Madison Deciders reviews our Pig Dinner

The Pre-Industrial Pig

By Scott Gordon November 17, 2008
Loin, belly, liver, ear, shoulder, or jowl? The Underground Food Collective's six-course "Dinner In Celebration Of The PreIndustrial Pig" at the Goodman Atwood Community Center on Friday night kept people in friendly debate about just which pig part they were eating at any given time. Granted, it was on the menu cards, but those still left some questions open. Henry Morren, who raised the four pigs in question at his small farm in Orfordville, was nice enough to clear it up for anyone who asked, but it was more fun to keep guessing. The paper covers on both long tables sported stenciled pigs every couple of feet, making it all the more clear who the real guests of honor were. If it hadn't been such a tasteful, $50-per-plate event, the organizers should've set up a light-up, war-room-style pig diagram, each body section illuminated as the meal got around to it. Still, this was better than just a celebration of local food's superiority to mass-produced food. Its inventive range of flavors and textures actually brought some mystery and grandeur to the pigs themselves.
After hors d'oeuvres, which included some surprisingly thick and spicy pickles, a young crew of servers in jeans and ruffled flannel shirts passed around serving bowls of turnips and plates of smoked sweet sausages. This also came with something not mentioned on the menu cards: sweet potato fries, which were thicker, softer, greasier, and tastier than any restaurant's. The little sweet sausages mushed apart in the mouth with a spicy aftertaste, cooled with dollops of creamy-yellow mayonnaise. Next came a plate of fat, hearty beans with what looked and tasted like a miniature petrified tree in the middle. It turned out to be a soft cube of caramelized parsnip root with dry, crunchy, thin, brittle strands of pork ear sticking out of it. This was the only cut of meat that didn't delight people so much, and Decider heard one or two eaters compare it unfavorably to bagged pork rinds.
But then diners started asking about this other piece of meat that came on the plate. With about a half-inch of thickness and a pronounced stripe of fat running through it, it looked like some heavenly-yet-deadly improvement on bacon. The taste was no ordinary fat-and-salt meltdown, either. It hit the tongue with a spark and started dissolving, the flavor crackling and juicing out as if the meat were in mid-fry. Nobody seemed to know whether this was supposed to be another ear part, neck fat, head fat, or what. ("Dog treat!" offered a cheery guy across the table.)
After a leisurely break for digestion and wine-sipping, another set of platters started coming around, piled with pork loin on one side and fat-crested pork shoulder on the other. The shoulder, inviting and unabashedly pink with blood, went nicely with a forkful of the accompanying sauerkraut, which also had little chunks of apple mixed in. The thin-sliced loin was a little more subtle, and just dry enough to get people chasing it with gulps of red wine—you could practically hear it getting into people, as this course kicked up the chatter and warmth.
What passed for lighter fare on Friday night? The next course was a pleasant salad of densely colored brocolli rabe greens with little shreds of pork jowl mixed in. After a wait for a cheese course that apparently got screwed up in the kitchen (the runny, over-melted remains of a brie-like cheese emerged later on), it was time for dessert. At first look, Decider thought the little apple tarts were made out of some delicate pastry coaxed into an intricate rose shape. But on first bite, it turned out someone had actually cut apples into incredibly thin slices and worked them into these delicate coils, with apple caramel on top and ice cream on the side. That's how the whole meal went: Every time those pigs and their clearly loving chefs threw a curveball, it got more fascinating, and a lot more tasty.