Free Range Weekend

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Photo credit: Christopher Testani
Photo credit: Christopher Testani


On a recent chilly afternoon, chef Marc Meyer stands in the bright winter sun in a patch of woods in Max Meadows, Virginia, scratching some pigs that will soon be dinner in the Manhattan restaurants Five Points, Cookshop and Hundred Acres, whose kitchens he oversees. Though dressed casually in a baseball cap and jeans for the farm visit, the quiet Meyer still has a tidy, city-boy aspect, the angular frames of his glasses befitting the architecture student he once was. Beside him stands a man named Bev Eggleston, and the two make a funny pair. Eggleston, genial and voluble, with a larger-than-life personality, looks every inch the pig farmer in his rumpled overalls and wide-brimmed cowboy hat.

But Meyer and Eggleston have more in common than simply exchanging money for meat. They’re both passionate about the intersections of ecology, gastronomy and animal welfare, and you could say they’re both where they are today because of the time each spent in Berkeley. While in college there, Meyer realized he didn’t want to pursue architecture after all and traded his studies for stoves in Rome, San Francisco and New York. Around the same time, Eggleston was delivering produce to restaurants like Chez

Panisse and studying the gospel of the real food revolution, which, when he moved back to his home state, led him to join up with Joel Salatin at Polyface Farm (as recounted in The Omnivore’s Dilemma), establish his own farm and work to build a better food system.

Today, Eggleston owns EcoFriendly Foods, which contracts 40 small farmers in Virginia and North Carolina to raise pastured cattle, pigs, chickens, lambs and goats to his high standards; slaughters the animals and butchers the meat in a gleaming custom-built slaughterhouse and packing plant and makes weekly deliveries to 50 or so chef clients—including plenty of stops in Manhattan, among them Il Buco, Corton, Del Posto, Blue Hill, Gramercy Tavern and Momofuku.

It’s no wonder so many chefs in New York buy meat from Virginia. It’s not just because Empire State farms don’t provide enough pastured meat to meet the demand of conscientious city carnivores. These chefs will tell you it’s also because of Eggleston’s insistence on prime pasture, the humaneness and transparency of his slaughterhouse, that he’s testified about his practices before congressional subcommittees, and because of how closely he works with his restaurant clients.

That means custom-crossing heritage breeds to get just the right amount of fat and lean, the right shape and flavor. Finding ways for chefs to economize by buying in groups. Cutting or grinding to the chefs’ specifications. (The last is particularly important to Meyer, whose restaurants employ skilled butchers but have no space for large beef primal cuts or the equipment to break them down efficiently.)

Eggleston, for his part, knew from the start that he had to go to New York—that the only way his big-picture vision of a sustainable food system could work was to tap the leaders of America’s unofficial food capital. He wanted to show that the model could work. Now that he has, he plans to replicate it across the country, with small processing plants in the Hudson Valley serving New York farms and New York restaurants, in Atlanta, St. Louis and beyond.

All this is why Meyer and his two top cooks— Robert Berry and Ricky King, chefs de cuisine at Cookshop and Hundred Acres, respectively— skipped an entire weekend at the stoves for 48 straight hours with Eggleston, visiting pigs, eating pork, touring the slaughterhouse and generally wallowing in the kind of behind-the-scenes experiences most chefs never have.

Beneath the spindly trees—the leaves have long since fallen, but in Virginia winter the grass is still green—a passel of seven-month-old pigs snuffle underfoot, rooting for black walnuts, hickory nuts, acorns, rhizomes, wild onions and garlic, herbs and roots, all of which taste delicious to pigs, and in turn make them more delicious. But before the finishing, as that final fattening is called, before the rearing, even before birth—Eggleston’s been working to produce the best pork possible. That’s because these pigs are a breed Eggleston has named the Farmer’s Cross, an “old-timey” five-way hybrid he is particularly proud of resuscitating, combining parentage of the Poland China, Chester White, Berkshire, Duroc and Hampshire breeds. The motley group variously sport pale pink coats, spots, the Berkshire’s distinctive pale shoulder stripe on a dark coat, floppy ears, the Poland White’s perky upright prick ears, and hams and bellies of various girths.

