Bringing Fatty Back

“Pork just tastes great. If you talk to a lot of chefs, they’ll tell you pork is their favorite food, and the flavor is in the fat,” says chef Paul Kahan of Chicago’s Blackbird restaurant.

Kahan has had pork belly on his menu for about eight years. He’s not alone: Chefs and high-end butchers have rediscovered bacon, pork bellies, and even pork neck—decidedly non-lean cuts of the pig. Iron Chefs have battled with pork belly in Kitchen Arena. Chef Dante Boccuzzi of Aureole in New York twins pork belly with monkfish. Chef Tom Colicchio employs liberal amounts of bacon and fatty pork at all of his restaurants. Chef Robert Carter of Peninsula Grill in Charleston, South Carolina, prepares tender pork rillettes (pork slow-cooked in fat).

Meanwhile, the National Pork Board has spent the last 19 years trying to get consumers to think of pork as a different, leaner product. Have they been chasing the wrong end of the stick? Is the fat back?

Fat Is the Anti-Blah

As far as advertising slogans go, “Pork, the Other White Meat” was always a bit convoluted. “Got Milk?” and “Beef, It’s What’s for Dinner” work. The Pork Board’s attempt to liven up the meat’s image has been to append the phrase “Don’t be blah” at the end of its slogan. The National Pork Board’s motto is now officially: “Pork, the Other White Meat. Don’t be blah.”

According to the organization, not being blah means people should try a variety of dishes. Its website has hundreds of pork recipes, from apricot-glazed loins to zesty Italian pork chops. “In our research, pork seemed old-fashioned and un-hip compared to other meats,” says Jeff Pigott, director of food service marketing for the Pork Board. “We’re trying to generate new products that present pork to the consumer in new and interesting ways. The poultry folks have done a great job of that.”

Those poultry folks don’t seem to have put much effort into marketing their product—the National Chicken Council’s website, Eatchicken.com, doesn’t bother with a slogan. Despite their lack of effort, chicken consumption has gone from 39 pounds consumed per person in 1987 to 59 pounds in 2004, according to the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The average consumer ate 47.8 pounds of pork in 2004, the most recent year for which figures are available. That’s about 2 pounds per year more than in 1987, the year the “Other White Meat” slogan was introduced.

Although mad cow disease has impacted the beef industry, the rise in meat consumption overall owes a lot to the Atkins/South Beach–driven craze for low-carb, high-protein diets. Carbohydrates, not fat, were marked as the demon. If pork didn’t benefit from Dr. Atkins’ meat evangelism as much as chicken, it’s because the pork board never let go of its pork-is-lean message; pork got pigeonholed.

According to the National Pork Board, a lean 3-ounce piece of pork tenderloin has about the same fat content—around 3 grams—as a 3-ounce piece of chicken breast. The same amount of sirloin roast has about 9 grams. However, the board isn’t interested in talking about the fat content of pork belly. Becca Hendricks, spokesperson for the National Pork Board, says, “I don’t think we have fat content for the belly. Isn’t it all fat?”

And Isn’t It Naturally Fat?

Then there’s the question of veracity. “Pork is not naturally lean,” says Bill Niman, founder and chairman of Niman Ranch, which sells pasture-raised pork. Lean pork is a creation of big agribusiness companies like Smithfield, which long ago moved pigs into massive, climate-controlled indoor facilities. The animals don’t produce the layers of fat needed for outdoor insulation. Says Niman, “The industry has done such a great job changing the pork paradigm that people don’t know what pork is supposed to taste like.”

Even the industrial agriculture giants that labored to turn pork into a lean, dry meat over the past several decades are now investing in heritage breeds—like Berkshire hogs, which are prized for their marbled fat and rich flavor. This year, Cargill Meat Solutions introduced a line of Berkshire pork that the company describes as “highly marbled, rich in taste and red in color.”

Berkshire pork, known as kurobuta in Japan, is often compared to Kobe beef, a tender, marbled meat, although Kobe’s marbling comes in part from traditional Japanese fattening techniques. While giants like Cargill have gotten into the business, most of the growth is among midsize producers like Iowa’s Berkridge Pork and Idaho’s Snake River Farms. Iowa’s Eden Natural consortium recently moved its herd from a mix of different breeds to 100 percent Berkshire. But Niman and others say that so far the buyers are mainly restaurants, and that fattier pork hasn’t made its way into mainstream retail outlets.

Even though Berkshire and other heritage breeds are increasingly available in specialty meat shops, they may come from the same industrial feedlots as any other hog. That means pigs are raised in close quarters and endure treatment like tail docking, in which the pigs’ tails are cut so that the pigs don’t chew on each other. And, like other meat industries, the pork business relies on antibiotics and unnatural feeds to fatten the animals faster than would otherwise be possible. The only way to ensure that you’re getting humanely raised pork is to deal with farms or local butchers directly and learn about their approach.

From Farm to Restaurant to Home

Taylor Boetticher, from The Fatted Calf, an artisanal charcuterie producer in Berkeley, California, says he has seen customers increasingly willing to try fattier cuts of the pig. “Lean pork just doesn’t taste good,” he says. “If it has no marbling, it comes out watery, and I think it just tastes weird.”

Kahan, of Blackbird, says that pork belly is so popular he can’t take it off his menu without complaints. And as with previously ignored or disdained cuts of beef, like hangar steak or skirt steak, demand for fatty pork is making formerly cheap cuts more expensive.

But the National Pork Board isn’t changing its message to embrace fatty pork. The board points out that fine-dining restaurants are just a small piece of the meat market, and pork fat is still largely a phenomenon for high-end eateries. “It takes a high level of skill, and these are more complex dishes to assemble,” says Pigott. “Pork bellies and cuts like that are great flavor enhancers, but it’s not really an ideal main dish.”

Many pork belly recipes call for braising, brining, or some sort of slow cooking; restaurants often use sous-vide. However, Kahan disagrees that cooking with fatty pork has to be complicated. He says cooks can use basic recipes and simply adjust their cooking times to account for the fat. “You don’t have to do any crazy brining or Cryovac-ing or anything like that,” he says. “We occasionally do that stuff, but it’s very easy just to cook pork bellies.”

Boetticher and other high-end meat marketers have found that by focusing on breeds that are tasty and not just models of industrial efficiency, they can ignite new interest in pork. But it will take time to undo almost 20 years of having Pork, the Other White Meat drilled into consumers’ heads. “The leaner pork is still what’s sold in retail, and the heritage pork is going to food service,” says Niman. “That’s why people wonder why pork tastes better in restaurants.

Photoillustration by Jenny Pfeiffer.