Northern Michigan Food & Wine: Nose to tail. Farm to table. Label it whatever foodie movement you like, this world-class Pigstock Traverse City workshop devoted to all things pig, heralds a new chapter for Northern Michigan agriculture. Nationally renowned chef Brian Polcyn shares the Pigstock background and why the seven-course fundraising pork dinner will live long in your Traverse City foodie dreams.
It’s not a secret anymore: Northern Michigan is a bona fide food destination. But some folks argue there’s something missing. Like a well-balanced diet, they say, our Northern Michigan region needs protein—specifically, meat—to thrive. And that quest for healthy, local, humanely raised animals starts with the humble pig in Traverse City.
Every October, top chefs, food writers and serious home cooks from around the country pilgrimage to Northern Michigan for Pigstock. Dreamed up by local foods purveyor Cherry Capital Foods, Pigstock is a three-day, hands-on intensive training in the art and craft of processing a hog “from the inside all the way out.” The hogs in this case are not your typical pink porkers; they’re Mangalitsas, a wool-covered Hungarian variety bred specifically for its fatty (read: delicious) meat. Though a curious-looking creature—picture the lovechild of a pig and a sheep—it might just be the future of the North’s agricultural scene. And, according to Brian Polcyn, it’s like nothing you’ve ever tasted. Polcyn, by the way, is the Michigan-born all-star chef, Pigstock instructor, and charcuterie expert whose 2005 book, Charcuterie, launched the languishing craft of cured meats into the national spotlight.
Polcyn recently sat down with us to give us the dish on Pigstock, heritage pork, and why meat matters more than ever.
First things first: How did you become one of the country’s foremost experts on charcuterie?
Charcuterie has been an important part of my life ever since I got serious about cooking 35 years ago. I grew up a typical Midwestern boy: I thought meat came from a store on a Styrofoam tray wrapped in plastic. Then I was trained by a master chef from Europe, and I just kept doing it, kept practicing it. Like anything else, when you do things for a long time you get better at it. Like, I’ve made 8,343,617 sausages.
For real? You’ve kept count?
No! But it feels like that many.
Every year, Pigstock attracts top chefs from all over the nation. Why such interest in cured meats?
This food is real. It’s chefs’ food. It’s food with soul. If you take a New York strip steak and you season it properly and you grill it off medium-rare, sure, there’s some skill involved. But to take a pork shoulder or a shank or a neck muscle and turn that into a beautiful thing that not only tastes fantastic but is beautiful on the plate and will last without refrigeration for six months—that’s magic. Plus, charcuterie is designed to feature under-utilized cuts of meat. All the meat that nobody knows what to do with? That’s our pride and joy. Any chef who’s a really good cook encompasses charcuterie for that reason. It’s respectful food with soul.
So, it’s really a type of food artistry.
Artistry is an overused term. People always say to me, “You’re an artist.” I say, “I’m not an artist, I’m a craftsman.” A good furniture maker starts with wood, right? A craftsman looks at that piece of wood and sees how the grain goes or how the joints go together. That’s the way I look at food. You know who the true artist is? Nature. Look—just cut a head of red cabbage in half. It’s beautiful. And it’s the simplest thing you ever saw in your life.
Is Pigstock just for chefs? Or does it offer something for home cooks, too?
If someone’s interested in where their food comes from, then Pigstock is for them, because it’s a great way to see firsthand how heritage and handcrafted food is made start to finish. On the other hand, it’s not for everyone. But if you don’t want to see an animal get killed, you can still support the mission by going to the [fundraising] dinner. That way you’re supporting not only local farms and Michigan agriculture but also chefs who are investing in themselves to learn how to create the best food for the public—which is you. Plus you’ll get to enjoy a great dinner prepared by great chefs with great wine.
Pigstock seems to herald a new chapter for the Northern Michigan agricultural economy, which has traditionally been rooted in produce. How do meats fit into our regional food scene?
Proteins are critical to Northern Michigan agriculture because right now most of the products are fruits and vegetables. The fruits, in particular, are very susceptible to frost and bad weather. But the proteins in this climate, above the 45th parallel, aren’t subjected to that. They’re not gonna die if it gets cold outside. Plus, there’s a lot of good land for animals to graze and exercise and be raised in a humane environment.
Speaking of humane environments: The first day of Pigstock is called "Kill Day." How does that go down?
Well, we round up the animals and we make sure they’re all very calm. That’s very important. It’s not like Ted Nugent’s here and I’m in camouflage with a knife in my mouth—it’s humane, but, you know, you’re killing an animal. It’s as humane as you can get killing something. So, the animal is stunned, and we bleed it out while the heart’s still pumping. Then the animal is scalded and then dehaired, which is a long process, and then eviscerated: the bowels are removed and cleaned, the bladder is cleaned, and then we clean the heart, lung, liver, spleen. Which all takes time.
How much of that gets used?
What are the more surprising parts you use?
Well, we always make a heart-and-lung stew. We take the spleen and make a nice spread for toast. Blood for sausages, of course. Liver—we make a pâté. And then we clean the intestines for sausage making. This is how they did it 100 years ago in America. You’d be on the farm and all the neighbors would come around and everybody would work together. They didn’t have Kroger.
So it’s a return to our roots, in a way.
Yes. The food world is changing. The more awareness that people have about food and food quality, the better it is for everybody. I mean, heritage-breed pork is not the same as grocery-store pork. Grocery store pork is garbage. If I gave you a blind tasting between a grocery-store porkchop and a Berkshire porkchop, you’d taste the difference. One tastes like Dairy Queen soft-serve vanilla ice cream, which has no vanilla in it at all, and the other one tastes like homemade vanilla ice cream with fresh Tahitian vanilla beans in it. You can visualize that right now, right? That’s the way it is with pork. They’re both edible; you’re not gonna die if you eat grocery store pork, but you can tell there’s a difference.
But do you ever slum it and eat a hot dog at a ball game?
Yeah, sure. It’s usually a kielbasa, though.
Where are your favorite Northern Michigan restaurants for enjoying this kind of food?
I’d say Trattoria Stella: Chef Myles [Anton], he’s taken the class and really embraced it. Jen at Cook’s House is doing really good. And, you know, the Great Lakes Culinary Academy—Chef Bob Rodriguez does a charcuterie class. He’s using my book as his text, so you know his recipes are coming out really good. [laughs]
So, final question: Of all the niche aspects of cooking that you could get into, what is it about charcuterie that you love so much?
I think it’s the magic. In its simplest form, I take a piece of raw pork, I put salt on it, I hang it in a 60-degree room for one year, and I eat it, and it’s the most wonderful thing in the world. Prosciutto, right? That’s magic. I don’t want that to die in American cooking. That’s my mission. And I want to help create a demand for the family farm to raise heritage breeds. Part of the mission of Pigstock is to expose heritage breed animals to chefs who are the decision makers. Because when those decision makers create a demand for heritage-breed pork, that means farmers will want to raise them—and if the farmers raise them, we’ll have more nutritionally sound raw ingredients to work with instead of the factory pigs. If the chefs are buying it, we’re creating demand. It’s the circle of life, Simba. Everybody wins.
Emily Bingham is a writer, editor and photographer based in Ann Arbor. emilyebingham.com