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Eight Forty-Eight

Happy Pigs Taste Good

High concentrations of livestock in somewhat unlivable conditions have contributed to the current Swine Flu pandemic, though many of Chicago's pork-loving chefs have long refused to put factory farmed meat on their menus. Food Critic David Hammond spoke with some of those who insist upon serving pork from small, independent farmers. He found that one way to stop these scary flu outbreaks may be to raise happier and tastier pigs.

Less than 48 hours ago, Sanjay Gupta was on the news interviewing Patient Zero, reportedly the first victim of the recent Swine Flu pandemic. Patient Zero's parents believe the cause of their son's illness can be found within the bowels of the huge pork processing plant in their Mexican town. Concern about the health of corporate pigs (those who wallow in mud, not those on Wall Street) is shared by many local chefs. Rob Levitt of Bucktown's Mado:

ROB LEVITT: On paper it may sound like a great idea. You come up with these antibiotics to make them disease resistant, and then you pump them full of these things and in theory, you don't have to worry about these animals getting sick…but, the more stuff, the more chemicals, the more non-natural foreign stuff you're pumping into these things…they eventually build a resistance to this stuff, especially when they're in a mass like that, which means when they do get sick, it's going to get worse, it's going to be a strain of something that has worked so hard to fight off all this garbage that we're pumping into them in the first place, and that's how this stuff gets so widespread, it gets so strong and becomes such an issue.

Chef Bruce Sherman of Lincoln Park's North Pond conjures a stinky picture of how hogs live – or barely live -- on corporate ranches.

BRUCE SHERMAN: When you force tens of hundreds of animals in a small space, and they're crawling over each other or they're on concrete beds, foraging through their own waste, sitting in it and sleeping in it, it can't help but affect the sanitation and health of the pig and the community around it.

But revulsion at pig farming standards is just one of the reasons chefs are turning away from mass-produced meat.

BRUCE SHERMAN: I think ultimately, for us as cooks, it's because the product tastes better. It tastes better because the animals are able to lead a more natural existence…so it develops more flavor, it's got more characteristics from what it eats and where it eats and how it eats than something that is stuck inside a warehouse or a pen… The industrial pork tends to be blander, whiter, more uniform, and the artisanal pork tends to have more characteristic color, tends to have more characteristic flavor, deeper notions of nuts or grass or berries, and the industrial product tends to be more uniform, more uni-dimensional.

Like Levitt, Chef Mark Mendez of Fulton Street's Carnivale is looking for high-taste but also high-touch, a relationship, a personal bond with the farmers who pull up to the restaurants backdoor with trucks full of food.

MARK MENDEZ: I think that's something that's really missing in our society, especially here, people don't know where their food comes from. People don't know who's making their food, who's growing their food.

For any chef worth his French flake sea salt, the tastiness of the food Is what makes or breaks the deal for dinner. Levitt:

ROB LEVITT: aside from the fact that the ones raised on a small farm taste better, it's just the peace of mind knowing where your pork comes from…the farmer delivers me his pig every week, and we talk about how he raises them and what their living conditions are like, and why he raises them the way that he does…it's just more personal that way. We like supporting a small family farm…he knows he could set up his farm to mass produce these things and make a lot more money, but they're more concerned with the quality of their product than they are with quick production. [7:38] That means a lot to us, that his hands are touching this pig from the moment its born until the moment it comes to my door. It makes a difference.

Last year, for our wedding anniversary, I gave my wife a pig. Romantic, yeah, I know. We called our pig Ermine, and we visited her several times throughout the year, bringing her organic treats from my garden...you know: Eat, eat, you're so thin! The farm is small and cozy, tucked into Wisconsin's rolling hill region, and what struck us was that the barns, the pasture, even the pig pen, they all smelled…fresh and clean, and the hogs were…happy, really happy. They had a spring in their step. They played in the sunlight and nuzzled each other in the mud. They made a lot of healthy noise. And Ermine was, well…delicious.

MENDEZ: Happy pigs taste good.

Raising happier, tastier pigs is more humane and healthier for all of us, hogs and humans alike.

David Hammond is a contributor to Chicago Reader, Chicago Sun-Times and The Local Beet, and he moderates LTHForum.com, the Chicago-based culinary chat site.

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