Monthly Archives: June 2010

prosciutto-wrapped trout

getting the trout ready to grill

Danny and I felt honored to cook a farm-to-table dinner this past weekend, at Dog Mountain Farm.

I would tell you more about the glorious day — planning and prepping for a week ahead, cooking in the outdoor kitchen for 5 hours, watching nearly 80 people sit at tables with white tablecloths in the apple orchard on a 72° evening — and I might, on our other website. However, right now? I’m a little tired. Danny cooks all day long, without a break, and he loves it. My feet weren’t prepared for dancing on concrete and making sure all the bread slices for crostini were grilling correctly.

(Danny’s the chef, that’s for sure.)

But this. I have to tell you about this.

Get yourself some good prosciutto, sliced paper thin. Wrap it around a piece of good fish, seasoned first with salt and pepper. (You might need two slices of prosciutto, depending on the size of the fish.) Drizzle with olive oil and grill. Or sear it in a hot pan and fnish it in a hot oven.

You’ll thank us after your meal.

pork at the Mexican restaurant

pork chile verde

Whenever we go to visit my parents, in their sweet sleepy little town of Gig Harbor, Washington, we always end up at the Mexican restaurant.

We all amble in and wave hello to the staff. My mother walks toward a booth by the window. They don’t even wait to be seated anymore; they know the place that well.

(Apparently, my parents wandered in the day the restaurant opened and sat down for lunch. “How long have you been open?” my father asked, meaning how many days.

The waiter looked at his watch and said, “Um, three minutes?”

So yes, they know the place well.)

We settle into the booth, all the adults crowding in together, our daughter standing on the booth between her grandparents. Guti, their favorite waitress, comes over to say hello and ask about us all. She points to Lucy: “Oh! She’s getting so big!” We talk about children and how quickly they grow and what her daughter is doing now and how lovely it all is. It’s one of those quick chats that makes us happy we go back to the same place each time.

My parents order iced tea. The other waitress brings a bowl of hot tortilla chips and a few small bowls of salsa. Lu leans forward and calls out “Chip! Chip!” As she nibbles, the rest of us dip and talk, look at the menu, and settle into the afternoon.

My mother always orders the same dish, with pico de gallo instead of cheese. Danny varies between burritos and combination plates with tacos and tamales. I try to order something different every time. Most of the time, the filling is pork.

This time, I ordered the pork chile verde. When I told Guti what I wanted, I said, “Could you tell your brother to make it for me the way he’d make it for himself?” (Everyone working at the restaurant is a brother or sister, including all the cooks.) She nodded. She understood — she knew I wanted it spicy alive with flavor, the way it would have tasted in Mexico.

(Try this the next time you go to a Mexican restaurant, especially one run by a family. Everything will taste better.)

When it arrived, I smiled after my first bite. Fiery green chiles but not so hot that my tongue wanted to come off. The chunks of pork were tender and falling apart in that sauce. The beans and rice on the side? Those went to my daughter, along with the salad and some tortillas. Me? I just wanted that pork chile verde.

my dad's macho burrito

My dad, every time we go here, orders the Macho Burrito.

I have to tell you — my father is not at all macho. And every time he orders this, I think of that old Saturday Night Live sketch where Bill Murray hosted a game show in Spanish called Quen es Muy Macho? Contestants guessed whether Ricardo Montalban or Fernando Lama was more macho. Whenever I hear that word, I think of that sketch.

My dad digs in, happy to find the shredded pork underneath the tortillas and cheese, avocados and sour cream.

He always looks contented as he eats this.

We finish the meal, happy and full. Guti brings the bill, with the little chocolate-mint candies. My dad hands her the credit card. We ask if we can help pay. Both he and my mother refuse. We thank them, including Lucy, who makes the sign for thank you by bringing her hand to her mouth, then opening to them.

We are grateful, once again.

El Pueblito

3226 Harborview Drive
Gig Harbor, WA 98332-2182
(253) 858-9077

the Frankies

the Franks

These are the Frankies.

That’s Frank Falcinelli on the left and Frank Castronovo on the right. They have been friends and business partners for years and years now, and they just published a truly intriguing cookbook called The Frankies Spuntino Kitchen Companion & Cooking Manual. Danny and I were lucky enough to be at a small gathering of food writers and interested-in-good-food folks in Seattle to meet the Frankies over coffee and lots of talking.

