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A Unified Theory of Pork Belly
From North Carolina to Berkeley to Chengdu, a price-point sensitive love affair to die for. (The Cross-Stitched Pig, Part IV)
Hurry it not, let it slowly simmer
When cooked long enough it will be beautiful
Su Dongpo, “Ode to Pork”
The most popular item in the giftshop at Taiwan’s National Palace Museum is a miniature copy of one of the museum’s most famous exhibits: a stone carved during the Qing Dynasty into the perfect likeness of a chunk of braised pork belly.
I have seen this marvelous object -- the Dongpo meat-shaped stone -- in person. The transformation of impermeable rock into squishy pork fat evoked wonder, hunger, and the irresistible urge to, like so many writers before me, slather my keyboard with bacon grease.
The 11th century poet Su Dongpo is popularly credited with inventing the dish Dongpo rou. The lineage bestowing cultural authority on the Dongpo meat-shaped stone is thus at least 1000 years old. Which makes it all the more amazing that we don’t know the name of the artisan who crafted it, the exact date of its creation, or even whether any of the great connoisseurs who ruled as emperors of China in the 18th century took the time to appreciate its wondrousness.
It is said that a Mongolian aristocrat who married into the Manchu imperial family discovered an unusual piece of jasper chalcedony in the Gobi desert and presented it as tribute to the Yongzheng emperor in the early 18th century. According to one account, Yongzheng received the uncarved stone with “great delight.” The sourcing is weak, but the story is plausible. Yongzheng was fascinated with rare stones and directed officials through his far-flung empire to always be on the lookout for anything unusual. We know that he personally ordered many of these objects to be carved into the ink-stones prized by Chinese literati. We also know that during his reign, while sitting on his throne in the Hall of Mental Cultivation, Yongzheng regularly reviewed the output of the tens of thousands of skilled artisans who staffed the Imperial Workshops.
Yongzheng was a man of strong opinions. I’d like to believe there was a moment when he contemplated this mouth-watering marriage of stone and flesh and decided, yes, this is good. But barring the emergence of some hitherto overlooked archival materials, we will probably never reach closure on the origin story of the Dongpo meat-shaped stone.
Which might be all for the best. Because the truth of pork belly is slippery.
Hurry it not.
My life is divided into two parts; before and after I cooked pork belly for the first time. Before, I was feckless and impatient and unwilling to trust my intuition. Afterwards, I was guided by the essence of non-action.
I remember the exact moment when it all went down. I was in a rental home near Lake Tahoe in the spring of 2007, cooking up a feast for my friend Chad’s bachelor party. I was attempting a new dish, the Sichuanese classic, Twice-Cooked Pork (huiguo rou). And I was in a state of consternation. A pile of unappetizing slices of boiled pork belly were clumped at the bottom of my wok. For the umpteenth time I reviewed the guidance in Fuchsia Dunlop’s recipe -- "Stir fry until their fat has melted out and they are toasty and slightly curved" – and asked myself, how long, exactly, is this supposed to take?
Up to that point in my cooking life, my preferred recipes were structured like invariable algorithms. Follow the sequence: success guaranteed. Ambiguity was the enemy.
In retrospect, my anxiety seems silly. Rendering fat takes time. Su Dongpo’s “go slow” mantra is a cardinal rule for pork, whether simmered, roasted for carnitas, smoked, or buried underground. Patience is mandatory. The key to solving my huiguo rou conundrum was to do nothing (aside from some mild stirring). Eventually, the pork belly started to look and smell delicious. Toasty perfection manifested itself.
Since that night, I have made huiguo rou countless times and to this very day I still can’t tell you exactly how long it takes to render the pork belly. It’s just ready when it’s ready.
Grasping the truth of this cooking insight felt like a tectonic shift. Despite an attraction to the philosophical tenets of classical Daosim dating back to my early twenties, I have to confess I always distrusted the core injunction to follow the way of wuwei, or “nonaction.” Doing nothing reeked of passivity and reclusion, opting out and avoidance. But my pork belly epiphany changed the terms of engagement. Hitherto, I was always striving to enforce my will upon the world, a stressful strategy that engendered no end of heartbreak. Now I just let the world tell me what I should be doing. It is much more relaxing.
The pork belly in Lake Tahoe told me when it was ready to eat. But that was not its last lesson.
