A chef experiences where
his pork comes from
BY JOHN COX
Photo by Rob Fisher
Photo by John Cox
As I left Carmel-by-the-Sea and headed southeast, a strong ocean breeze was already pushing dark rain clouds overhead. But after a half-hour of driving deep into Carmel Valley, I managed to get far enough ahead of the storm to catch a glimpse of sun. Once I had turned off the road and had driven up a long gravel driveway, animals began to appear: first a handful of goats lounging beneath a stand of oaks, then a pack of barking dogs and finally, a pasture filled with an array of beautiful, happy-looking pigs.
As a chef, “calling in my meat order” is the politically correct way of saying that I just put pork cheeks on the menu and now it is time for someone to go kill 90 pigs so I can get three cases of hermetically sealed, ready-to-throw-in-the-pan nuggets of meat. I do this several times a week, sentencing thousands of cows, goats, pigs, chickens, bison, lambs, rabbits, deer, ducks and quail to the chopping block. Not once have I felt any moral dilemma or guilt.
But faced with the task of picking three pigs from a group standing a few yards away, I hesitated. There were sleek black-and-white Berkshires, striking red Tamworths, long, bristly snouted Russian wild boar, tender pink Yorkshires and a half-dozen different crossbreeds. They all looked so content, rooting in the dirt, leaning on their siblings and drinking from a motion-activated spigot of artesian spring water.
Eventually, I reluctantly pointed to a young wild boar reminiscent of the wild pigs I had seen strapped to hunting trucks when I had worked and lived on Maui. Next, I gestured towards two muscular Berkshires, and all three were corralled into a gated holding area. I tossed an apple from my bag into the pen. The pigs rolled it around with their noses before taking a few timid bites and then inhaling it with enthusiasm. BANG! A pig jolted and then dropped to the ground. At this point some primal instinct took over. The bullet knocks the animal’s nervous system offline only briefly, and it’s the loss of blood that actually kills it. So for the animal’s sake, it’s important to move quickly. I stepped over the fence, grabbed the pig by the front leg and plunged an 8-inch chef’s knife through its jugular and into its heart, releasing a crimson torrent of warm blood. For a moment there was calm, then the animal convulsed into a final death roll. As the pig lay in a pool of blood, its feet pointing toward the overcast sky, the adrenaline I had felt moments before was replaced with the macabre reality of our task. While I gathered my thoughts, Jaime and Amber—two of my accomplices—quickly dispatched the other two pigs in similar fashion.
We moved each pig onto a big, open-air work table and washed them thoroughly with a hose. Working on one pig at a time, we poured hot water from an iron tub over a section of hide, quickly scraping to remove patches of hair. If the water had been too hot, the skin would have contracted and hairs would have been scalded into place, too cool and the knife would have simply cut through sections of hair, leaving thick roots behind.
Photo by John Cox
Next it was time for the gutting. This process requires a steady hand and good technique. The idea is to first barely score the belly and then create a pocket with two fingers that will enable you to slide the tip of your knife along the scored skin to open the chest cavity. After my knife picked up speed, it snagged on the intestines, and the smell sent away the small group of people who had huddled around the steel table. Once I had removed all of the animal’s entrails, flushed the cavity with water and checked carefully to make sure nothing was left behind, I was done.
I stepped back. All of a sudden there was an odd sense of comfort and familiarity. While this was far from the perfectly clean carcasses I was used to seeing delivered to my restaurants, there was no doubt this animal, whose eyes that I had looked into just half an hour before, had crossed the line from pig to pork. It was a revelation— the missing link in a food chain that so many of us blindly take for granted.
When I got my pigs home, I washed them again—this time with a mild food-grade sanitizer and then rinsed them with cold water. I put the two Berkshires away for later and rubbed the wild boar with olive oil, salt, brown sugar and chili powder and put it in the refrigerator for the night.
When I lived in Hawaii, my friends and I would frequently roast pigs on the beach in an underground lava-lined pit called an imu. Banana stumps and ti leaves were used to insulate the meat, and the local red salt was traditionally the only seasoning. My plan was to host a similar sort of roast on Carmel Beach, so at 7:00 the next morning, a friend and I started digging a pit in the white sand of a wind-sheltered cove below 13th Street. Once the pit was approximately 4-feet long, 3-feet wide and 3- feet deep, we flattened the bottom and laid down a layer of foil, then lined the walls with red clay bricks.
While we were digging, we lit a fire on the sand, and after two hours, transferred the burnt logs and embers into our newly built underground oven. We piled a halfdozen large river stones and more firewood on top of the live coals, and a new fire came to life.
Next, we prepared our feast for the fire. We laid a clean, blue plastic tarp onto the sand and placed a layer of chicken wire on top. We put the pig on its back in the middle of the wire mesh and arranged foil-wrapped sweet potatoes, pineapples and kabocha squash around it. We lifted several of the hot river rocks from the fire and, to speed up the cooking of the pig, slipped some of them into its belly. As soon as the stones touched the pig’s flesh, an aromatic cloud of smoke—the scent of the meal to come— surrounded us.