They have faces, the Frankies do. They’re good faces too. I’m not trying to avert your eyes with that photo, or keep them anonymous for the Witness Protection program. It’s just that I couldn’t stop watching their hands as they talked. Chefs have good hands. (Danny does too.) They’re hands that move, chop, gather, and never stop. The Frankies’ hands were not only moving as they went, but they complemented each other. When one pair of hands talked, the other waited. They were in constant motion and waiting rest. I imagine that is how they must work in their restaurants too.

The Frankies have a bunch of restaurants in New York now, but the center point of that storm is Spuntino, in Carroll Gardens, in Brooklyn. Friends of ours who have been there say: “Oh, you go, and then you go again. And then you think about going before you go again. And then you go again.” (If only it weren’t on the other coast from us…) It’s a place to go for unpretentious food, made with the freshest ingredients in season, with no unnecessary flourishes. It’s Italian food the way people really eat in Italy. It’s food that makes you feel good and leaves you feeling good six hours later.

Listen to the way they describe their food on their website:

“Frankies’ menu is a fresh approach to the lighter side of Italian cooking, including Italian cured meats, slab bacon and sausage from Faicco’s, cheeses, crostini, specialty thin-crusted sandwiches on Grandaisy bread, hand-made pastas, citrus-marinated olives, roasted meats and vegetables and fresh salads.”

Hello! Let’s go to New York.

Luckily for those of us on the west coast, the Frankies are about to open a restaurant in Portland. (That’s a heck of a commute, but they’re going to make it.) Those of you in the Midwest? Wait a few years. These guys are going to take over the country.

The Frankies have definite opinions about food and how it should be eaten. We loved hearing them talk about the importance of families eating dinner together, about good-quality olive oil, about friendship and family and eating food that leaves you feeling good. We’re still thinking about what they said.

Again, from their website:

“Frank Falcinelli and Frank Castronovo have strong opinions about what sort of experience they want to share at Frankies and what sort of people and products help create that experience. Frank and Frank hold on to a nostalgic love of the old ways they learned to revere in their grandparents’ kitchens-sausages made in storied butcher shops the same way for over 100 years and vegetables sold by the neighborhood’s push cart grocer. But they are also dedicated to serving fresh, healthy, local, humanely raised fare. To lend an old world flavor to their modern Italian cooking, Frank and Frank established relationships with local butchers, delis, cheesemongers, coffee purveyors, organic grocers and brewmasters who are similarly dedicated to old-school quality.”

We love these guys.

The cookbook is written clearly, with humor. The text is interspersed with pen illustrations, instead of photographs. This lends the book a certain 18th-century charm. (The Frankies admitted they are sort of Luddites, wishing for the old days when more of our lives were made by hand.) As much as Danny knows as a chef, and I’m learning as a food writer and wife of a chef, we have so much left to learn. Only an hour into reading this book, we were rearranging the kitchen and writing menu plans.

There are dozens of recipes we’re eager to try. Top of the list? Pork Braciola Marinara.

Pork shoulder steaks, stuffed with garlic, parsley, provolone, and parmesan, then simmered for hours in the Frankies’ tomato sauce.

Give me slow and homemade, fresh ingredients, and cooking together in the kitchen as often as we can, please.

The Frankies Spuntino Kitchen Companion & Cooking Manual — buy it soon.

prosciutto on poached eggs

quinoa, swiss chard, poached egg, and La Quercia Rossa prosciutto

We’re hoarding the last of our La Quercia prosciutto.

Danny and I are not big on saving good china for companies and holidays. In fact, we don’t own any good china. We buy dishes from the thrift store and use them every day until they break. (We have a toddler. We’re at the thrift store semi-regularly.) Every week we take a few bags of things we don’t need anymore to that same thrift store — we made ourselves a promise that we can’t buy anything new until we give the same amount away. We live our moments as fully as we can so we don’t look back and think, “Damn, I wish I’d really been there for that.”

But this prosciutto? We’re trying to make it last.

If you have eaten prosciutto from La Quercia,  you probably understand.

Oh, we know. It’s sold at Whole Foods across the country. We can easily buy more, and we will. However, we live on an island with no Whole Foods and a lovely grocery store whom we are going to try to persuade to start stocking La Quercia prosciutto. In the meantime, we have our small stash, and we are divvying it up in small portions each day to make it last.

