It's a different kind of cooking class Sasha Kanno and a half-dozen other students are taking this sunny Saturday morning in Long Beach. Standing around a portable worktable wheeled into a darkened nightclub, they are watching intently as Paul Buchanan, chef of Primal Alchemy catering company, goes to work. In front of him is a whole pig. It's the size of a large dog and, after being cleaned and shaved, almost startlingly naked-looking. When Buchanan reaches for the hacksaw, rather than recoil, the students crowd in closer.
Though the scene may sound more reminiscent of a Hollywood slasher movie than Rachael Ray, there's nothing macabre about it. This is no Halloween gross-out stunt. This class is just the tip of a very porky iceberg.
In part, it's the latest step in the ever-advancing search for connection to where our food comes from.
"I'm all about a direct connection from farm to table and I want to take the next step into meat," says Kanno, the tattooed, 33-year-old director of Long Beach's Wrigley Community Garden.
"Some friends and I are trying to find a way we could bring in local meat. And if we do end up sharing a pig, we're going to need to know how to break it down. So I wanted to familiarize myself with that and hopefully eventually I can take the next step into hog sharing or something like that."
At the same time, restaurant menus all over Southern California are featuring pig parts that were once considered untouchable. Of course, pork belly is everywhere; it has practically replaced foie gras on upscale menus. And there are Thomas Keller's famous trotters on the menu at Bouchon in Beverly Hills. Downtown, you can find pig ears braised and then fried at both Church & State and at Lazy Ox. In the South Bay, Remi Lauvand sold out a whole pig menu at Manhattan Beach's Cafe Pierre.
It's not just the pros who are getting in on the game. Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn's "Charcuterie," a do-it-yourself guide to making sausages and cured meats from scratch at home, has sold roughly 60,000 copies.
The piggy passion has shown up in surprising places. On StyleForum, a men's clothing website more familiar with debating the finer details of Savile Row bespoke suits, there is a 17-page thread devoted to homemade sausage and cured and smoked meats. Inspired, one member started his own copiously illustrated thread devoted to his recent vacation in the Dordogne region of France, spent helping out at a farmhouse pig slaughter and butchery.
What the heck is going on?
There is no single answer. Instead, there is a confluence of several strands that has elevated the pig back to its rightful place atop the food chain.
In the first place, of course, there is sheer deliciousness. Pork offers a variety of tastes and textures that no other animal can match. That for so long we have concentrated on only one cut (the loin — the most expensive and least flavorful part of the pig, by the way) has been a shame.
Then there are cooks like Kanno and their search for connection. For the pros, there's also a pride in craft — working the whole pig, making the most of the so-called lesser cuts, takes real hands-on cooking.
There's even a spiritual aspect to it. One of the tenets of nose-to-tail eating is that if you are going to kill an animal for food, you have a responsibility not to waste a single scrap.
And, of course, there's a bit of marketing as well. Nothing pleases a certain kind of modern transgressive diner as much as seeing an obscure pig part or piece of offal on a menu. There's a certain go-for-the-gusto bohemian quality to it. It is to today's restaurant customer what copious amounts of garlic was to a previous generation.
"A good menu needs to have things everybody will enjoy, but it also needs to have one or two things that are kind of controversial, things everybody will talk about even if nobody much will eat them," says Walter Manzke, chef at Church & State.
Manzke says he's been offering dishes like that since he started working for Joachim Splichal at Patina, back in the mid-1990s. "The difference is, people are actually ordering them now," he says. "It's about starting a conversation. Pig ears are a perfect example of that. It's not something anybody is going to say ‘Oh, it tastes OK' about. They are either absolutely disgusted by it, or absolutely in love with it. I think that's great."
Ruhlman says it was chefs who have led the way with his "Charcuterie" book, but that many others have followed. Even he is a bit astonished at its success.
"No one thought this book was going to do very well, given the state of cooking in this country," he says. "I mean, let's face it: Here's a book devoted to animal fat and salt. Some of the recipes take days and even months to prepare, and if you don't do it right, they can kill you. How are you going to sell that kind of book?