I’m sure we can all agree that summer is for grilling. Burgers are good for grilling, as are your various tube-meats. A good steak is delightful. I happen to think, though, that a good pork chop is the happiest, summeriest of the grilled proteins.
A good pork chop is just so bright and sweet and assertive, and lends itself so generously to a pairing with whatever your favorite cold adult beverage happens to be. There seems to be a sense that pork chops are tough, or gamy, or dry, or bland, or all of the above. This can be true! Some pork chops are lousy! A lot of pork chops, in fact. This is because most of our pork consumption comes in preparations that do an awful lot to hide the underlying porkiness of pork—bacon and barbecue and various cured offerings—and so a lot of the pigs we eat are being raised in ways that maximize their size and the efficiency of their production and slaughter, instead of their flavor.
Screw that. Good pork is delicious without any curing, smoking, or braising of any kind. We’re going to grill us some pork chops. And then we’re gonna sit and eat some damn pork chops, and the pork chops are gonna be goddamn wonderful. Let’s do it.
What you’re going to need, of course, is a pork chop. So let’s talk pork chops. Well, okay, let’s talk pigs first. What I really mean is: let’s talk cows, so we can talk about steaks. Stay with me here. Bear with me.
A few years back I went through a phase where I wouldn’t cook anything at home without using the best, highest quality, most pristine ingredients that I could find. This had nothing to do with food ethics or sustainability or anything like that—I had simply convinced myself that the gulf between the deliciousness of my home-cooked meals and that of expensive high-end restaurant meals came down to quality of ingredients. (I was wrong about this, by the way—the difference is mostly butter.)
So, this is pretty easy with produce and specialty stuff—don’t buy anything that isn’t fresh and in-season, or made or cultivated or prepared by serious people. Animal protein is a little trickier, but not really for the reasons you might expect. It’s easy enough to find steaks that come with all sorts of designations certifying the seriousness and meticulousness of their path to your plate. What I found, though, when hunting around for The Best Steak Imaginable, is an uncomfortable truth of many steaks from pasture-raised, grass-fed cows: mostly, they are far less delicious than somewhat cheaper, vastly sketchier steaks from corn-fed cows whose former living conditions generally go un-touted on packaging. Grocers and meat purveyors aren’t too eager to put this poor fuckin’ cow was raised in a filthy little box and fed obscene quantities of post-market corn right there next to the price, you know?
What becomes obvious, when you take on this kind of challenge, is this: if you want your steaks to come from happy cows who are given some space to live and grow and socialize, who get to live in a way that might approximate how cows might live in nature—if cows as we know them actually were a thing that could exist in nature—and you want those steaks to also be delicious, you have to spend a lot of money on your steaks. A lot.
Where I live in the world, there are a lot of cows. When I drive home, I drive by lots and lots of cows. Depending upon which parcels of neighboring land are being used for what purpose in a given month, I might see dozens of cows off in a field when I look out my living room window. It might seem gruesome and bizarre when I tell you that often I will drive by a little community of cows grazing and lazing around a stream under a tree on a summer day, looking content and rested and safe, like a family gathered on a front porch in the afternoon, and think, now there are some cows I’d feel good about eating.
I don’t know anything at all about whether a cow should be eating corn. More importantly, I sure as hell don’t know anything about whether a cow wants to eat corn. Here’s what I know: when I drive past the happy cows enjoying the shade near moving water on a piece of rolling land, I know that they are just one part in a long chain of interconnected factors that might, might make that piece of land valuable enough to not be turned into a depressing field of executive homes, or a giant factory farm. I want there to be big green farmland in the world, if only so that there will be places that are not suburbs. The cows could be eating Jolly Ranchers for all I care, so long as there are still big green places that are kept big and green as an important part of the raising of cows.
And I want there to be happy animals, independent of my interest in eating them. It strikes me as vaguely obscene that there should be happy animals who are domesticated as pets, and happy animals who are completely wild, and then miserable animals who are stifled and brutalized because they are docile and good to eat. I am not going to stop eating those animals, probably ever, but that can be a good thing! I can use my purchasing as a way of influencing how land is used and how animals are treated!
Here’s what I mean: The Tampa Bay Times ran a really incredible project this year, tracking the provenance of foods labeled “farm to table” in restaurants around Tampa Bay. The long and short is, restaurants are mostly full of shit when they say they’re using the kinds of local, artisanal, sustainable, humane stuff for which they can and do charge top dollar. In there, too, is the story of Rebecca Krassnoski, of Nature Delivered, who invests a lot of time, energy, effort, and money naturally raising happy and healthy heritage pigs to be slaughtered and sold as pork products. Check this shit out:
Her cost to raise a pig to slaughter weight is $240 to $300, plus $50 to slaughter it and $50 to transport it. So, let’s say her total cost is $400. That whole pig, minus entrails and hair, will weigh 192 pounds. If she sells it at $3 per pound, that’s a sale price of $576.
“I make $200 if everything goes well,” she said. “That’s on a perfect day. On average, I’m lucky if I make $100 on a pig and maybe I raise 100 pigs in a year.”
Ten thousand dollars a year is not a living, she said, but “nobody wants to pay $6 per pound for pork.” Most restaurants can’t, or won’t, pay her what she needs to live.
One more story, to help round out this point I’m trying to make: Eduardo Sousa is a farmer in Extremadura, Spain. He sells foie gras. Foie gras is, normally, a goddamn nightmare: in most of the world, geese are subjected to gavage, where their beaks are held open and a chute is shoved down their throats and truly disturbing quantities of corn or acorns or some other food is forced down into their bellies. The result of this force-feeding is the unnatural fattening of the goose’s liver, which, after all, is what foie gras is: the fattened liver of a goose.
