Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Very Special Pig

LinkReally big pig image courtesy of Jonny Hunter of UFC.

All across America the ding of the microwave has just sounded the completion of a Lean Cuisine. We scarf it right out of the plastic tray in front of our computers, barely tasting the flash-frozen peas and dry chicken. But that’s OK, because in this fast-paced, pre-packaged world, food is just fuel to keep the machine running.

Eating is a solitary, harried event; it is seldom the basis for a leisurely expanse of time with friends and loved ones. It’s the rare family that eats a home-cooked meal together every night at the kitchen table with the television turned off. And it’s even less common for a group of families and friends to cook and eat together, turning a meal into an evening-long event for which good food is integral to the enjoyment of good company.

The Underground Food Collective (UFC) does this every night. Composed of a group of friends and families (including little ones and babes-in-arms), the UFC cooks and eats every meal together on a farm in Madison, Wisconsin. This group—composed of professional chefs, experienced home cooks, and farmers—has started a catering company featuring Pre-Industrial Pig Dinners throughout the country, bringing people together under one roof to enjoy a full meal composed of one very special pig.

So on the very day the swine flu was announced F and I braved death and attended Chicago’s first Pre-Industrial Pig Dinner.

We drove through a torrential downpour to West Town and found the nondescript apartment building belonging to a certain James. As we sloshed up the steps bearing wine and umbrellas, I noted the drab hallway and the worn carpet, leery of what we would find beyond the battered front door. But I needn’t have worried. Upon entering, I beheld the most gorgeous apartment I have ever seen in Chicago—including some of the half-million-dollar brownstones that F and I have toured as “Mr. and Mrs. Leonard Smith, attorneys and prospective home-owners.”

We found ourselves in the midst of a bustling throng of chefs, farmers, and waiters, whirling through a professional kitchen with an island that stretched as far as the eye could see. The kitchen was every home-cook’s dream: stainless steel shelving, hanging pot racks, acres of cabinets, and gleaming pots and pans.

Awe-struck and awkward, F and I dodged chefs carrying chopping boards and pig parts, and shuffled to the side of the room. A waiter greeted us, “Two this evening?” and led us to the back of the spacious brick front room to a table set for six. We were among the first to arrive, and by the number of tables scattered through the room, James looked to be expecting around 60 people.

We took our seats against the far wall in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows lined with flower boxes and surveyed the room. Long pine tables were set with mismatched china and flickering candles. There was a stone fireplace to the left, and a canoe hung from the ceiling to the right. The bookcase behind me held Ulysses, a Spanish dictionary, and a smattering of philosophers. Carved wooden ducks perched on various ledges and rested on shelves that held more candles, pieces of driftwood and a set of antlers. A colonial iron chandelier with still more flickering candles hung above the next table. As the thunderstorm raged outside, F and I relaxed in James’s warm, rustic apartment, anticipating our pig.

The meal was very good. Not extraordinary, but definitely very good. I’m sure that you could find a gourmet porcine meal of finer quality at one of the many lauded restaurants throughout the Windy City, but F and I had not signed up for a restaurant experience. What made this evening special was the expectation of a long, leisurely meal among new friends. The family-style courses were paced throughout three and a half hours, so we had plenty of time to digest and get to know our dining companions.

Lisa and Chuck were a few years older than us and at first I found them aloof and a little intimidating. She wore a gray turtleneck sweater and pearl earrings and was well put-together with a sophisticated style that I have never quite been able to master. He was a little rumpled with square-framed glasses and wayward hair. But as the night progressed and we shared plate after plate of pig and glass after glass of wine, we found that Lisa was endearingly silly and Chuck was a rumpled intellect. The other places at our table were occupied in time by Kurt and Rory, both startlingly beautiful college students from Madison. He wore stonewashed jeans and a cowboy-chic button-down shirt; his blond hair fell to his shoulders over the starched collar. She dressed simply in a black tee-shirt, her only adornment a small silver cross. She had a perfect, tiny face with big, earnest eyes. They looked like they had just arrived from a JCrew photo shoot set in Wyoming. As with Chuck and Lisa, my first impressions faded as the evening progressed and Kurt and Rory stepped off the JCrew page. Kurt had a disarming, puppy-like tendency toward long-windedness unhampered by a lisp, and Rory was quick with a shy smile revealing petite, childlike teeth. Kurt was the beer distributor for the event and described in lengthy detail the process of brewing mead on his tiny stove top.

The six of us ate a lot of pig—the seven-course dinner included bacon, pork belly, pulled pork, pork fat, pork broth, pork sausages, and other bits and pieces of swine (plus dessert, which was not pig). Among our favorites: pulled pork with golden raisins and white radishes, pork sausage and micro-greens, white beans in pork broth, and my new weakness—fried pork fat with toasted black walnuts. This dish was crispy and strangely sweet, almost like candied orange peel. It was utterly surprising and delicious, and I could have eaten a heaping plate of fat, against my better judgment. Luckily, the family-style plate was small and I limited myself to a sensible portion. The dishes were augmented with products from local suppliers: Red Hen baguettes, fresh Wisconsin goat cheese, and Kurt's lemongrass beer. Unfortunately, the menu was taped to the far wall and written on brown paper, so without my glasses, I couldn’t decipher the finer points of what I was eating. I will be sure to print the menu below, if the UFC posts it online. In the meantime, here are some visual highlights:

Those are all of my photos. I’m getting braver, but I’m still a little shy about taking pictures—especially when it means making my dining companions wait while I snap photos of the food. But when the UFC posts their pictures online, I’ll add more below.

After three and a half hours of pig plates and scintillating conversation with our new friends, F and I were reluctant to leave James’s beautiful apartment. As we gathered our coats and opened our umbrellas, I wondered why we considered getting together with nice people to eat good food a “Special Event.” The concept is pretty simple, really, and it would be simple to put into practice in our every-day lives, if we were so inclined. But are we inclined?

When I posed these questions to F on the way home, he replied with a pithy flash of wisdom,

“Eating is private.”

And it’s true. In many European countries, mealtime is a celebration of togetherness, of letting go of the day’s frustrations, and of enjoying the company of friends and neighbors over food and wine. But here in America, creating and eating a meal is often just another task to cross off our busy schedules. We eat in private—at our desks, on the couch, at the counter—without real enjoyment. Without company.

I will admit that I am a private person. When reading about the UFC’s collective meals, my first thought was that you’d have to really love these people to eat your every meal with them. While I long for more dinners with my friends and family, I wouldn’t want to make them nightly events. I would miss my dinners alone on the couch with F. It’s difficult, but it must be possible to find a fulfilling balance between privacy and community.

The UFC has a good thing going here and, while I definitely think the evening was worth the price, I can recreate the same experience in my own apartment for free. I may not have access to a fresh hog, but I do have my own collective of friends and family to celebrate with from time to time.


  1. that is some beautiful writing.

  2. pulled pork? YUM. i think it's about time we venture down to ribs 'n bibs...

  3. Great post, so well written and insightful. And I'd like to point out that I had Ribs 'N Bibs this week, the whole boss slab too.