This was breakfast yesterday: quinoa, warm chard, poached eggs, and sauteed prosciutto. Danny sliced it into slivers, then cooked it in hot oil for 3 to 4 minutes until it was crisp, then plopped it on top of the poached eggs.

Delicious.

How do you like to use prosciutto in your meals?

Spilled Milk — Ham

wall of prosciutto

This is a wall of prosciutto. (Of course, it's at La Quercia.)

You probably don't think of prosciutto as ham. However, loosely categorized to make a point? Prosciutto is a form of ham.

Our friends Matthew and Molly are fond of loosely categorizing details to make us laugh. That's part of their genius.

You might know them first as the authors of Hungry Monkey: A Food-Loving Father's Quest to Raise an Adventurous Eater (Matthew) and A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table (Molly). They also write blogs: Roots and Grubs (Matthew) and Orangette (Molly). If you are interested in food, and food writing, you know these two. (Or you should.)

However, it's possible that Spilled Milk is their best work yet.

Spilled Milk is this podcast that Matthew and Molly do together, a riffing, laughing session on one particular food each time, plus a recipe. I like to cook while listening to them. The only danger, however, is that I often stop paying attention to the food to laugh so hard I have to bend over. Matthew and Molly, it's your fault that pork chop burned.

Seriously, this is a show you don't want to miss. Episode 10: ham.

“Here at Spilled Milk, our Easter party is still raging, because we can't stop eating ham. Dry-cured, wet-cured, we don't care: we love and investigate them all, with stops in Spain, the mall, and the Middle Ages. Recipe: Greens with ham and cheesy grits.”

Go on over and listen to Matthew and Molly talk about ham.  You'll be hooked.  You'll be back for more.

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sauteed cabbage and bacon

sauteed cabbage and bacon

This is my new favorite lunch.

Cook 1 piece of bacon, cut into small pieces. Remove and save the grease.

Chiffonade some green cabbage and cook it, quickly, in the bacon fat. It should still be green, just starting to wilt.

Throw on some good feta and the bacon pieces. Eat.

Serves 3.

(or 4. or 14. If you want more, cook more bacon and more cabbage. The feta could be soft goat cheese or some kind of Stilton and the cabbage could be bok choy or even chard. The volume, the vehicles — they're up to you. The only thing not negotiable, as far as I'm concerned, is the bacon.)

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pork adobo

pork adobo

There's something lovely about making new friends.

It's not just that a physical presence has walked into the room, but she trails behind her a lifetime of music ringing in her ears, turns of phrases from her family that she thinks everyone says, bursts of intense passions that still stand for an entire year's worth of feelings, and a whole long lists of likes and dislikes. It's comforting when we find someone who likes what we do (“You read Mary Oliver poems? You like watching Christopher Guest films?”) and doesn't like the things we try to avoid (“Ugh. Don't even talk to me about football.”). When a new friend walks in, an entire life walks in too.

Recently, I've become friends with Tamiko. It happened in a particularly new social framework — Twitter. (We all have so many imaginary friends on Twitter. Some of them become real friends too.) She and I talked back and forth about teaching, our daughters, the weather. Mostly, though, about food.

It's funny. If you meet someone through your church or work,  you may not know if that person has the same compulsion you do to dream fondly of breakfast upon first waking up. On Twitter, or through blogs, you can find people specifically because they are as focused on food as you are. (And let's face it — a little obsessed.) I follow people on Twitter who are whooping it up at the Aspen Food and Wine Festival right now. I love the vicarious glimpses of another life, but it's not mine. Tamiko and I talked about our families, putting dinner on the table, and foods we'd like to try if only we had the time.

So we met. We had a connection beyond Twitter, because she was teaching at the same university as my dad when we first started talking. When she walked in the door, with her two daughters (the 4-year-old wearing a paper tiara, the 1-year-old clutching a tennis ball), she walked into our lives easily. She's cool.

A couple of weeks ago, Tamiko wrote about making adobo with her mother. She is half Japanese and half Filipino. As Tamiko wrote in her fledgling blog, she has tended to give more attention to her Japanese half, at least in a culinary sense, than her Filipina half.

“I know there are lots of societal and cultural reasons why Filipino food hasn’t caught on in the culinary American mainstream, the way sushi has. And as a picky-eater-turned-foodie (don’t laugh! I know I’m not the only one), I have to confess that I’m still learning to appreciate Filipino food, partly for my Filipina mom.”

