March 15, 2010 --


Pig Dinners and Offal Still Delight Across America

Upon entering Ann Arbor-based Grange Kitchen & Bar on a recent evening, Chef Brandon Johns greeted me at his door with a plate of confit of pig, heart-sugar-cube sized bits of the muscle that kept a certain locally raised Tamworth pig's chest beating for several months before it wound up on Johns' prep table.

It isn't a typical amuse-bouche in this university town, or in most other High Street neighborhoods in the U.S. But as chefs like Johns, San Francisco's Chris Cosentino (whose next Nose-to-Tail dinner is March 24 at Incanto in San Francisco), Cleveland's Michael Symon and Boston's Tony Maws do more to popularize the eating of heirloom pork, a by-product of the trend is the advancement of sensible, and at times fanciful, offal eating.

On this particular night some 27 diners descended on Johns' restaurant, having booked in advance to dine on the Tamworth pig he had selected months earlier at Back Forty Acres in nearby Chelsea, MI.They followed the plates of confit of pig heart to a table where it took its place of honor next to a platter of crispy pork skins and a dish of chili vinegar for dipping.

It was for good reason that Grange's 7-course dinner required advance booking and a bit of special promotion among the restaurant's Facebook fans. A menu that features pork liver torchon,"Extremities salad," and bacon ice cream with a slice of bacon dipped in chocolate requires a certain kind of foodie to commit for $60 per head, and $90 with matching wines.

Johns kept the brains, cheeks and some of the other tasty bits on the sidelines for special guests. Rounding out the menu, though, was crispy belly confit, Grange-made Hunter sausage (spiced with mustard seed, ginger and coriander and smoked over applewood).There was Bo Saam (think Asian burrito) roasted shoulder, roasted without liquid, wrapped in a lettuce leaf along with raw oysters, kimchee and/or a condiment of sherry vinegar, bean paste and chilis. An Asian burrito with perfectly roseted pork and raw oysters makes anyone feel kingly. The final dish was pork loin, peppered with domestic black truffle and served over a white bean puree with a side of glazed carrots that tasted as if they were pulled from a July garden rather than a February larder.

Anticipation ran high for the dessert: a scoop of bacon infused ice cream,
which had exactly the right amount of smoke so as not to defeat the cream atop a molasses mini-cake: a strip of bacon half-dipped in chocolate inserted like a swinely sword in the stone, proving that bacon and chocolate can make just about any food, and mood, better.

For an extra $30, each of John' dishes could be accompanied by a wine, ranging from a big familiar Louis Jadot, Macon Villages Burgundy 2007 to a local Michigan Sleeping Bear Winedog "Boardoe" red, to a totally inventive idea of pairing the bacony dessert with a 4 oz. glass of Michigan Bell's Bath 9000 Imperial Stout, which was packed with flavors of bitters and berries that nicely offset all the smoke and complimented the cream.

About the pig. The Tamworth is a breed originating from the U.K., and is believed to be a cross between English and Irish swine. It is one of the oldest breeds still being produced, though it is not well suited to mass production. That's what makes it a chef favorite. There are around 1000 known breeding females in the U.S. It is listed as "threatened" in the U.S. and "Vulnerable" in the U.K. by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. Full grown boars get to be between 550 and 825 pounds.

Grange's recent dinner is part of a deepening love affair with planning menus around whole pigs, especially heirloom pigs. Johns literally wears his love of swine on his sleeve, by way of a tattoo of a pig on his butchering arm.

San Francisco-based Cosentino, who maintains a blog at, has one of his "Nose-to-tail" dinners coming up at Incanto on March 24. In contrast to his recurring "Whole Beast" dinners like Johns', the upcoming dinner is a celebration of, as Cosentino says, "the best bits from several beasts." On the menu: Salt-cured pork liver, oxtail and beef lip terrine, Sicilian cod tripe (cod bladder) and tongue, and venison pluck (heart, liver and lungs). Cosentino has over 12,000 twitter followers, and recently posted he had "lambs heads on the odds and end board tonight." Such posts from "OffalChris," he says, can give a shot in the arm to the walk-in business from his followers.

The affection for whole pigs and offal, which started in earnest in the U.S. six years ago when Anthony Bourdain arranged for the U.S. publication of Fergus Henderson's "The Whole Beast," continues with some of the country's top chefs. Cosentino recently put out the word that he would let two chefs work with him for a week at no pay leading up to the March 24 dinner. After sifting and screening dozens of resumes and applications, from as far away as Peru, he settled on Michael Hudman, a partner at Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen in Memphis, and Jonah Resnick, a line cook at Blackbird in Chicago.

It's not off-base to say that offal has become a bit of a cult eating movement in the U.S. Bourdain says people who really care about food know that the experience is a lot more rewarding than usual restaurant fare. "Anyone can put scampi or steak frites on a menu. But when someone puts calf or pig hearts, rabbit kidneys or sheep brains on a menu you know you are getting all that chef ever learned how to do, his heart and his soul because he knows if he has the courage to put that stuff on his menu, it had better be great." That said, chefs like Johns and Cosentino often rely on their Facebook and Twitter feeds, as well as e-mails, to their known offal fans to make sure they have enough business to support listing it on the menu.

Johns says a major University town like Ann Arbor (The University of Michigan) makes it possible for him to be bold with his menus. "You have people from all over the world studying, teaching or working right here in a pretty small town, and so we have customers with petty sophisticated ideas about dining." Additionally, says Johns, "When we do put the offal on the menu, there are enough people here from cultures where that is the norm that we are building a following." Johns is so enthusiastic about using the local heirloom pigs that he put a video on Youtube showing him breaking down the Tamworth.

Cosentino and Johns are definitely in Bourdain's camp when it comes to showing their skills and creativity. Cosentino adds one more reason to appreciate offal besides sublime dining, though it probably won't turn the "ewwww" brigade into believers. "It's a healthier alternative to traditional cuts of protein," says Cosentino. How so? "Offal is best and most often consumed in small portions. There are huge flavors and satisfaction in just a bite or two." Contrast that, he says, "With our need to have a huge steak or a half a chicken to feel satisfied." He has a point. At New York City's Casa Mono, where tripe with blood sausage is a mainstay on the menu, a soup-crock portion is the right amount. A pasta-bowl of the stuff would alert the gout police and is, in fact, hard to finish.

First Lady Michelle Obama has taken on childhood obesity as a principal cause. Imagine the boost that lamb heads and marrow bones would get if the First Lady served kids an offal dinner at The White House? It's not likely, but Cosentino and Johns are ready to answer that call any time.

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