Most chefs know meat only as the shrink-wrapped cuts that arrive at their kitchen door. They go their whole careers without missing a dinner service to see the farm—or, more likely, the CAFO factory nightmare—where those pork chops were once a pig. And yet half of the chefs who regularly buy from EcoFriendly have visited Eggleston. In fact this is Meyer’s second visit. He listens raptly as Eggleston and Adam Musick, the farmer finishing this group of pigs, describe how they were feeding the animals Meyer would eventually cook and serve. “It’s always enlightening to visit,” he writes me later. “There are so many things that a chef has no concept of while standing at table cutting a pork loin for service. [A farm visit] is the only way to have a better understanding.”

A clearing in the woods leads down to fields of turnips, black-eyed peas, rye grass and rapeseed that Musick grows for the pigs. Berry and King catch up with Meyer and Eggleston there, straight from a delayed flight after a late night sampling charcuterie in Atlanta.

Pigs, which have poor eyesight, learn about their surroundings through tasting, and these chefs take the same approach: Meyer invites Berry and King to join him in eating the mild, refreshingly sweet leaves of the rapeseed that the pigs are also enjoying. They munch thoughtfully and riff aloud on what they might do with the greens, in a salad, or alongside the pork itself.

On the other side of the fence, a group of Ossabaws play and tussle in a field they’ve eaten to the ground. Isolated for centuries on an island off the coast of Georgia, the Ossabaw breed developed a dark-bristled coat with a mohawk down the back that gives it a rather punky appearance. They’re slow-growing—they can require five more months than the Farmer’s Cross to reach slaughter weight—but in that time they build up extraordinary fat reserves, which Eggleston’s chef customers prize for making charcuterie. The cuts from it tend to be too small to serve as individual portions, so restaurants like Corton and Ma Pêche use Ossabaw in dishes that feature different parts of the animal side by side.

The Farmer’s Cross, on the other hand, Eggleston champions as the best all-around pig, and this crew seems to agree. King gets a whole one each week; at Hundred Acres it becomes ham atop grits during brunch and blade and chop steaks at dinner. Literally going whole hog, he transforms the less popular cuts into charcuterie in-house: headcheese, pork rillettes, country pâté or spicy fennel sausage. Over at Cookshop, Berry gets two whole Farmer’s Cross pigs each Thursday; he brines and smokes the hams for sandwiches; makes porchetta and headcheese; and saves up ears until he has enough for a salad special. (In addition to the pigs, Meyer’s three restaurants each week receive 450 pounds of EcoFriendly’s ground beef for making burgers—virtually all from a single cow.)

When the sun disappears we caravan to Roanoke—there is much complaining about the hour-long drive, mostly because the afternoon on the farm has left fragrant souvenirs on everyone’s shoes—for dinner at a restaurant called Local Roots that buys from Eggleston. The earnest young chef sends out plate after plate: thinly sliced Piedmontese beef (from Eggleston’s cattle), a farrotto dish with carrots, pan-roasted lamb, red shell beans with bacon, and an egg-topped pizza and some excellent local beer. The New Yorkers at the table are impressed to find relatively serious cuisine in a city of just 200,000.

As the plates keep coming, conversation ranges from food politics to restaurant gossip to tales that all seem to start with “Remember that time…” and end with overindulgence in alcohol. Speaking of, the table is won over by a round of Pappy Van Winkle 15-Year whiskey, and then by bourbon milkshakes. It’s late when the group heads to the plant where Eggleston keeps a trailer to stay in when he’s away from his home farm. Berry and King will sleep there, too—but only after getting a start on the next day’s lunch.

