On the Pork Trail

Where to Dine When Not Just Any Little Piggy Will Do

Fried Pork Chops at Hoover's Cooking
Fried Pork Chops at Hoover's Cooking (Photo By John Anderson)

Any Part of the Piggy

Any part of the piggy

Is quite all right with me

Ham from Westphalia, ham from Parma

Ham as lean as the Dalai Lama

Ham from Virginia, ham from York,

Trotters Sausages, hot roast pork.

Crackling crisp for my teeth to grind on

Bacon with or without the rind on

Though humanitarian

Cassoulet at Tocai
Cassoulet at Tocai (Photo By John Anderson)

I'm not a vegetarian.

I'm neither crank nor prude nor prig

And though it may sound infra dig

Any part of the darling pig

Is perfectly fine with me.

-- Noel Coward

As steak houses continue to flourish in cities across the country, I often wonder what it is about beef that has so captured the tastebuds of America's carnivores. It's not that steak isn't delicious -- it is. But so too is lamb, goat, and my personal favorite, pork. What makes steak the most highly valued of all meats we eat here in America? Why, for instance, do we not accord pork that status? After all, pigs have always played integral roles on farms across the country. No other animal offers a greater return on meat per calories consumed than the pig. Pigs get fatter faster that either cows, goats, or sheep, and they bear more young per litter. Yet, despite these advantages (or perhaps because of them) the prevailing attitude persists among many Americans that pork is simply low-class. To take a cue from M.F.K. Fisher, let us now consider the pig. No meat in history has been the focus of so much scorn and yet so much devotion as the simple swine. The subject of strict dietary prohibitions among cultures of the Middle East, India, and parts of Africa, pork is also the most beloved viand in China, France, Spain, and parts of Latin America. While any Jew or Muslim will flatly refuse to eat pork on religious grounds, pig consumption assumes a ritual significance in parts of Polynesia, Asia, and Latin America.

Pigs, as it turns out, were among the first domesticated animals. Together with sheep and goats, Early Neolithic stock raisers of the Middle East raised pigs for meat and skin. Indeed, prior to the Bronze Age, the pastoral cultures of Jordan, Israel, and Iraq consumed as much pork as any other type of meat. In archeological sites dating from 4000BC, pigs accounted for over 30% of all animal remains. At some point, however, pig husbandry began to decline among many Bronze Age societies, particularly those in the Middle East and northern Africa. Some attribute the decline to widespread Neolithic deforestation of those areas, while others cite health factors associated with pig raising, and still others insist that pig consumption decreased as certain social groups sought to differentiate themselves from others. To favor just one of these explanations to the exclusion of others is a bit like taking sides in a chicken-and-egg dilemma. What remains incontrovertible, however, is that toward the end of the second millennium BC, pigs (the touching, eating, and raising of) became taboo among many complex societies.

There are many places, though, where pig raising never witnessed a decline. And in those places the pig reigned pre-eminent. In China, where the pig has always been a symbol of prosperity, no banquet would be complete without pork. The pig's fecund, fleshy nature forms the very image of good health, wealth, and contentment. The Greeks and Romans, too, ate pork. The writer Athenaeus claimed that it was a sow who suckled the infant Zeus with her milk. Greek and Roman feasts frequently featured a roasted herb-stuffed porker. Fast-forward now to the French Middle Ages, where according to one source, 30,794 pigs were sold in one year in Paris alone. And then move forward again into the 20th century, where writer Noel Coward's adoration of the impeccable pig inspired him to write a tender homage in verse to the beast.

So, while American sophisticates continue to flock to steak houses to devour grilled beef, swill martinis, and smoke cigars, I would like to remind gourmands of the cornucopia of vernacular cuisines offered at a number of Austin restaurants. Pork dishes among them, they feature comestibles that reflect hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years of tradition. They come not only from America, but from all over the world. Eating them can be almost a folkloric adventure, especially when a little food history is served alongside. All great recipes have a story. This fact is perhaps what inspired one gastronome, known by the pseudonym of Curnonsky, to write that "a great dish is the master achievement of many generations." This combination of story and history pulls us along on our pilgrimage down the pork trail.


Cochinita Pibil at Fonda San Miguel

Forget for a moment that this dish represents one of the most harmonious blendings of Native American and Old World foodstuffs. Forget, too, that the inhabitants of the Yucatan have eaten it for feasts, celebrations, and holidays for nearly five centuries. Forget about all that history; just remember that the cochinita pibil at Fonda San Miguel is hands-down one of the most delicious dishes in town. Although in principle the preparation is simple, few restaurants want to take the time or the effort to produce this offbeat interior specialty.

