are threatened with extinction due to the demands of modern agriculture. In the words of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, “Modern food production now favors the use of a few highly specialized breeds selected for maximum output in a controlled environment.”While some may find it ironic and hypocritical to eat, glorify, and promote animals in the name of saving them, you’re entitled to your opinion. For the rest of you, not only do heritage breeds help to preserve genetic diversity, but they also taste better. Many heritage breeds possess a “true” flavor inherent to the animal, i.e., pork tastes…more porky. Heritage breeders in general also have an emphasis on animal welfare, sustainable farming and animal husbandry practices, and regionality, as they’re generally small, family outfits. It’s hard to argue with those ethics if bacon makes you salivate.

I attended Seattle’s Cochon 555 on May 23rd to support the cause, as well as watch local chefs like John Sundstrom (Lark), and Tamara Murphy (Brasa) duke it out. Each competitor is chosen based on their support of local food sourcing and commitment to sustainability; the pigs are sourced from ranches dedicated to preserving heritage breeds. While the chefs prepare tasting plates (they’re allowed free rein on preparation method) for the guests, local family winemakers keep the grape flowing. Guests help select the winning chef by voting for their favorite, along with a panel of 20 judges. The victor of each destination is crowned “Prince or Princess of Porc,” and moves on to compete in the Grand Cochon finale, to be held June 20 at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen.

Cochon 555 also includes a VIP “Meat & Greet” with local foods and producers, a “Swine & Spirits” mixology showcase, and- my favorite- a demonstration breakdown of a whole pig carcass. San Francisco’s Ryan Farr of 4505 Meats (and producer of the best damn chicharrones on earth) made a guest appearance in Seattle, and proceeded to dismantle a 140-pound pig before an awestruck audience. The results were raffled off, leaving each lucky winner clutching a package of pork to their chest.

Adrienne and I wandered around, sampling everything from tortellini with pig brains in a pork dashi, to apple-bacon ice cream, and red velvet cupcakes with whipped (sweetened) lard frosting. Not everything was good, mind you, and I can live a full life without eating the lard-shortbread version of a Snickers bar ever again, but chef Chester Gerl’s (Matt’s in the Market) cochinita pibil, a Yucatecan-style preparation made from a Red Wattle pig from Lazy S Farm in Kansas , was outstanding. I also thorougly enjoyed the mini “ultimate BLT” of chef Adam Stevenson’s (Earth & Ocean) cocoa-cured bacon, bologna, and smoked coppa, with tomato jam.

While the $125 price tag ($175 for VIP pass) is too steep- at least, at the Seattle event, where the food and drink ran out before the sun even began to set, it’s for an important cause. Even if you don’t eat meat, there’s a dire need for more humane livestock management, and stricter regulation on livestock production, waste management, and processing. As we used to say at the meat shop I once worked at, “Praise the Lard!”