In the cool Virginia night, aided by frequent ministrations of moonshine, good ol’ Southern bullshittin’ (Berry is a fellow Vir ginian, King from South Carolina, and their relationship with Eggleston has at that point matured to lots of good-natured ribbing), and slices of Eggleston’s dry-cured ham, the two chefs set about cooking seven pork shoulders. They let the meat sit in a dry rub of chilies, salt and pepper, prepare the coals to provide a super slow smoke and tend the fire in the dark—narrowly missing an encounter with a black widow spider, we find out later.

When Meyer meets Eggleston the next morning at the plant, his chefs are bleary eyed and the pork is smoking away under a sooty, damp sheet, in the pit Eggleston has ingeniously jury-rigged from cinder blocks and scrap metal. It’s time to tour the slaughterhouse. Everyone loves happy animals on pasture and marbled cuts of meat, but to get from point A to point B requires the simple reality of taking life, and this may be the link that best sets apart EcoFriendly’s uncompromising, traceable chain. Nationwide, industrial agriculture’s vertical monopolies increasingly leave small family farmers without access to independent slaughterhouses; after carefully tending to every detail of an animal’s life, farmers end up with little to no say in how their livestock are slaughtered or butchered. When Eggleston realized the only way to ensure that animals’ lives were ended with thought and care would be to build his own slaughterhouse, he and his team poured years of sweat and a lot of money into opening one of a very few small multispecies meat packers in the United States. It opened in 2004. Every piece was machined and assembled to Eggleston’s specifications, all of it to provide the animals that pass through it with as humane an end as possible. The pigs, as well as pastured poultry and grassfed cattle, goats, lambs and rabbits participating farms supply to EcoFriendly, are all slaughtered there.

Eggleston shows the chefs the kill floor, explains how dispatching s done—carefully, one animal at a time, as humanely s possible, with a stun gun to the head for cows, pigs and lambs;  careful slice to the jugular for poultry. Next he takes the crew into the walk-in refrigerators and freezers where the carcasses hang nd the cutting room where his staff saw, butcher and trim the carcasses into cuts. Meyer is impressed, “He has a sensitivity to these things,” he tells me, pointing out also that the crew and task re small enough so that they can process chickens for a few hours, lean that area, and then move on to processing pigs or goats. “It’s not the same person doing the same monotonous task for eight or nine hours.”

“I hope this scale of doing things is the future of regional slaughtering,” he writes me later, “and that a processing plant doesn’t have to be five football fields in size.”

The chefs take a break to finish fixin’s for the pork shoulder tacos: guacamole, spicy slaw, and beans cooked in the embers of the smoking pit. Then, right outside the slaughterhouse, everyone pulls up chairs, raises a toast, clinks beers and digs in. The silence that follows is a testament to the deliciousness of Eggleston’s work, the skill of the chefs who have cooked it and what an only be unanimous silent awareness of the life and death hat made the meal possible. It is about as traceable a meal as one an imagine. “We’re not detached from what’s going on,” says Meyer. “There’s a relationship underpinning everything, from he beginning to the end.”

In that spirit, the group dons hairnets and white coats in time o see a bunch of pastured turkeys, lately arrived from Tall Cotton arm in nearby Afton Valley, meet their end. The chefs note the right red of the blood that covers the kill room floor (illustrating Eggleston’s remark that turkeys are the messiest animals to laughter), and the precision with which the workers gut and clean he birds.

Berry, with considerable affection, calls Bev “the Pig Whisperer,” but he knows his way around chefs, too. He’s spent decades with them. He knows the details chefs need to be able to tell their staffs, their customers. He knows how to establish trust between farmers and chefs, how to recognize kitchen talent and to support and encourage its ascent.

Near the end of the tour, Meyer, Eggleston and a meat cutter discuss how Meyer wants a cow’s hind shanks broken down.

They listen to each other carefully, with effort over the din of the bandsaw, each serious, tracing lines in the shank with their hands nd fingers for the other. This goes on for maybe 10 minutes, until the result is to the satisfaction of all: the cutter, the chef and the chef whisperer.

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