I once found myself in the back of a bus with a couple of country ham producers. Since it was a long ride to Boone, N.C, we whiled away time commiserating over Northerners' mistaken assumption that western North Carolina was a hotbed of barbecue. "Wrong end of the state," I'd explain. One of the country ham producers grunted: "Wrong end of the pig."
Meat maven Bruce Aidells, who'll be in town next week flogging his latest cookbook, wants American carnivores to look more closely at the wrong end of the pig. According to Aidells, a hog's hindquarters is the most egregiously overlooked cut of pork.
"I believe pork guys have destroyed the concept of ham by pumping them full of water," Aidells says. "It seems to me a missed opportunity. It's a glorious roast."
Front legs are faring slightly better, since they're usually sold as the Boston butt that pitmasters seek. Since the meat's ideal for slow-cooking, the current interest in barbecue has helped increase sales. But industrial meat plants - which Aidells suspects "aren't wanting to spend time on the labor" associated with butchering and packaging pork roasts -- are still shipping their hams to Italy and Spain, where the cut's appreciated.
In his Great Meat Cookbook: Everything You Need to Know to Buy and Cook Today's Meat, Aidells urges meat shoppers to experiment with different cuts of meat, choosing the cuts suitable to their cooking methods. He's pained by how much money is wasted and flavor lost when eaters refuse to stray from filets and ribeyes.
"Steak is the most confusing purchase because butchers are not so conscientious about what they label as steak," Aidells says. "My pet peeve is eye of round, which looks lovely, but it's very bad."
Compounding the problems posed by nomenclature is the disappearance of butchers from mainstream grocery stores. Ever since the 1970s, when processors realized it was cheaper to butcher and package meat than ship whole sides, supermarkets have been reducing their meat departments' staffs.
"He may be the most handsome guy at the store, so he can talk to the ladies, but he might not know squat," Aidells says of the typical supermarket butcher.
Aidells believes eaters who aren't able to patronize artisan butchers would be better off reading his meat overviews than trying to pry helpful information from a supermarket clerk. He suggests eaters familiarize themselves with high-value cuts such as the the newly-available "pork brisket," being marketed by Portland's Nicky USA, distributor of Tails & Trotters' hazelnut-finished pork. Sold in Spain as secreto, the brisket is a well-marbled cut located between the shoulder and loin. Aidells also likes a flatiron pork steak, which is much more manageable in size than its four-pound bovine counterpart.
"It's a one or two person portion," Aidells says.
And, for holiday meals, he stands by the pork roast.
"The roast leg is really delicious, not unlike a leg of lamb," he says. "It certainly is a nice alternative to a spiral Honeybaked Ham."
Aidells is keeping a busy schedule in Seattle. There are nine seats remaining for an $80 demo and dinner buffet on Oct. 2 at Rain Shadow Meats. Tickets include a copy of the cookbook. The following evening, Aidells will appear at The Book Larder, along with charcuterie provided by Dot's Delicatessen. Admission is $15. Finally, on Thursday, Aidells will participate in a $90 four-course dinner at Dahlia Lounge.