Sousa’s operation is different! Geese, you see, will naturally gorge themselves on fattening foods, once a year, in preparation for migration. Sousa’s spectacular farm is along the migratory corridor of western European geese. Rather than force feed penned-in geese year round, Sousa maintains a farm that is a giant open buffet of just the kinds of foods geese love to eat, and Sousa harvests a certain number of the free geese who hang out on his farm every year, immediately prior to migration, when they have fattened their livers all on their own.
I urge you to read this whole profile of Sousa, from The Guardian, but here is a snippet that might have you, too, thinking now those are some animals I could really support eating:
Suddenly Eduardo screamed – “LOOK!” He slammed on the brakes, threw his body forward, and pasted his hands on the windshield. Eduardo could see his beloved geese in the distance, doing what I imagine he saw them do every day, which was waddle in the grass and hunt for food. We were at least 800 feet away, but he leapt from the car and began walking very slowly, crouching slightly and humming something I couldn’t hear. I followed close behind. Suddenly, with what I would have mistaken for theatrics if I wasn’t seeing it up close for what it was – love – he fell to the ground and began to crawl.
“Hola, bonitas,” he said, and Lisa translated for me as we followed him.
“Lovelies,” he was saying. “Oh, my lovelies. How are you, my lovelies?”
He stopped and showed us that they were scavenging olives from a collection of trees. He was smiling in the way a father might when he sees his children sitting down together to a well-rounded meal. Eduardo acknowledged that it was an expensive lunch. He said he probably makes more money selling his olives for first-press olive oil than he does from his livers.
Because he can only harvest so many, and because he can only harvest once per year, the supply of Sousa’s foie gras is very limited, and very expensive. But it’s worth it, isn’t it? Because, in addition to buying delicious foie gras, you are also providing incentive for farmers to ditch weird, scary, unnatural ways of producing foie gras and instead invest in doing it this way. Because, in the end, it would probably be more fun to live in a world that actively encourages people to do things the best way possible, and not just the most efficient.
Here I am going to advocate a way of eating that is informed significantly by Washingtonian’s Todd Killman’s approach to eating out. Killman says you should eat at cheap and authentic ethnic joints, and at expensive destination restaurants, and nowhere in between, that you will not waste money on mediocre food if you stick to this rule, but if you continue to spend your eating-out dollars at restaurants that specifically style themselves as a cut or two below prestige dining, you will spend a lot of money on food that isn’t even trying to be very good. I think it’s a good rule: nuclear-spicy Laotian food at the authentic hole-in-the-wall, and haute cuisine prix fixe menus at destination spots, and no Mon Ami Gabi. Dig it.
The animal protein version of this will not stop you from eating, say, chicharrónes, or beef jerky, or cold cuts. What it will do is keep you from buying the family pack of garbage steaks and both eating a low-quality steak and subsidizing the kind of terrifying farming that brings the world family packs of garbage steaks. What I’m recommending is this: however much you currently spend on meat, continue to spend that same amount, but spend it on less meat. Not as a rule, and not because to do otherwise would be a massive moral failure. When possible, spring for the naturally raised, humane, college-educated, charming, ambitious, upwardly mobile steak. You will be eating better steaks, from cows you’d want to eat, and your investment will make it possible for farmers to prioritize quality over quantity, and that will probably accrue to everyone’s great benefit, in the end.
In the case of your pork chop, you’ll wind up with a thick, dark pink, heavy, deeply-marbled bone-in chop, and someone like, say, Rebecca Krassnoski will be able to earn a decent living carefully and naturally raising up fat, happy pigs. No wan, dreary, disappointingly mild pork for you, my friend. Spend the six bucks per pound and get you a real fuckin’ pork chop, is what I’m saying. And that’s what you want: a thick, dark pink, heavy, deeply-marbled, bone-in chop, like a rib-eye. Take it home and lay it on the counter and stare at it and drool and dream. It’s gonna be a real treat. It should be a treat—don’t eat a ho-hum pork chop every night; eat a fuckin’ great pork chop once a week.
Oh, right. Cooking the thing. Get a hot charcoal fire going in your shitty little charcoal grill. Rub a pinch of salt on one side of the chop, then the other. Slather both sides pretty good in olive oil. When the fire has calmed down some and the charcoal is grey and glowing and still pretty hot, slap your fat chop down on the grill and leave it alone for three or four minutes. Flip it once, and leave it alone for another three or four minutes. Haul it off the heat and let it rest on a cutting board for another few minute—it should have firmed up significantly and gained some delicious dark brown char on both sides. Grind some fresh black pepper over that thing. There. Voilá. Get yourself a plate and a fork and knife, and dig in.
A great pork chop is like a great steak, in that it needs absolutely nothing else on the plate to make a spectacular meal. Pour yourself a glass of whatever dry white wine you dig, or a hoppy ale, or a dry hard cider. If we’ve done this right, the pork is bright and juicy and sweet and porky, with a little welcome smokiness from the charcoal, the salty carbon crunch of char, and the mild, earthy heat of cracked black pepper. Slap a pad of butter on top if you want the real restaurant experience. Those fuckers.
Some pigs are gonna have to die, I’m afraid. A happy, healthy pig will have been sacrificed for this perfect meal, instead of a sad, stifled pig dying for an eating experience not very dissimilar from gnawing on shoe leather. If we’ve done it right, the flimsy pork chops of yesterday’s shake-’n-bakes will be so overshadowed by this glorious chop that a return to workaday pork will no longer be an option. I feel confident we’ll manage.