The farm-to-table movement has changed the way we eat, mostly, for the better. Now, more than ever, consumers want to not only know where their food and drink comes from, but also how it ended up in front of them. It was this way of thinking that brought me to Houston Hall in New York City, eating a pig that had been fed a hearty diet of corn, oats, alfalfa and beer.
If you’re picturing a pig gleefully lapping up hefeweizen straight from the bottle, you wouldn’t be too far off from reality. Tank Jackson, the pig-whisperer of Holy City Hogs in South Carolina, has built his business on providing the highest quality pork for some of the country’s finest chefs. His hogs are pasture-raised and allowed to freely forage in the woods and open fields of Jackson’s farm. These are some pretty happy pigs, and happy pigs produce more tasty meat—anyone who has taken a bite out of Kobe beef can attest to the virtues of pampered meat.
Jackson met chef Dale Talde during the Charleston Food & Wine Festival. The chef was immediately impressed with the quality of his hogs. “If you look at Tank’s farm, and you look at how he treats his animals, you know, without a doubt, that those are some of the happiest pigs you’ve ever met in your entire life,” Talde said. “There’s an enormous amount of respect.” So, when Talde was tapped to create a unique dinner to kick off OctFest earlier this month, he knew exactly where to get his meat.
The concept for the dinner, which hosted brewers from around the country who would be pouring beer the next day on Governors Island, was simple: Create a whole-hog feast featuring a pig that had been raised on beer and pair it with beer. It wouldn’t be the first time Jackson was tasked with producing, what he calls “designer” meat. “We had previously fed a hog peaches and buttermilk. We have used apples and molasses, and another on peanuts and milk,” Jackson said. A pig’s diet, especially during its last few months of life, affects the pig’s flavor and fat content, or marbling.
In this case, feeding the pigs Devils Backbone’s Angel Weiss, gave the meat a fatty richness, with the fattiest parts taking on a subtle yeasty flavor. “You can totally tell that the beer—the meat was just so well marbled,” Talde said. “Even the loin, which is the driest part of it, was so well marbled. I would have had to really screw this up to make it dry.”
It’s difficult to image the former Top Chef contestant serving anything close to dry, but the spread at Houston Hall had more than just tenderness going for it. Talde’s menu featured whole suckling pigs with peaches and Thai basil, crispy pork belly with berry hoisin sauce, and deep fried pigs head with summer pickles. “I can’t tell you any one person who has been treated better in [Hotel 50 Bowery] than that pig,” Talde said. “It was brined, seasoned, slow-roasted and cooked again.”
The final piece of this beer-filled puzzle was pairings. Each course was paired with a different beer, with Hunan-style braised pork shanks and shoulder taking center stage alongside Jack’s Abby Smoke & Dagger. “This is the perfect pairing for all pork,” Talde said about the lightly smoked black lager. “I love pairing beer and food, because I think there’s something that you can do with beer that wine can’t do.” And after a second serving of five spice pork loin with garlic fried rice, washed down with Ommegang’s Hennepin saison, I had to agree.