Monday, February 20, 2012

King of the Beasts?

Yesterday we went to a lecture by Brian Polcyn, a chef who specializes in charcutrie (right). He gave an excellent and amusing talk on pork, including raising, slaughtering, and butchering pigs and making many types of European salted and preserved meat dishes from the pork. "The Pig is King," was the title of his powerpoint presentation, and he says that pasture-raised animals from various heritage breeds make fatter pork, which is better to eat. "Fat is your friend," he says.

Polcyn showed us many photos of special types of pigs, both very large and very small, including one type, the Mangalitsa, a Hungarian breed with curly, woolly coats. One Michigan farmer is now raising them, and the chef pays several times the price of ordinary pork for the very special meat they produce.

The images of these pigs were so cute that I am including a photo that was published in the New York Times a couple of years ago, along with an article about this breed of pigs and their recent introduction into American pig breeding and fine dining.

Polcyn explained how every few weeks, he purchases whole or half carcasses and butchers them in one of his two restaurants, where he has a small area in his wine cellar that's temperature and humidity controlled for best hanging of salted prosciutto, pancetta, and sausages. He also uses a laboratory kitchen in the culinary science department of a local college. The entire process takes several months to a year, before he can serve these appealing products in his restaurants. His lecture included a small plate of samples for each attendee -- mmmmmmmmm!

By coincidence, yesterday in the New York Times a pork farmer with a very different point of view wrote an op ed titled "Don’t Presume to Know a Pig’s Mind." Blake Hurst, the author of this op ed, is finds problems in the recent pressures from Chipotle and McDonald's to improve the lives of pigs. He's in a completely different camp from Chef Polcyn, who finds the pigs' quality of life to be very important for many reasons -- including his own ethics for humane treatment of animals and also that better treatment creates better meat (if there's an ethical contradiction in treating an animal humanely up until you kill it, that doesn't figure in his lecture).

Here's what mass-market farmer Blake Hurst has to say about happy pigs:
"According to Chipotle’s Web site, the company uses only “happier” pigs. It doesn’t say how it measures a pig’s happiness, and I can’t help but picture porcine focus groups, response meters designed for the cloven of hoof. We can all agree that production methods should not cause needless suffering, but for all we know, pigs are “happier” in warm, dry buildings than they are outside. And either way, the end result is a plate."
And here's his view of the greater expense of raising pigs with more space and imputed happiness:
"Since we can’t ask the pigs what they think, we know only one thing for sure about the effects of scrapping our most efficient farming systems: the cost of bacon will rise. Wealthy consumers will reward farmers who are able to pull off the Chipotle ad’s brand of combination farm/tourist attraction and are willing to trade efficient animal husbandry for political correctness. Many big multistate operations will also be able to afford to make the changes, or will at least have the political sway to resist them. But the small farmers now raising hogs will be pushed out of the industry."
So, he concludes, farmers are being asked to do two contradictory things to try to satisfy both the humanitarians (or in other cases, ecologists or advocates for other changes in farming practice) and those who want cheap or affordable food. I assume he knows pigs, and that the humane treatment will really cost more -- and Chef Polcyn definitely confirms the much higher price for differently raised animals and small-scale farming. However, I think the generalization is subject to much more analysis, especially when you consider all the other interests that are pressuring the food industry. I wish this discussion didn't remind me of how Monsanto has misled the public about what's good for anyone but Monsanto!

1 comment:

Jeanie said...

Ha! Very good observation about Monsanto! I wish I didn't enjoy meat -- it would make choices so much easier... interesting points here. Nicely done. (One of my verification words is "eatick")