Pondering the Persistence of Pork on New York’s Pig Island

I once witnessed a pig creep out of an open barn door, into the robust morning sunlight, only to get stabbed in the back of its neck by an electric cattle prod. The sow didn’t go down easy, though, as the prod was unplugged and the beast was back up on its feet, its ear-piercing squeals of imminent death ringing out in the Czech countryside. Eventually, porky succumbed and, between forced shots of slivovice (a plum brandy), I watched my friend Libor and his family and friends dismantle the hog. And then, of course, I participated in consuming it. The day-long porcine feast started with the pig’s brains on toast, then a blood soup, then sausages and deep-fried fat, followed by so much more meat and slivovice that it all became one porklicious blur. When I wrote an article about the experience and sent it out to travel publications, the only responses I received were angry rants from editors asking rhetorical questions about my sanity. (I eventually did get a positive response and the article was published and went on to win a Lowell Thomas travel writing award.)

The reason, I think, it was met with so much initial hostility was that it touched on a subject most Americans were not comfortable with: where our food comes from (literally watching how our sausages get made). The pig killers in question, my friend Libor and his family, partook in this particular swine slaughter every November, as dictated by Czech tradition. They would raise the beast in the barn, from piglet to plus-sized swine, and then kill it and eat it. One take away from witnessing this time-honored Central European ritual was how far American eaters had moved away from this realistic, get-your-hands-dirty approach to our food.

But something has happened between then and now. Case in point: I recently visited Pig Island, a pork fest of beastly proportions that took place on New York’s Governor’s Island. They weren’t slaughtering pigs there, but the place was packed with hungry hog eaters, as almost two dozen New York chefs were there to serve up variations on the theme of sow, with ingredients listed by local farms. I’m in favor of this movement, but I wondered: why has pork been elevated to the foodie farm animal of choice in the last few years?For starters, let’s take a broad view of recent eating history. Besides a handful of books and documentaries focused on where our food comes from, we’ve finally embraced locavore-ism, a food movement that advocates using local ingredients and paying more attention to its provenance. It’s been part of the Bay Area dining landscape for decades — thanks, in part, to Alice Waters – and it just took hold in New York City.

Which is where pork comes in. Pigs have become the main ingredient — the poster pig, if you will — of the locavore movement. Hipsters have embraced bacon as their breakfast (or lunch or diner) of champions. Pig parts like brains, heart, tongue and offal — real Czech pig-killing fare — have popped up on menus from Manhattan to the Mission District. Some chefs, such as April Bloomfield of the Spotted Pig and the Breslin in New York and Ben Ford of Ford’s Filling Station in Culver City, CA. have been especially prolific in their use of pork.

Another is Sara Jenkins, the chef behind beloved Porchetta, located in the New York’s East Village, and soon-to-open Porsena. Fittingly enough, she was the first chef I encountered at Pig Island. “Pork was marketed wrong – remember ‘The Other White Meat?’ – and we really stopped caring about it,” she said, handing out tinfoil-wrapped porchetta sandwiches to the crowd. “But about 15 years ago farmers started taking interest in it again.”

Adam Schop, chef at the new pan-Latin eatery Nuela, who was serving up a pig terrine, expanded on Jenkins’ thoughts when I asked him later in the day about pork’s popularity. For him, it was all about one word: heritage. “Finally pigs are heritage and that’s important because now we can cultivate certain breeds.” And by heritage, he means that pigs went from being only factory farmed where they were bred to produce lean meat with a result that was often dry and bland and just plain not good to farmers trying to revive different breeds of pigs, swine that has a different taste and texture and are treated better.

“But,” added Schop, “this whole trend might be chef driven. We’re on the front lines and we often cook what we like.”

If that’s the case, are we starting to see a pork backlash? After all, I saw zero amounts of bacon at Pig Island. Jimmy Carbone, Pig Island’s organizer and owner of the East Village gastropub, Jimmy’s no. 43, doesn’t think so. Besides, he told me, the chefs at Pig Island had no time to cure bacon, putting to rest any trepidation of a bacon or pork backlash. Super chef Daniel Boulud, though, could be the canary: he recently went on record saying he hopes to open a restaurant next year in which there will be no pork on the menu.

I spent the rest of the day munching my way through Pork Island, snacking on pork tacos, pork buns, pork stew, pork sausages, pork and kimchi tacos, root beer-glazed pork, jerk pork, roasted pork, slow-cooked pork, and various pork pates. If the frenzy for all things swine dies down, I certainly got my fill in one day.