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Food & Drink

Hunting the whole hog in San Antonio

Photo: Michael Barajas, License: N/A

Michael Barajas

A Large White hog, broken down at Restaurant Gwendolyn.

Photo: Michael Barajas, License: N/A

Michael Barajas

Restaurant Gwendolyn's Kyle DeStefano



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Conventional wisdom and authors such as Michael Pollan have it that most Americans are blissfully ignorant of the sources of their food. And though I was frequently the one in my family in charge of dispatching chickens for Sunday dinner, it's another thing entirely to be confronted with a plastic-bagged pig stretched out on a stainless steel table like a CSI specimen. I think it needs a name — maybe Moby Pork, as DeStefano says this is a Large White pig. Indeed it is. (The Large White, sometimes called Yorkshire, originated in England, as did the currently fashionable Berkshire, or Kurobuta, breed.) It's not fully grass-fed, he says, adding that those that are "might as well be a new animal," and that their "tighter," denser fat structure just doesn't work as well in Gwendolyn's style of cooking. For most purposes, then, DeStefano and Sohocki source swine from Countryside Farms between Austin and Bastrop in order to get the desired fat and marbling.

We both know that the really messy business of slaughtering has already been done at the farm; what remains is what could be considered the "art part" of butchery. DeStefano, who started his culinary career appropriately enough as a "bacon-and-eggs" short-order cook, says he learned by feel after Sohocki demonstrated one breakdown. It's 2:35 p.m., and he begins with a back leg, cutting to, then scraping against the bone. Before long a hacksaw comes out, and one ham hits a side table, then two. The head is dispatched next, the occasion for some talk of "cheek" bacon (guanciale in Italian) and barbacoa paired with Big Red. Scraping against the ribs liberates the belly, and there's more of it than I would have thought; there are now two big flaps on the side table. The loins get carefully extracted next, and the saw comes out again to cut the ribs at the spine … and by 2:55 p.m. the bulk of the work is done, the side table looking like a trompe l'oeil still life minus the artful arrangement and fancy drapery.

DeStefano will later trim out some parts for sausage (also sold at Pearl and well worth your attention) and forcemeat (a mixture, or emulsion, of ground meats usually used for stuffing) he'll smoke the trotters for use in white beans … and of course he'll start another round of bacon curing, a process that takes from five to seven days, plus smoking for four to six hours with wood chips (his favorites are oak and pecan, but he also uses hickory and cherry) in the upstairs oven. A couple of weeks later I buy some bacon from Gwendolyn's stand at the Pearl. It may or may not be from Moby, but fried up on a Sunday morning, it's lightly sweet, only barely salty, and manifests umami with every savory bite. And I know exactly where it came from.

It would be easy to say that the difference between Moby, the Large White, and the pigs raised at the South Texas Heritage Pork farm in Floresville is black and white — because it is. In the most obvious sense, STHP's pigs are English Large Blacks whose "black coloring makes them hardy in extreme temperatures and protects them from sunburn." (The images of swine and sunscreen conjured up here are priceless.) They are also pasture-raised, possessed of a "placid temperament," and will come when summoned with a vigorous call and some chunks of hog-sized carrot. I know this because of a Slow Food dinner put on at STHP not long ago.

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