At the world’s largest bacon processing plant, in Wilson, North Carolina, at any given moment a visitor can walk into a cooler the size of a basketball court and feast their eyes on a million pounds of pork bellies. About 80 miles to the south, the largest hog slaughtering house in the world is located in Tar Heel, North Carolina. Both facilities are operated by Smithfield, the biggest pork processing company in the U.S. In 2013, Smithfield was purchased by a Chinese company named Shuanghui for a cool 4.7 billion dollars.
After Shuanghui first announced its merger intentions, there were Congressional hearings in which participants hotly debated the national security implications of the takeover. Would it mean higher pork prices for Americans? What about control of Smithfield’s supposedly super advanced manure processing technology? In today’s international climate, the buyout might well never have been allowed to go through. But it strikes me as totally appropriate that a Chinese company has established itself as the apex of the global pyramid of late capitalist hog production. China was one of two worldwide locations where the pig is originally believed to have first been domesticated. No country consumes or produces more pork than China. No other government takes the price of pork more seriously. China has earned its position as the premier global porcine superpower.
But for the moment, let’s stay in North Carolina. The town of Wilson is about halfway between the town of Greenville, where my friend Chad grew up, and his grandparents’ farm in Pearces. I chose to make huiguo rou for the first time at Chad’s bachelor party precisely because of his North Carolina upbringing. According to the anthropologist Brad Weiss, “pork tasting is the birthright” of every citizen of North Carolina. This is perhaps more true for Chad than most. Chad’s grandparents raised pigs, slaughtered them, and processed them into hams, bacon, and sausage. As president of his student body in high school, Chad broke fundraising records by introducing a bbq pork option instead of the traditional candy offering in an annual sales drive.
When Chad was in high school in the late 1980s, most of North Carolina’s pork production was still dominated by small farmers. But over the next decade a massive consolidation swept the state, in large part catalyzed by corrupt members of the North Carolina state legislature, who gutted environmental legislation and zoning laws in order to smooth the path forward for a huge influx of hog CAFOs—Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. The numbers are startling: In 1986, around 15,000 North Carolina farmers raised 2.6 million hogs with the average farm producing around 175 pigs per year. A decade later, the average farm was producing 4300 hogs. By 2015, just 2300 hundred farms were producing 10 million pigs a year.
Along with a shitload of, well, pig shit.
In 1997, Hurricane Floyd exposed the hog CAFOs as an environmental disaster. Multiple pig manure “lagoons” flooded, polluting local rivers, sparking a wave of local outrage, a Pulitzer-winning investigation by the Raleigh News & Observer, and state legislation forbidding construction of new CAFOs. A concurrent industry wide collapse in hog prices forced many of the state’s major producers into bankruptcy. Smithfield swooped in and picked up the pieces, quickly becoming the state’s dominant pork industry player, as well as ground zero for future wrangling over the cultural and environmental and economic impact of state-of-the-art hog production.
Pigs, in China, were traditionally cherished as sources of invaluable fertilizer. But in the U.S., reports Alex Blanchette in his eyebrow-raising and relentlessly nauseating book Porkopolis, “There is no longer enough agricultural vegetation… to absorb factory farms’ feces.” A similar disaster has played out in China, where the rush to duplicate Western-style factory farming turned agricultural waste into one of the biggest sources of pollution in the country.
Today, traces of Dover Foods’ lard are blended into diesel pumps at commercial gas stations across the country. The skins generate leather, gelatin and collagen that can then appear as hair gels and moisturizers. The bones are cooked and processed in so many different stages that the same leg can become a source of soup base, pork oil, glue, and concrete filler. Each gland plays host to future drugs and hormones in the form of estrogen, epinephrine, insulin, trypsin, and somatotropin. Hog blood can become piglet food, sausage, or fibrin for surgical repair. The foam from hogs’ lungs -- pulmonary surfactant -- in some other slaughterhouses is used to help premature human babies and those with respiratory distress syndrome breathe…. The North Carolina Pork Producers Council estimates that as many as four hundred nonedible products depend on hog substances either for their material composition or as an irreplaceable dimension of their manufacturing process.
“Dover Foods” is a pseudonym for a major industrial pork processor located somewhere in the American Midwest. Blanchette spent several years investigating its operations by working along with mostly immigrant laborers on the factory farm assembly line. His prose is consequently littered with the kind of sentences – “One chilly morning in December, after unloading my wheelbarrow full of piglet corpses into a dumpster” – that ring with eyewitness clarity. One of his more chilling observations is that you can be the strictest vegan in the world and still not escape contact with chemicals derived from a system built on the foundation of extracting every possible iota of “value” from the industrial hog.
