Sunday, 9 June 2013

Pork or Pork?: Serving up Red Wattle Hogs at the Downtown Luau

Hosted by The Hills Market Downtown and neighbouring Grass Skirt Tiki Bar, the Downtown Luau was one of quite a few events (at least 68) scheduled for this weekend.
On Friday evening, Slow Food Columbus's Chairman of the Board Bear Braumoeller joined butcher Tim Struble from Columbus's North Market and pitmaster Jim Budros (co-founder of Columbus's City Barbeque) in preparing and cooking two hogs for Columbus's Downtown Luau. But these weren't just any hogs, they were Red Wattle hogs, an Ark of Taste food in danger of extinction. Red Wattles are currently listed as "critically endangered," with less than 200 annual registrations and less than 2000 in existence around the world. With the biodiversity of our food system continuing to dwindle, it's becoming more and more important to reverse the trend by creating a demand for them; without it, there's no reason for a shop to source them and by extension for farmers to raise them. Yesterday's luau provided a wonderful opportunity to not only showcase the hogs, but to also foster a communal, Columbus celebration of food, drink and the upcoming start of summer.

Neil (Red Wattle hog breeder) of Arcadian Acres and Bear of Slow Food Columbus
As soon as I stepped out of my car on the parking lot of The Hills (not to be confused with the one on Olentangy River Rd), I smelled the lingering deliciousness of "Hog Heaven," the slow cooked meat of the Red Wattles, from Neil Perin's Arcadian Acres (located in Athens, OH), which had weighed in at about 550+ lbs in total. Due to their larger than typical size (a pig, by contrast weighs in at 120 lbs or less), one of the first challenges that needed to be overcome was how exactly to cook all of that meat in time.

The traditional and arguably most recognisable piece of any luau (1,2), i.e., the imu, would have been a bit more difficult to dig up in the city for a true kalua pig (kalua meaning "underground"); a China box (usually for pigs weighing in at about 100 lbs) would have been too small; and a cinder block firepit, though fun, would have meant additional production challenges.

Tim (butcher, on right) of The North Market
In the end, Tim carefully broke down the hogs for two preparations--both of which highlighted the exceptionally lean and juicy pork--that would then be cooked in a large smoker by Jim and neighbor and City Barbeque co-founder John. [I'll note here that the skeletons were sent over to Skillet to be turned into stock.]

The first preparation was for a pulled pork sandwich, made from shoulder and ham, and hickory smoked for a good nine hours or so until mouthwatering tender, rubbed earlier with a simple blend containing paprika and brown sugar. Oh.my.yum. Sincerely, even the smallest piece was packed with pure, natural, umami goodness, that very little really needed to be done to the hogs by way of additional ingredients.

While the sandwiches were awesome all on their own, The Hills Downtown put together an amazing sauce of Jim's invention that enhanced the full, rich mouth feel of the pulled pork: a Hawaiian-inspired North Carolina-style barbeque sauce, which Bear demoed earlier in the week on WSYX ABC6's Good Day Columbus. For those who are unaware, "North Carolina-style" refers to the heavier emphasis on vinegar which cuts through the meat, allows the smokiness to come through, and provides a nice kick at the end. To complement the Hawaiian luau theme of the day, Bear's sauce also included pineapple juice, which started off each bite with a nuanced sweetness before the vinegar cleansed the palate in time for the next bite. (The disappointing piece to all this, of course, was when there wasn't another bite to be had unil another sandwich was purchased.) In contrast, East Carolina style is heavier on the spice (heat) to balance out smokiness; South Carolina style is heavier on the mustard, a byproduct of the region's German heritage; and West Carolina style is heavier on the tomatoes, more often than not using ketchup as the base.

John and Jim (pitmaster) with half a porchetta. For the luau, they cooked four whole porchettas!
Though not Hawaiian per se, the second preparation was for porchetta (a nod, intentionally or otherwise, to Slow Food's Italian roots), which was cooked for about seven hours. Made from skin-on belly that's been wrapped around the loin, porchetta can perhaps be more easily explained as "we've got American turkeys for Thanksgiving, while Italians have something better," or simply a pork loin roast, or basically a bacon-wrapped hog.

However you say it, what's not to love? You've got crispy, salty skin encapsulating moist and tender meat, and flavoured a layer of robust flavours from garlic, fennel seeds, bulb fennel, rosemary, lemon, lemon zest and white wine.

Sliced at an angle to get thin, manageable bites, the porchetta was perfect for the burger buns or awesome all on their own with no particular need for the sauce (though I used some anyway). Hungry yet? Alongside our three shifts of volunteers (an immense thank you to you all, especially Ashley, Colleen, Eleo, Ellie, Fei, Maureen, Michelle, Nathan and Sarah!), we served up at least 350 sandwiches over the course of the eight-hour luau-- and my mouth is still salivating for Red Wattle pork.

Accompanying each sandwich was a side of fruit salad, made with watermelon, pineapple, red grapes, cantaloupe (a type of muskmellon) and fresh mint. (Update: And as it turns out, coconut milk was also part of the mix.) While I really enjoyed all of these flavours together, what I really loved was the resulting liquid, i.e., the juices that blended together, which served as added sustenance throughout the day for me.

Completing the $8 meal was a choice of Ohio chips: Shagbark Seed & Mill's Corn Tortilla Chips from Athens (of which Brandon and Michelle were 2012 Terra Madre delegates) or Gold 'N Krisp Potato Chips from Massillon). I went with the potato chips and wow were they good. They were light and crispy, and not overburdened with copious amounts of salt.

In addition to the meal, and drinks, there was also a dessert of pineapple upside down cake that could be purchased.

Cara of little eater.
Across the parking lot where we were set up, another tent offered an alternative (or from what I saw, additions) to all of the pork on our side of the lot. The tent was that of Cara Mangini's company, littleeater. Produce-inspired and locally sourced, yesterday's offerings came in the form of a salad of Local Strawberries and Kale with Fried Almonds and Feta, and a Sweet and Spicy Slaw with Local Cucumbers, Cilantro, Basil and Mint. For anyone currently in Columbus or planning to visit soon, take note that littleeatery, littleeater's pop-up café will be popping up Thursdays and Fridays from 11.30am to 2.30pm at The Hills Market Downtown.

Through/Around The Hills, Grass Skirt's parking lot was equally luau-themed, complete with leis, live music and a costumed tiki. And it was there that I took a break from the sandwich making and tried out the pineapple upside down cake. 

A bit denser than I would've typically gone for, I really enjoyed the sweet, caramelised bite of the cake's exterior.

Also on the lot were a selection of drinks, of which I tried the Kukakuka cocktail. The refreshingly bright lime and sweet pineapple worked especially with the cake, and the kick of the Cruzan rum was by no means overpowering. What was overpowering (or perhaps more meaningful than anything else) was the apparent sense of pride and community that was evident in our section of Columbus throughout the day.

Coupled with the Park Street Fair, the Columbus Arts Festival, the Moonlight Market, and everything else that took place on Saturday alone, the people, spirit, and food of this city make me even more excited to move into the area in a few months' time. More than I've ever been to this point, I look forward to continue working with the executive board, members and friends of Slow Food Columbus, and to embark on my food, anthropology and cultural studies full time. All told, I'm ready to help feed the experience and be a part of our learning through food.

For a list of owners and breeders of Red Wattle hogs, click here. And click here to read up on the Red Wattle Hogs Association. Finally, for these and additional photos, click here.

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