So when she wrote about adobo, I knew I had to make some with her. “Adobo, however, is the national dish of the Philippines, and with good reason. It is chicken, or pork, or sometimes both, stewed in a sauce that’s a little sweet and very garlicky, peppery and vinegary.”

She was speaking my language.

I had no idea, however, that a dish that seemed so culturally foreign to me would be the easiest dinner ever. It's literally a one-pot dinner, with 7 ingredients. That's it. By combining these foods into one big pot, and walking away from it and let it become its own magic in the bubbling and simmering, you end up with something you will instantly make again and again.

We made the pork adobo, of course. You can see it up top. We used tamari sauce instead of soy sauce, for my sake. Other than that, it was the recipe as written by Tamiko.

(You're going to have to go to her blog to get the recipe. I want more people to know her and her writing.)

About 30 minutes into the cooking process, I wandered out to the garden to cut us some herbs for another dish. When I came in, my face was swathed by the smell of peppery vinegary robust pork. It was intoxicating. I had to stop on the doorstep to let it all in.

Eating it was even better.

I'm awfully glad that Tamiko walked into my life.

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pork at Hickory Park

the inside of Hickory Park

When I was a kid in Southern California in the 1970s, a great day was when my parents said, “We're going to Farrell's.”

Everyone reading who grew up near one of those faux-nostalgic ice cream parlors is nodding her head as she reads, I bet. (Or his.) For the rest of you, Farrell's was a west coast chain of pretend-1890s ice cream parlors and pizza places, where the waiters wore red-striped vests and straw hats and big grins pasted on their faces. We ordered Reuben sandwiches and burgers with chili and cheese and pizzas with pepperoni, washed down with cream soda or Green Rivers. (Do you remember those? They were the exact color of toxic-waste dump water!) But the only real reason anyone went to Farrell's was the ice cream sundaes. They had the archetypal sundaes: cold metal bowls, perfectly shaped scoops, a slice of banana, a swirl of chocolate sauce, and a cherry on top. I liked the Tin Roof, with Spanish salted peanuts drenched in hot fudge on top of vanilla ice cream. We were happy to get free sundaes on our birthdays.

However, I never allowed my parents to order the giant trough of a sundae, the one it took three waiters to carry to the table. They ran around the entire restaurant, shouting and whooping, as an alarm sounded. I was mortified for whoever ordered this monstrosity and the teenage boys who had to deliver it with aplomb. Plus, it had like 30 scoops of ice cream in it. I think the lucky recipient was supposed to bury his face in the treat and come up laughing. I almost didn't want to go to Farrell's because of this treat.

When we were in Iowa, we stopped for lunch at a placed called Hickory Park, in Ames. It was like a small version of Wall Drug in South Dakota and a Farrell's. See the nostalgic walls? The happy waitresses? It had the same feeling as a Farrell's — more of a place evoking an era than simply a restaurant.

Luckily, the waitresses didn't have to wear pin-striped vests or pretend that they were Gibson girls. Even better, no one carried a trough of ice cream through the place at all.

thick shake

Instead, Hickory Park offered us a calm slice of nostalgia and a list of shakes to order that made decisions difficult. Should we order a black licorice shake? Peanut butter? Butter rum? Who does butter rum shakes anymore? They also had a Green River shake. Wow.

In the end, I went for this cinnamon apple shake, in honor of my friend Sharon, who loves shakes and anything cinnamon. It was rich and thick, melting at the edges, with a lovely tug at the tongue when I tried to suck it up through the straw. This was a shake.

Hickory Park smoked pork

The centerpiece of my meal, however, was this smoked pork sandwich, without the bun. (Perhaps the most amazing thing to me about Hickory Park is that they have a separate gluten-free menu for those of us with celiac or gluten intolerance. Really? In little old Ames, Iowa? Hey fancy restaurants in big towns — you could learn from these folks.)

The pork tasted prominently of smoke in the first bite — that campfire smoke that sticks to your clothes long after the smores are done. But then, underneath it, the good taste of well-prepared pork. I didn't miss the bun at all.

hickory park

If we lived anywhere closer to Ames, Iowa, we'd probably go to Hickory Park. It's not the most high-end cuisine. However, we'd take our daughter for special occasions and let her order smoked pork sandwiches and thick ice cream shakes.

And feel grateful that no one would be running by with a trough of ice cream and 27 maraschino cherries.