At last ready to begin cooking the pig, we clamped the mesh around the pig and vegetables, covered the embers with fava bean stalks and leaves and carefully lowered it into the pit. We placed hot river rocks in the empty spaces between the mesh and the brick walls, covered it with another layer of fava bean leaves and topped it all with a thick woolen mat, a blue tarp and a layer of sand. All was going well; the rain and fog had stayed away, and the sun brought out some of the Pacific’s most beautiful shades of turquoise. But in the first setback of the day, I realized after pushing my meat thermometer through the layers of tarp and wool that its sensor had cracked, leaving me completely blind to the temperature inside the pit. After a few minutes, I pushed my hand through the sand and could feel heat coming up through the tarp.
I had done the best I could to replicate the cooking method I had learned on Maui, but with so many new variables, I had no idea whether the pig would come out a charred black lump of coal or a tepid mound of raw meat.
By 4pm, with drinks and side dishes in hand, a handful of friends and co-workers had started to gather on the sand, and the celebratory atmosphere of a pig roast had taken hold. The actual pig and its pit were so indiscernible, however, that my first guest actually walked halfway across it before I stopped her mid-step and guided her carefully back before the pit collapsed. Fifteen minutes later we brushed the sand from the tarp and carefully rolled it back. The layer of gray wool was steaming, and as I lifted it, I could see wilted fava leaves and crisp golden skin and caught a waft of roasted pork fat.
Feeling more confident, I poked the now worthless thermometer into the shoulder, waited a few seconds, removed it and placed the tip to my upper lip. Disaster! The metal was barely warm; the pork was still raw around the joints. I had underestimated how many hot stones I would need to heat a pit in Carmel’s cool sands, and the bricks had not done an adequate job of retaining the heat from the coals.
This was my worst nightmare. I feared I was about to disappoint a large group of my friends, but worse than that, I was scared that I had wasted the life of the pig. This was not just another piece of meat; it was an animal with intelligence and personality— an animal I had a huge personal investment in, both physically and psychologically.
We pulled the partially cooked pig from the dying coals and unwrapped it over the tarp. I removed the head, legs and loins and my friends fashioned a makeshift grill using a few pieces of wood from our nearby fire and the chicken-wire wrap as a crude grate. While we waited for the meat to finish cooking, we snacked on the roasted kabocha squash and pineapple. Both of these were sweet and juicy with a subtle smokiness from roasting in the wood coals. The meat browned quickly over the open flame, and soon we were enjoying pieces of roasted wild boar displayed unceremoniously on a buffet line of folding beach chairs. The pieces I tried were tasty, but I wondered whether it justified taking the pig’s life.
But then again, why was this pig so special? Shouldn’t I treat every piece of meat with this kind of reverence?
Respect for ingredients should be every cook’s credo, but the farther people move from the origins of their food, the more difficult it becomes to remember the social and ethical impact of our everyday dining decisions. It’s easy to forget that when you purchase two pork tenderloins inside a neatly wrapped Styrofoam tray at the local supermarket, or choose an artfully presented entrée at a neighborhood bistro, you are supporting an entire system. Free range, natural, holistic, local, small farm—ultimately, many of the terms most of us rely on to make buying decisions have become mere marketing slogans. While the term “organic” requires certification, the rest are sometimes used on a whim to the benefit of both international food corporations and small local businesses.
At this point I should say that any meat that is going to be sold needs to be processed at a USDA-approved slaughter facility, but consumers who plan on using the meat only for personal consumption, as we did on Carmel Beach, have more options available. Animals do not benefit from being moved long distances or being placed in unfamiliar situations. From a quality standpoint, the best meat comes from the most relaxed animals. While government oversight of animal processing and food safety in general may operate with good intentions, it is deeply flawed and inadequate. I would strongly encourage anyone to perform their own due diligence and decide for themselves what is best for both their livestock and their family. When I look back, there was nothing enjoyable about killing the pig, but if given the chance, I would do it again. The actual act of killing the animal was only a fraction of the entire experience. I witnessed where the pigs lived, what they ate, the other pigs they spent time with and many other aspects of their existence. These are things that can’t be taken for granted. At the end of the day, whether figuratively or literally, the blood is on your hands regardless of where you get your meat. Participating in the process is the only way to understand what you are supporting.
John Cox is the executive chef at Post Ranch Inn’s Sierra Mar in Big Sur. He cooked his way across the country from Montpelier, Vermont, where he graduated from the New England Culinary Institute, via Hana, Hawaii, where was corporate executive chef for Passport Resorts and most recently was executive chef at Casanova and La Bicyclette in Carmel.