“It should matter,” he writes, “that it is almost impossible to exist today without being in contact with traces of dead pigs.”
There is plenty more to be disturbed by in Porkopolis: the gestation crates in which breeding sows live for months, unable to do so much as turn around; the forced evolutionary genetics that create sows physically unable to feed the massive litters they produce; the ruthless exploitation of mostly immigrant labor to do the jobs that machines can’t handle. Perhaps most mind-boggling: Blanchette’s account of how companies like Dover are trying to control the social activity of workers outside the factory, to minimize the danger that contact with workers at rival companies might make them vectors of hog-killing contagion.
All of this – all of this – is generated by the relentless drive to shave a few more pennies off the price of a pound of pork.
The market forces that place consumer welfare over animal welfare are nothing to scoff at. When I had a steady job which deposited a decent paycheck in my bank account twice a month, I thought nothing of buying organic ground pork that cost four dollars a pound more than the alternative. But as a newsletter writer, I wince every time I compare the price of a pound of pork belly at Costco with the price at my local butcher.
It is no mystery why, for thousands of years, the vast majority of Chinese people rarely ate pork, even as they esteemed it as one of life’s great culinary pleasures. Chinese peasants understood something the modern world struggles to accept: the raw math of meat is brutal. A single pound of flesh equals a wealth of grain and water. Meat should be expensive.
In China, up until at least the mid-20th century, wrote the anthropologist James Watson, "to eat meat on a regular basis, at home or in nearby market towns, was a clear and unambiguous sign of wealth." But Watson reported that by the early twenty-first century, families were consuming as much meat in a week as they had been in an entire year just two generations previously. Perhaps the most telling metric proving the success of economic reform in China was the increase, over four decades, of China's per capita annual consumption of pork from 18 to 86 pounds.
For the first time in history, the peasant can eat like an emperor. There is an aspect to that reality that is entirely morally justifiable: in a fair society, rich people shouldn’t have a monopoly on being able to eat well. This is why, when food prices rise, politicians fall.
But the cost of cheap pork is pig torture, labor exploitation, and environmental chaos. And that’s obviously morally unjustifiable.
In 2008 I voted for a successful ballot initiative banning the use of gestation crates in California. In 2018 I voted for Proposition 12, a ballot initiative that went a significant step further and banned the sale of pork in California sourced from pigs bred from sows confined to gestation creates anywhere. The initiative passed with a 63 percent majority. Voters in the most highly populated state in the United States – representing an economy that would be the fifth largest in the world if California was its own country – had spoken: Industrial hog farming is bad and we want it to stop.
The law was supposed to go into effect in January 2022, but a federal judge has granted pork processors a stay, pending action by the Supreme Court. A lobbying group called the “Iowa Pork Processors” is asking the court to overturn California’s law, on the grounds that it is an unconstitutional interference in interstate commerce.
The Biden administration has sided with Iowa over California. A hearing will be held October 11.
I was dismayed to learn that the President I voted for was working against Californian progressivism on animal welfare. California’s economic purchasing power is mighty; if the law stands, it will result in a profound restructuring of the industrial pork complex. But I can’t say I’m surprised. Even as I was voting to ban gestation crates, I was still regularly purchasing my pork belly from Costco. And although Costco has publicly pledged on numerous occasions to phase out gestation-crate sourced pork, it has yet to do so. Presumably, it is waiting until its hand is forced by the legal system.
But that day may never come. I have had to accept that the political process is unlikely to save me from my own price-point sensitive hypocrisy.
In A History of Pigs in China: From Curious Omnivores to Industrial Pork, authors Brian Landor, Mindy Scheidner, and Katherine Brunson raise the somewhat disturbing possibility that Chinese pigs were complicit in their own “commensal” domestication. Pigs are smart, and they discovered many thousands of years ago that human settlements were sources of abundant food scraps. They started hanging out around the campfire, and eventually, so the theory goes, a kind of “social contract” emerged between pigs and humans. Pigs got a cushy life, free of the strains and perils of living in the wild. Humans got a valuable mechanism for transforming food waste into fertilizer.
Of course, from the pig’s point of view, the end point of this contract was a bit drastic: the hog got served up on a platter at New Year’s, or a wedding, or a funeral. But those were rare and special occasions of great ceremony. From the point of view of humans, the pig’s sacrifice was honored.
We can debate about whether something like a “social contract” between two different species can really exist. But of one thing we can be certain: if there ever was such a tacit agreement between pigs and humans, it’s broken now, on a vast and horrific scale.