"Pibil" comes from the Mayan word "pib," meaning earth oven. To make cochinita pibil, the cook traditionally seasons a pork with achiote, orange or vinegar, herbs, and garlic. The marinated meat is then wrapped in a banana leaf and roasted in a pib for several hours until the meat becomes soft and separates with a fork. While the staff at Fonda don't cook their pibil in a pit in the back yard, they do nevertheless cook the pork tucked snugly into a banana leaf, which, once finished, scents the resulting stew with an unparalleled tropical tang. Together with rice, pickled onions, and black beans, the cochinita pibil at Fonda San Miguel demonstrates the strange yet beautiful hybrids that are produced when two worlds collide.


Pork Dumplings at Pao's Mandarin House

Among the most popular of all Chinese comfort foods is the pork dumpling. A simple dish consisting of seasoned, ground pork filling surrounded by a plain pasta shell, not unlike a ravioli, Chinese dumplings have almost universal appeal. Bite-sized and fun to eat, they are often served at breakfast or as a quick, comforting snack. Part of the thousand-year-old dim sum tradition, the little dumpling embodies the spirit of conviviality that forms the foundation of the Chinese meal. At special gatherings, family members work together to produce large quantities of dumplings which usually disappear in a matter of minutes. At Pao's Mandarin House, they do the work for you, where pork dumplings are served at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. If one round isn't enough, it's easy enough to order another. While you're there, check into some of the other traditional pork dishes Pao's offers -- mu shu pork, shredded pork with garlic sauce, or for vegetable lovers, green beans with minced pork -- yummy!


Fried Pork Chops at Hoover's Cooking

Until the cattle-raising industry turned beef into our nation's favorite red meat, bringing home the bacon had a literal meaning for most Americans. In fact, prior to 1950, pork was the most popular meat in America. After that, the meat of the pig lost popularity as a number of factors coalesced to conspire against the hog. However, these days, with the resurgence of interest in traditional homestyle cooking, pork seems to be experiencing newfound popularity. One of the best places in town to pig out, so to speak, on great Southern-style pork dishes is at Hoover's on Manor Road. Hoover Alexander's fried pork chops rank among the better representatives of this genre. Tender and salty, Hoover's crispy chops come two to an order. The flaky crust coating the chops leaves the meat inside perfectly juicy and -- mmm -- luscious. Side orders of black-eyed peas and meaty braised greens complete the sacred Southern triumvirate of pork, with pork, and more pork. When you go, check the specials menu; sometimes Hoover offers an excellent Southern-style pork roast that practically falls apart on the fork.


Cassoulet at Tocai

Indisputably the signature dish of southwest France, cassoulet is a subject of debate among culinary historians as to its provenance. Some insist that it did not exist until Christopher Columbus discovered the New World and brought back numerous new foods, among them white beans, which are essential to cassoulet's preparation. Others claim that it can be traced to the Hundred Years War, and still others maintain that it was the Arabs who brought the ingredients over from Spain in the 12th century. Regardless of what the true forces behind its beginnings were, the cassoulet-making tradition of southwest France clearly has a long, pedigreed history. And while there are probably as many varieties of cassoulet as there are explanations for its origin, there are a few ingredients which remain constant to its preparation: pork and white beans. Without these, the essential pairing of fat with legume would dissolve. At Tocai, where cassoulet often appears on their specials menu, they take the time to confit both pork and duck before mating them to white beans. Seasoned with fresh herbs, garlic, and breadcrumbs, then baked, the hearty aromas drift out of the oven, filling the room, warming the senses, and making it the perfect cold-weather food.


Jerk Pork at Calabash

In the days before refrigerators kept our perishables at constant winter temperatures, people conceived ingenious strategies for preserving food. In tropical regions, this was particularly important, since the steamy climate could spoil edible commodities within a matter of hours. So it was that inhabitants of the Caribbean put all of their cleverness together in mixing chile peppers with salt, spices, and citrus or vinegar, producing a pickling agent to keep foods from spoiling. The runaway slaves of Jamaica (where it originated) called it "jerk" seasoning, and they used it mainly to preserve pork. Today, jerk seasoning is best-known for its spiciness, which makes this a favorite among chile-heads. Although it is prepared with the fiery habanero pepper, jerk doesn't have to be inedibly hot. The jerk at Calabash is not exceedingly spicy; nevertheless, it is the real thing, blending the warm flavors of allspice, nutmeg, and cinnamon with tangy vinegar and habaneros. The mix is the perfect counterbalance to the rich flavor of pork. The jerk pork offered at Calabash is a good way to introduce yourself to this great heritage dish without having to suffer the hellfires of habanero poisoning.

A final note to the faithful few: While the siren call of the decadent trio -- beef, tobacco, and alcohol -- is difficult to resist, pork lovers can take heart in a recent television news report -- pork skins are actually good for you. end story

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

pork, Tocai, cassoulet, culinary history, Hoover's Cooking, Fonda San Miguel, pigs, pig, Pao's Mandarin House, Calabash

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