Hickory Park

1404 S. Duff Avenue
Ames, Iowa 50010-0765

Phone: (515) 232-8940

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our visit to La Quercia

prosciutto I

We woke up in a hotel room in Des Moines, Iowa. It was a nice morning, but I knew there was not going to be much breakfast for me. We wandered out into the lobby, bleary-eyed tired and needing to hurry, because our guide for the Iowa Pork Board tour was coming to pick us up soon, really soon. I scanned the room and there was cold cereal and stale-looking danishes and a fancy make-your-own waffle bar. The land of gluten. (I can't eat gluten, you see. Danny and Lu can, so they ate some.) There really was not much for breakfast, except a banana and a handful of the gluten-free granola someone kindly bought me for this trip. Not much.

But I wasn't worried or upset. There's not much point in that anyway. But I was feeling pretty calm. Because I knew we were on our way to the La Quercia factory, the site where some of the most incredible prosciutto in the world is made. A small Iowa town seemingly made mostly of corn fields and farmhouses and flat land and big, big sky. You would never think that some of the earthiest, most memorable prosciutto you will ever taste is produced in such a small white building.

And when we entered, we immediately met Herb Eckhouse, one of the founders of the place. We were already a little in awe of him, from reading this piece in Saveur magazine years ago, and reading that the meticulous folks at Cook's Illustrated did a taste comparison of La Quercia proscuitto with Prosciutto di Parma and Prosciutto di San Daniele and declared La Quercia the hands-down winner, and remembering that Jeffrey Steingarten proclaimed La Quercia “…the best prosciutto in the world, foreign or domestic.” And after eating our first La Quercia prosciutto, at Contigo in San Francisco, we were hooked. As I wrote back then: “There’s a sweetness to this one that we had never tasted in prosciutto before, a slight kiss of it, along with the salt, and something a tiny bit nutty in there.” We wanted to meet the people who made La Quercia prosciutto as soon as we took our first bite.

Turns out that Herb Eckhouse is one of the most down-to-earth, interesting people we have ever met. As soon as we sat down, he brought out small plates of prosciutto, gestured with his hands, and asked us to eat.

Who needed breakfast when this lay before me?

Herb Eckhouse

This is Herb Eckhouse. He and his wife, Kathy, founded La Quercia in their house 10 years ago. Now their prosciutto is not only considered one of the best in the world by people who know and love food, but it is used in some of the best restaurants in the country. You would expect that the man who runs this company might be quite imposing.

However, Herb was friendly and direct with us, as our favorite people always are. He sat and talked with us for over an hour before we donned hair nets and toured the warehouse. I have to admit that both Danny and I were so moved by Herb's passion for what he does that we both felt a little teary talking to him, at times. (I wish that Kathy had been there too, as it's quite clear that they are a team through all of this. I don't want to give the impression that Herb is the sole star. Kathy was in California when we went, or we would be talking about her too.) This man is amazing.

Herb and Kathy began LaQuercia after a three-year stint in Italy. If you have ever been to Italy, you know that thin slices of well-cured prosciutto are as daily a requirement as tiny cups of steaming-hot espresso. When Danny and I spent our honeymoon in Umbria, we grew used to the morning bites of prosciutto. When we returned home, we were sad to have to let that practice go. Herb and Kathy, however, were far more imaginative than we are. They put all their efforts into learning the authentic Italian methods of curing prosciutto and turned this abiding passion into a thriving business over time.

After returning from Italy, the Eckhouses came back to Iowa. Herb was raised there. “Iowa has the most fertile earth in the world, along with the pampas in Argentina. We wanted to work with that earth.” When Herb talked about the fertile earth of Iowa, I nodded. One of the many details that struck us about Iowa was how black the earth was, under the burgeoning corn and soybean crops, even off the side of the highway. Everywhere, every plot of land, sighed out life. Why not use this land in a way that made sense to the Eckhouse's passion for good prosciutto?

lovely prosciutto

This is La Quercia prosciutto. The color is darker than grocery-store prosciutto, like a burnished magony, infused with pink. The taste builds and lingers, with a complexity of taste far more nuanced than simply pork and salt. There's sweetness and clean air and darkness and earth. To us, this prosciutto tastes like the earth from where it started. (Well, without the dirt clods, of course.) Cured meats, it turns out, can have terroir as much as wine.

(If prosciutto were wine, most of the American prosciutto we have tasted is like 2-buck Chuck. La Quercia is that great bottle you save for a special evening, still affordable, but one you want to sip and savor.)