Can it be fixed? A footnote in Porkopolis led me to the book Real Pigs: Shifting Values in the Field of Local Pork, by Alex Blanchette’s thesis adviser, Brad Weiss. Real Pigs tells the story of activists and farmers and restauranteurs in North Carolina who are trying to build a sustainable economy built around pasture-raised pigs. After Porkopolis, it serves as a welcome palate-cleanser, full of stories about people trying to do the right thing. There is a clear dialectic at work in the global food economy. The excesses of the industrial factory model have forced a reaction: the burgeoning of the slow food, organic, sustainable movement. As a Northern Californian, I am of course quite intimate with this dialectic.
But there’s a twist. Weiss writes:
To say, for example, that authenticity and the inauthentic emerge together with the founding of modernity as communal ties dissolve and then reform in the wake of rupture and deterritorialization, or that capitalism dialectically projects the authentic as an ideological mode of resolving the enduring alienation it generates, has a certain ring to it. I am tempted by the notion that the very structures of contract and financialization that facilitated the mega-consolidation of confinement pigs in North Carolina are products of the same process that led to the radical demographic transformation of the state, as legislative actions eased the regulatory environment, which encouraged corporations to move their headquarters and labor force to Research Triangle Park and Charlotte. In this way, the degradations of the food system also created the wealthy, deracinated consumers in search of local food with which to reterritorialize themselves in their new Piedmont homes.
The same market forces that result in the torturing of pigs create the affluent class that can afford to eat non-tortured pigs. We crave authenticity precisely because we have been afflicted with a flood of inauthenticity. And I am privileged enough to live in a fantastically wealthy area of my country, easily capable of supporting a huge agricultural economy built around the sale of high-priced authenticity.
I hosted a pig roast when I turned sixty this past summer. I bought a whole slaughtered pig from Marin Sun Farms, a mighty flagship for Northern Californian sustainably produced meat. I paid a considerable sum to honor this pig, but I could afford to because of contributions from friends who wanted to help me celebrate.
In the weeks before and after that party, I was also perfecting a recipe for twice-cooked pork belly home fries with meat I bought from Costco. And I was simultaneously dealing with an unprecedentedly stubborn case of writer’s block that was preventing me from finishing this damn pork belly newsletter post.
These two data points were not unrelated.
When the Dongpo meat-shaped stone arrived at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum in 2015, I suggested to my youngest child Eli that we make a surgical strike – a trip across the Bay Bridge to see just that one exhibit, and then we’d return home and I’d cook twice cooked pork belly and we would watch Orphan Black. Eli thought it a fine idea and we executed it perfectly, with a slight speed bump involved in navigating the logistic complexities of Gay Pride Weekend in S.F.
I cherish the memory of that day. There are so many things to appreciate: Qing Dynasty craftsmanship, half-naked partiers dancing in the streets, Tatiana Maslany’s acting --- and my child next to me on my couch savoring my cooking, Sharing that contentment is one of the experiences I miss most in my generally otherwise aggreable post-empty nest life-style. Eli’s eyes would always light up when I announced huiguo rou was for dinner.
2015 also happened to be the year that I first conceived the idea of deconstructing an interconnected world via a Sichuan feast. I knew right from the outset that pork belly would be central to the project – that was one reason I made sure we went to the Asian Art Museum. What I didn’t realize, as I set out to tell a story about the world, was that I would end up listening to the story that the world told me. A story that would expose my own contradictions and hypocrisies, and exert its own irresistible flow.
There are an infinite number of starting points to this story, but one of them is the moment that I came face to face with the Dongpo rou meat-shaped stone and decided I had to learn everything I could about the history of pigs in China… and North Carolina… and Northern California.
The end of this journey would be an epic tale sharing all new knowledge with readers while rhapsodizing about one of my favorite Sichuan dishes. This would be fun! This would be tasty!
In the course of my research and writing I have spent a lot of time contemplating all the pigs I have impaled on spits and roasted in steel boxes and buried in pits dug by my own hand. I have considered all the bacon I have ever loved, all the racks of baby-back ribs I have smoked, all the time spent hovering over slowly rendering pork belly.
And so, I am more than a little bit rueful after finally coming to the end of this journey with the realization that henceforth I will be striving to eat much less pork. One of my favorite dishes will now be reserved for special occasions and Costco will not be part of the supply chain. It feels just a tad ironic.
But the story has simmered long enough and the meat is sufficiently tender. It’s ready when it’s ready.