Pork’s reputation is better than ever. Here’s why.

Published September 26
Updated September 26

DES MOINES, Iowa

Top three answers on the board. What are the most common chef tattoos? Yes, there are knives, whisks and other kitchen tools, but if you believe Isaac Fitzgerald and Wendy MacNaughton, the author and illustrator respectively of a book called Knives and Ink: Chefs and the Stories Behind Their Tattoos, the No. 1 chef tat is the pig — sometimes in cross-section, sometimes the whole hog, sometimes in a more bacony context.

Why is that? Chefs like pork, identify with pork. Maybe it’s because it has historically been an underdog meat, not as celebratory as beef nor as crowd-pleasingly everyday as chicken. It’s humble in a way, requiring more care and expertise to coax out its magic than other proteins.

There are private, invitation-only groups like the Salt Cured Pig that draw together chefs, butchers, farmers and charcutiers in open adoration of all things porcine. Just about every chef I know has a droolworthy photo on their phones of a perfectly rolled, crispy-skinned porchetta (a fancy rolled boneless pork roast). And they want to show it to you.

I was recently in Des Moines, Iowa, for the 20th annual Niman Ranch Hog Farmer Appreciation Weekend, which brings together chefs, food distributors, hog farmers, field agents and media folks to talk about, and celebrate, pork. I moderated a panel of chefs and restaurateurs (Mike Hazen of Oath Pizza, Jeff Amoscato of Shake Shack, Paul Mattison of Mattison’s restaurant group in Sarasota and Martin Pfefferkorn with Hyatt Hotels) to drill down on precisely why pork has undergone a transformational reputation change.

First off, we’re going to start with the icky stuff. Trichinosis is a parasitic disease caused by roundworms in the genus Trichinella, something that is commonly associated with pork, but has been transmitted by lots of other carnivorous animals that humans eat.

For centuries, pork was associated with the disease because pigs were raised on diets of garbage and often relieved themselves in their own water source.

There are ways of preventing trichinosis: Cook the meat to a sufficiently high temperature or freeze it to a sufficiently low temperature to kill the parasitic worms. Thus, for decades, the USDA recommended cooking pork to 160 degrees.

Well, it turns out almost nobody is getting trichinosis anymore. (Fun fact: Historians say Mozart may have been felled by tainted pork.) Hog diets and living conditions are more regimented, inspections are more rigorous, and the result has been something like
0.1 cases per 1 million Americans. In 2011, the USDA changed its cooking recommendations, lowering the temperature for chops and roasts to 145 degrees.

Think about it. "The Other White Meat," an advertising slogan developed for the National Pork Board in 1987, has quietly been put out to pasture. When you go to a restaurant now, your server is likely to ask you how you’d like your pork cooked — medium rare is as reasonable an answer as it is for beef. Those dry pork chops of my youth have been replaced by juicy, pink-centered beauties.

Bacon is the gateway drug for so many consumers, giving birth to whole festivals, themed clothing and Instagram feeds devoted to the red-and-white stripey meat candy.

Bacon’s cult status has also, unfortunately, led to periodic shortages in pork bellies. (A pig is made of a whole lot of other meat beyond those bellies, so we have to find ways to use it all.) But why have bacon and pork belly more broadly become such stars? It’s because our relationship to fat has changed. Lean used to be one of the most desirable buzzwords in describing meat, but bestselling books like Big Fat Surprise have revealed the pseudoscientific historical connections between fat consumption and obesity, and between fat and heart disease. There is much talk now about "good fats," and while scientists still argue about whether saturated fats should be in that category, many consumers are less leery of animal proteins with visible fat.

American demographics have changed in such a way as to make pork more appealing.

First off, millennials. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, millennials, those born from 1982 to 2000, totaled an estimated 83.1 million people, or 25 percent of the U.S. population, in 2014 and outnumber baby boomers. They like small plates and shareables, and they are responsible for the rise of customizable grab-and-go restaurants like Chipotle, a restaurant where many non-Hispanics first attempted the word "carnitas." And then there are the Hispanics: Almost 1 in 5 people in the United States, or
57.5 million, is Hispanic, the largest ethnic minority. And in many parts of the country, the Asian-American population has exploded (in the South, it has grown by 69 percent in 10 years). Nearly 59 million immigrants have arrived in the U.S. in the past 50 years, mostly from Latin America and Asia, in both cases representing cultures and cultural traditions that tend to be pork-friendly.

One word: charcuterie.

It has been one of the biggest food trends in recent years. The term dates to 15th century France and essentially means the cured and preserved products of a pork butcher. Because European countries have centuries more experience in this arena than Americans, we have largely imported salumi from Italy, etc. But that is changing, with more and more artisanal salumi made in this country. I recently visited Olympia Provisions in Portland, Ore., which makes 12 outrageously good salamis from Northwest pork using old-world techniques. And many restaurants have begun producing charcuterie in house, much of it pork based.

In the past 10 years, Americans have become smitten with certain tools and techniques.

A 2012 Census Bureau report showed 79.1 million Americans said they had grilled out in 2011. That’s a quarter of the population, and you know they weren’t slathering ribs solo in the backyard. In 1952, Weber Brothers Metal Works created the first barbecue kettle grill and Americans have never looked back — tools like the Big Green Egg, a kamado-style ceramic charcoal barbecue cooker, have become the stuff of serious obsession, pork cookery a focal point for competitive barbecue and home cooks alike.

In the kitchen, tools like the Instant Pot (Amazon sold 300,000 of them on Prime Day 2018) have made it easier for home cooks to experiment with pork shoulder, Boston butt, whole loin and other "low and slow" pork cuts. In a sense, new cooking techniques have expanded the cuts of pork with which many cooks feel comfortable.

Pork as a category does continue to have its challenges.

For instance, unlike beef, it has never had a breed that is a signifier of quality. We all know about Angus beef, but which is better: Duroc or Berkshire pork? Also unlike beef, pork has never had a USDA grading system. We know prime beef is going to be more tender than choice, but how do we choose a package of pork? The bigger challenges are statistical. Here are a handful of troubling stats:

We’ve lost 284 million acres of agricultural land since 1950. We lose 52 farms every day. For pork specifically, we have lost 90 percent of hog operations since 1977 (and in the wake of Hurricane Florence, experts say at least 5,500 hogs died in North Carolina alone).

Overall, farm income has dropped 55 percent since 2012, and if you’re a hog farmer selling commodity pork these days, you’re likely losing money (sale prices are down and input costs way up).

In July, China announced it would implement 62 percent tariffs on pork, and Mexican tariffs on pork went from zero to 10 percent in June and from 10 percent to 20 percent in early July. These tariffs have the potential to further decimate profits for hog farmers, although buyers outside of those two countries have stepped in to purchase American pork.

It is unclear whether this will mean the death knell for pork farmers teetering on solvency, but hopefully, Americans’ enthusiasm for the protein category will carry the day.

Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.

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