Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Going Whole Hog

Believe it or not, there are a few things that you simply can't grow/raise on a half-acre urban farm. We're willing to push the limits on some unconventional backyard additions, but neither the city of Des Moines nor our consciences would allow us to try to keep pigs, for example. When that happens, you do the next best thing - find a small (non-urban) farm that you know and trust, and buy your beef, pork, etc there. That's what we do during the farmers market season, albeit in a piecemeal manner. Need pork chops? Buy a pack or two. Short on chicken breasts? Pick up a few pounds. But winter is coming, and with it, a long cold stretch with no markets.

Which brings us to the exciting electronic arrival that came while we were out of town for the holidays. Confirmation and instructions for our purchase of half a hog! Maybe we neglected to tell you all, but when we went To Market, To Market a few weeks back, one of the things we did was Buy A Fat Pig! To be more specific, we put down a deposit on a half hog from Crooked Gap Farm. Crooked Gap is a small farm not far from Des Moines that is owned by a couple relatively new to the farming trade, and who we could have visited this summer if our schedules had worked out better. They raise heritage breeds of pork, much unlike the bland mass-produced kind found in stores, and have a strong focus on the welfare and happiness of the animals. A perfect match for us! Oh, and we've purchased individual cuts of their pork at the farmers market this summer, and it's delicious, so that helps too.

Now if you're a city slicker like Greg, you might hear "half hog" and imagine an entire pig sliced in half (no joke, that's kind of what I thought -G). Not to worry, all it means is that the farmer takes the pig to the meat locker to be processed normally, and all of the meat from one half of the pig is ours. It will come in neatly wrapped white paper packages, which hopefully will fit into our chest freezer without overflowing.

So, why buy a half hog in the first place? If we wanted to stock up, we could have tried to buy a bunch of packages of individual cuts to last us through the winter. But that's not really sustainable, and it's not great for the farmer. Sure, everyone loves pork chops, but the farmer isn't raising chops; he's raising pigs. So if everyone just buys chops, there's a lot of perfectly good meat that isn't being sold and could be going to waste. Think about it next time you're at the meat counter and see those rows and rows of nice pink pork chops. Where's the rest of all those pigs? Whole (or half) hog is win-win. The farmer sells an entire hog, and in return we get a pretty favorable price compared to just buying hundreds of pork chops. Which brings us to the exciting arrival this week.

Crooked Gap breaks down the hog by section, then lets us choose how each section is processed and cut. For example, in the loin area, we can get the entire loin, or it can be cut into roasts, chops, or tenderloins. Same for all the other parts of the pig: shoulder, ham, ribs, and side (meaning bacon!). Most of these cuts we know pretty well, but some are things we've never tried. Then there's all the parts we'll call "less desirable." Buy purchasing the hog as a half, we can receive pieces like hocks, heart, liver, jowls and lard. What on earth do you do with a pork heart, or liver? We don't know, but it sounds like it might be worth exploring. This half hog could be a big crash course in many new ways of cooking. We'll try to be like the proverbial Indians using every part of the buffalo, and document our adventures here.

If any of that offal stuff (hahaha) bothers you, you can still buy a half hog and respectfully decline the organs. You'd still be doing a service to the farmer by buying some of the less popular cuts and you'll expose yourself to some delicious new flavors; shoulder roast carnitas anyone? Who knows what the next pork-y discovery will be? The farmer says jowls taste like bacon, and it's hard not to be excited to try that. We may never be able to raise a hog in our backyard, but this comes pretty close!

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