I had begun writing this post when the delivery came. I live with a family here in France and though all of my food comes from the local farmers’ market, the family gets a large delivery, eight or so full sized boxes, of processed food from the supermarket. There are yogurts and frozen pizzas and frozen veggie combos and sterilized milk, crustless white bread and endless amounts of Nutella. And let me say that I have an odd relationship with food. I have learned entirely too much about food systems to ever shop at supermarkets again. But it is my responsibility to put the delivery away if it comes when I’m home. So I do. And I was. And as I put away the canned peas, bathing in preservatives, as I thought about why it is that these have such a long shelf life, that they are void of any nutritional value, as I pictured the monocropped, pesticide ridden fields, the processing plants, the effect on our bodies, as I pictured all this, I threw up all over the kitchen floor. Just like that. Next to all the boxes to be unpacked was a pile of freshly digested organics from the farmers’ market.
And it got me thinking about the stories behind our food.
And I remembered this story I had heard. Now that I have prefaced with a gruesome beginning, I shall warn vegetarians now, that perhaps you should go back to your tofu smoothie in lieu of reading this.
To meat eaters: savor it.
Blue Hill Farm occupies 138 acres in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. It supplies the renowned Blue Hill Restaurant in New York City with almost all of its farm fresh food. I came across a story about the farm told by Dan Barber, the head chef of the restaurant, about time he spent up on the farm.
He recalls seeing Boris, the farm boar, trying to make love to one of the sows. Boris would lunge at her, try to mount her, and she would scurry away. He had never seen this happen before. Boris simply couldn’t get it up. Craig, the livestock manager on the farm, said that the week after, he simply would have to shoot Boris.
“What do you mean shoot Boris? He’s our man,” Dan said. Boris was in charged of impregnating all of the sows, and frankly, he was falling short of his duties. But it seemed a waste to just let the 750-pound mammoth of an animal simply go to waste. But what does one do with a boar when he can no longer perform as a boar? Dan thought that they couldn’t be the only farm with this problem.
But seemingly, they were.
No one uses boars to impregnate sows anymore. As Boris has clearly demonstrated, it is entirely too much work, entirely too messy, and time consuming. Almost 100% of the pork on our plates today comes from frozen semen, what many farmers call, “boars in a bottle.”
And it wasn’t that Dan Barber is squeamish about killing the boar; he’s a chef. He wanted the meat. He wanted the, in his words, “delicious, aged, luxurious, fatty meat.” Yet after some research, Dan found that when you leave a boar, like Boris, to get that big, you create in their blood system something called Boar Taint that has a taste “comparable to sweat, urine and feces.” It is tainted meat. Smelly. Inedible. What causes Boar Taint? Testosterone. The boar’s sexual maturation causes his meat to be completely unsavory. (How is that for a metaphor of life post-puberty?)
This, however, apparently is why pepperoni was invented. If you take tainted boar meat and add enough spices and red wine and salt, you can cover up some of the tainted taste.
But who wants 750-pounds of pepperoni?
Dan was left with three options:
1. Shoot him and bury him.
2. Go through a butcher and process him into Dog Food
3. Castrate Boris and anywhere from six weeks to six months, Boar Taint will have entirely left the system.
So what was the problem?
The problem was that Boris had testicles the size of basketballs.
And Boris, with his protruding tusks, and almost half-a-ton of body weight made him a force with which to be reckoned.
There were no vets willing to do the operation. Dan spent his days calling up and down the North East coast looking for someone, until the affable Dr. Steve Sanford answered the call.
“A boar, 750-pounds? Never done anything like this before. Couldn’t be more excited. You just pay for dinner for my wife and me the night before,” Sanford said.
“What is this? You’re bartering?” Dan asked.
“That’s right pal. Barter for the balls.”
Sanford showed up with a makeshift pharmacy in the back of his truck. “Boris is gonna by Lucy in the Sky,” Sanford said. “But we’re taking the diamonds.”
On the day of the operation, Boris settled quickly after the drug. Sanford took a razor and extracted two enormous boar testicles. Boris didn’t twitch. They were literally the size of basketballs.
Six months later, according to plan, Boris was slaughtered.
And Dan, Dan made sausage.
“You know,” Dan said, “it would be tough for me to sit here and say, ‘yeah, the sausage was okay. It was pretty good. It wasn’t great. It was fine. It was good.’ But the truth was it was the best sausage meat I’d ever had and I’m not the only one who felt that way.”
In the days after the restaurant first served Boris, they received many phone calls, e-mails, and worker comments, all with ecstatic remarks about how delicious the boar was. There is, indeed, a physiological explanation for this. Aged meat with its complexity of fats gets marbled into the dry meat in a way that causes a true culinary experience.
But there is, perhaps, a psychological explanation as well…
Dan had expected those who knew Boris to cringe at the idea of eating him, but he found the opposite.
Customers wanted to know the whole story; why the meat turned out as it did, how the operation worked, who and where and when they all asked, all at the same time slicing into Boris with their knives and forking some more of the beast into their mouths.
They were, in their own way, celebrating his life.
Dan argues that we are somehow hardwired as humans, as hunter-gatherers to sit around the fire at night and talk, tell stories about our food, figure out what is poisonous or dangerous, and what is nutritious.
Food companies now tell our food stories. They tell the stories with label promises and nutritionism. But the stories are empty, as the flavors are.
And so to each and every chef, I encourage you to use stories. Tell your eaters about the farmers’ market, about the republican farmer who has a gun in his hatchback, about the college educated farmer who quit his job on wall street to get his hands back in the soil, tell them about the fact that you got the last artichoke or that orange roughy is entirely too hard to find on the East Coast. Really, tell your food stories.
It will honestly make your food taste better.