Herb and Kathy feel it's important to use pork that is pasture raised, anitbiotic and hormone free, from farms run by farmers they have come to know personally. (You can read more about the Eckhouses' ideas behind their business and the farms they use here.) Danny and I both noticed that Herb turned to Cathy Lee, our extraordinary guide from the Pork Board, and gently said, “You know, we don't like to use conventional pork.” There was civility there, a long-standing disagreement, humor, and kindness.

(La Quercia is not a member of the Pork Board because they do not raise the pigs. However, since LaQuercia is so widely respected and known within the food industry, by chefs and food writers and people who have influence over how people in this country eat, the Pork Board often takes guests and groups to La Quercia to show one of the ways pork can be made in this country.)

Danny and I both could have talked with Herb Eckhouse all day. I hope we have the chance to share food with him again somedy.

danny ready for the tour

Still, eventually, it was time to don the hairnets and paper suits and walk through the factory with Herb.

(I think Danny still looks dashing, even with this get-up.)

salted legs

These were hams in the first room of the factory. They had been recently salted and starting to cure.

Danny and I were both fascinated by the layout of the place. In this room and the next, the air was nippy, like a damp January day. One room had an artificial breeze, like a cold northern wind. As we moved through the rooms, and the curing process continues, the seasons shifted. Spring arrived with cool breezes.

wall of prosciutto

By the time we reached the last holding room for the prosciutto, the air was warm and mild, which allowed the smell of the prosciutto (pork and salt and something ineffably good that made me want to run over to each leg and embrace it like a small child who has temporarily lost her mother in a crowd, then found her) to waft toward us.

We could have stood and stared in this room for a long time.

women working at La Quercia

These women are wiping off the special coating that La Quercia puts on the pork to help turn it into prosciutto. (La Quercia has very loyal employees who stay for quite awhile. We could feel the practiced expertise in each room.)

Of course, I can't share exactly what the coating is (or tell you about the entire process). But I can say that Herb told us it involves corn flour. “We're in Iowa. Why not use corn?”

Hey, it's gluten-free.

I knew I liked this guy.

final product!

This is the last room in the factory. The packaging room.

La Quercia produces four kinds of proscuitto (Green Label prosciutto, which is organic, Rossa, Americano, and Picante). They also make a prosciutto crumble, which would be wonderful in pasta. In addition to prosciutto, La Quercia also makes speck, pancetta, coppa, guanciale, and lardo. We'll take one of everything, please.

Herb was kind enough to send us home with some prosciutto and guanciale. The day after we returned from Iowa, Danny sliced some of the prosciutto thin and lay a small plate draped with it on the table in front of us. Our daughter grabbed a slice and chewed thoughtfully, then reached for another, then another. We only had a slice or two that day. Lu enjoyed it for us.

Thankfully, La Quercia prosciutto and other cured meats are available at Whole Foods across the country. As soon as our stash runs out, we know where we're going.

La Quercia

Eat well. Live well. Be well.

That's a good motto. We love La Quercia.

La Quercia

400 Hakes Drive, Norwalk, IA 50211

www.laquercia.us

515.981.1625

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visiting a pig farm

the pig farm

I don't know what I expected before we visited a big pig farm in Iowa. We visited a small pig farm last year, here on the island where we live. It was idyllic and lovely, but it was small. There were maybe 40 pigs there, total. Visiting it gave me an image of a country made up entirely of small farms, with pigs roaming free outdoors, with everyone eating free-range, pastured pork.

The other day, after our visit to Iowa and this pig farm, I was talking with a dear friend of mine who grew up in Wisconsin. When I mentioned that my mind has shifted away from the vision of everything free-range and small, like the archetypal return to Eden, she laughed. “I'm so tired of that idea. Sure, if you want to feed a few people who can afford to pay for that pork, you can run a little wooded farm. But most of the people espousing that have absolutely no idea what it's like to truly run a farm. If you want to feed a lot of people, you need a big farm.”

After our visit to Craig Christianson's farm, I know that too.

I'll tell you one thing. Whatever my expectations were, they were all changed by this visit.

This is the front part of the Christianson's property, not far from their house. Walk off the shaded porch (away from the iced tea and warm chocolate chip cookies), stride right for about 90 seconds, and you are on the pig farm.

