Food & Drink
Hunting the whole hog in San Antonio
Published: May 16, 2012
According to that unimpeachable source, Chopped, one of TV's cadre of chef-challenge shows, goat is the world's most widely consumed meat. If asked that question on any of the quiz shows that abound on other channels, I would have instinctively said pork. Razzz!
My instincts are conditioned by the pig's versatility (who does goat hams or stuffed goat's feet?), by local restaurant culture (everything from simple tamales to lacquered ribs and high-toned belly), and by the positive plethora of new cookbooks on the subject of utilizing the whole hog (and other creatures), a genre popularized by England's Fergus Henderson's The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating. The most recent tome to appear on the topic is April Bloomfield's A Girl and Her Pig, the cover of which features the English-born chef with a pristine porker slung over her shoulder.
Henderson and Bloomfield (who now cooks out of New York, and has had a restaurant called The Spotted Pig) didn't invent the notion of whole-hog cookery, of course; it's age-old, across cultures, and only fell out of favor in overly prosperous societies that could afford to disdain tails and trotters. That's us, of course, but regardless of present proclivities (and they are changing), America has a long and proud pork history. That history is especially important in the South where ham-curing was first raised to a high art by the colonists of Smithfield, Virginia, who brought hogs from England and fattened them on peanuts out of Africa. The good name of Smithfield was eventually corrupted by the development of "environmentally ruinous hog factories," according to Peter Kaminsky in Pig Perfect. But fortunately the dry-curing tradition had long since spread beyond Smithfield and is still upheld today by small-scale, responsible practitioners such as Newsom's Country Hams in Kentucky, S. Wallace Edwards & Sons in Virginia, and Allan Benton in Tennessee.
The Monterey may not have been the first in town to trumpet the use of Benton's signature Smoky Mountain ham and bacon on its menu, but it was the bacon's optional use in their iconic grilled cheese sandwich that first caught my attention. (The Monty also pushes the pig parts envelope with pig head, pig's ears, and the like.) Bespoke bacon shouldn't come as a surprise in an era when the stuff is being slapped onto (and into) everything, including brownies and bourbon — and when some entrepreneurial sorts known as The Bacon Boys (they've even promoted an ironic, bacon-emblazoned coffin) are said to be developing a bacon-based reality show. But it wasn't until I happened to notice bacon for sale at chef Michael Sohocki's Restaurant Gwendolyn stand at the Pearl Farmers Market, that the proverbial light bulb went off. "Are you curing this yourself?" I asked Gwendolyn's Kyle DeStefano. "We are," he replied. Further questioning revealed that he also "broke down" a pig every week at Gwendolyn. And before you know it, I was in the basement of the restaurant with DeStefano and a 170-pound porker. (Vegans may stop here if they haven't already.)