Belly of the Beast

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Kristen Frederickson

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Pork belly. Does the name make you laugh? Lots of Americans growing up when I did – in the 1970s – knew the ingredient only as a rather silly-sounding commodity that was bought and sold frozen, in the futures market on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, beginning in 1961 (this contract was just recently cancelled, in favor of fresh pork belly).

There was something about the phrase “pork belly futures” that always produced a laugh. But no one ever cooked it to my knowledge. I never even saw it in grocery stores (the notion of a butcher being long-dead in my Midwestern upbringing).

Pork has been a part of Chinese and other Asian cuisines since 4900 BC, and in the United Kingdom since 1500 BC, but Americans weren’t introduced to the cloven-hoofed delights until Christopher Columbus brought eight pigs with him in 1492. It was the job of explorer Hernando de Soto in 1539 to bring 13 sows to Tampa, Florida, and there the American pork industry was born. Even more influential was Sir Walter Raleigh’s delivery of pigs to Jamestown in 1607.

When I was growing up, pork was being rebranded by the National Pork Board as “The Other White Meat,” intending to lay pork alongside chicken as a healthy thing to eat. These lean cuts of pork were, however, carved from increasingly intensively-reared, exercise-deprived, miserable animals living in inhumanely crowded conditions.

Now let’s talk pork belly. No one makes any attempt to sell it as “the other white meat.” Pork belly is preclsely that, the belly of the beast.

Pork belly is proudly dark and marbled, with layers of meat alternating with fat. In England, where I now live for most of the year, pork belly has long been taken extremely seriously indeed as the most savory, luscious cut of pork you can cook. Because it requires long-cooking it is, like so many other slow cuts (shoulder, shanks and the like) very inexpensive and therefore popular among the masses. Recipes abound in England for slow-roasting this Delicacy for the Common Man.

From reports I’ve heard from friends in the US, pork belly is making its lip-smacking way into fashionable restaurants in San Francisco, Charlotte, Indianapolis and New York, barbecued, dry-cured, or marinated with star anise and slow-cooked. The humble cut is the star of Cochon 555, a pork festival in its fourth year taking place in 10 American cities beginning in January 2012. Yes, a pork festival.

But what IS pork belly? Quite simply, pork belly is raw, whole-slab bacon. It is the cut of the pig from which all bacon is taken. It’s raw, unsmoked and uncured. Here in England, it is typically sold in slabs, as a roast (or “joint” as they say here), but you can occasionally get it in “belly slices” more familiar to Americans as “bacon,” but before the meat has been preserved in any way.

Americans smoke their pork belly, or they cure it in nitrates, and then they slice it thin or thick and call it “bacon.” There is, of course a curious cut in America called “Canadian bacon,” and this is nothing more or less than the loin meat of a pork chop, which in England is offered as the default setting for “bacon.” In England, in order to get what Americans think of as “bacon,” one must ask for “streaky rashers.” Because, like so many ingredients in England whose names are strictly descriptive (cloudy apple juice, “soured” cream) these “rashers” (slices) are streaky, with their layers of meat and fat.

Fat, of course, is the elephant in the room. It’s such a wicked word these days. Fat will make us fat, we fear. We obsessively buy lean cuts of pork and then have a bag of potato chips for lunch, which seems a very silly state of affairs to me. I adhere to the great British chef Nigel Slater’s dictum that he is absolutely comfortable with fat he can SEE. It’s the fat in foods he CAN’T see that scares him.

Pork fat is a combination of mono-unsaturated and saturated fats, in proportions determined by what you feed the pig. Opinions among doctors, pork producers and ordinary hungry people vary widely on the extent to which pork fat is good for you, or harmful. Supporters of pork fat argue that saturated fats can raise levels of good cholesterol in the blood, and that in any case it is a natural fat, healthier than manufactured fats. Critics argue that any animal fat is artery-clogging. I confess I have not been able to come to any reliable conclusions from all the information I have read. Therefore, because I adore pork belly almost more than any other meat, I will choose to believe two things: that pork fat is good for you, and that everything in moderation is the mantra for a happy and healthy life.

Here in England one of the most treasured and mythologized culinary accomplishments is “crackling.” Crackling is achieved by perfectly, properly, slowly roasting the skin and layer of fat on the top of a pork belly roast, until it’s crisp, crunchy and the definition of savory. There is no aroma on earth more tantalizing than slowly melting pork fat which has been liberally rubbed with sea salt. First you hear the beginnings of spitting sounds in your oven. You look through the window, but that’s not enough. You open the door slightly and are greeted with a hot, savory, beautiful odor, the perfect marriage of salt and fat.

Belly up!

Do you like pork belly? How do you prepare it?

Photo Credit: Avery Curran