This is a family farm.

craig christianson and paul kahan

This is Craig Christianson, the owner of this farm. He's the fourth generation of his family to raise pigs on this spot of land in Iowa and he's proud of the work he does.

Cathy Lee, our guide through this tour of Iowa, told us before we met Craig: “Things have been really tough for the people who produce pork the last few years. They've all been losing money. Craig told me that last year was like walking into the kitchen before work every morning and putting $1000 of his own money on the table, knowing it was just going away.”

It takes some kind of special fortitude to work under those conditions.

On his right is Chef Paul Kahan, who has a number of highly regarded restaurants in Chicago. He and José Garces were on this tour of Christianson's farm that day in Iowa. He had lots of questions and listened. Watching him and Garces made me think about the thousands of restaurants in the United States, both high-end restaurants and diners in Ogden, Iowa. How would those restaurants function without the people who produce pork for this country? My head is dizzy thinking of the number of strips of bacon served for breakfast every day in this country.

People who eat at Kahan's restaurants can afford to pay $23 for a plate of country ribs, made from pork produced on a small family farm. But not everyone can. What do those folks eat?

If they're lucky, they're eating pork made from the pigs raised on Christianson's farm.

trucks at the pig farm

Everything on the farm was clean and well-organized, from the stalls where the piglets are born to the trucks that take them away to market.

part of the pig farm

The entire place felt warm. Even though there were something like 2500 pigs there, taken from birth to the market (farrow to finish, in pork production terms), the whole place felt calm and well-kept. It felt like a home.

okay, what are these

Being in Iowa gave both Danny and me a new perspective on pork. No question. We're also both trying to work out how to put in words.

One thing I can say now is this: if you are in Iowa, you know that pork is a vital business. Corn, soybeans, and pigs — these keep the people of Iowa alive.

The conversation about whether or not everyone should be eating small-farm, pastured pork isn't happening in Iowa with the same intensity as it does on either coast. Those of us on the west or east coast might consider that a shame. People in Iowa know that most pig farmers are doing honorable work.

People in Iowa take great pride in feeding the world. They feel they are doing a great job.

We do too.

corn country

You'll see that I don't have any photographs inside the barns, or of the pigs themselves. There's a reason for that.

Rubbing his brow in frustration, Craig Christianson asked us not to take photographs.

It wasn't because anything horrible was going on in those buildings. Quite the contrary. I was amazed by how clean, quiet, and calm each building we entered felt to all of us there. While the pigs were kept in stalls, they seemed content. Before visiting the farm, I didn't know that farmers like Christianson keep mother pigs and their piglets in separate stalls because the enormous mother pigs sometimes roll over their own babies otherwise. “We save more pigs this way.” I held one of the piglets while I listened to Christianson. Its heart was beating fast from the natural nervousness a small animal has about being held by a human. But it was otherwise calm. Every pig we saw was perfectly comfortable with humans being around, because people are in and out of the buildings at least half a dozen times a day, checking on everything.

As Christianson said, these pigs and this business are his livelihood. Why would he do anything to endanger them?

So there was nothing to hide. I wish I could show you photographs here.

Christianson asked us not to take photographs because he's had bad experiences with people taking shots of his pigs, then photo-shopping them, turning them into propaganda. He was trying to protect his business.

Before we visited, I worried that the pigs might be filthy and squealing, kept in somewhat squalid conditions. Instead, they were content and clean. Yes, there were hundreds and hundreds of them, and they were kept in stalls. But I don't know how one would run a large-scale business, and check on the feeding and health of that many pigs, without this system.

Later, I asked Cathy Lee many pointed questions about pork production in this country. “How many of the places producing pork are actually CAFOs?” I asked her. (CAFO stands for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation.)

“Well,” she said, ” you just visited one.”

I looked out at the flat black earth of Iowa before us as we drove. On either side of the road, for miles of driving was a cornfield, or a soybean field, or a pork farm. Everywhere growing things intended to feed people.

“How many of the pig farms in Iowa are like Craig Christianson's?” I asked her.

“He's obviously one of the best. But almost all of the farms here are like his.”

Look, I know as I write this that I'm going to get angry emails and nasty comments from this piece. Some of you will say that we were brainwashed, or that we saw the one good farm in Iowa and that we are spreading propaganda. Talking about meat in this country raises heated arguments.

But I know what we saw.

Both Danny and I have enormous respect for Craig Christianson and the way he runs his farm.

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