Grocery stores hardly give us a clear picture of our food system these days. Within them lay aisle after aisle of processed foods, most of them made with corn and/or soybean by-products; fruits and vegetables available year-round, whether or not they are in season; and meat cases are full to the brim with bright pink cuts of beef, pork and chicken that have no meaning to the consumer besides tomorrow’s dinner.
As a society, we’ve become disassociated from our food — what it is, who handles it, how it was grown and how it was cared for. Very few of these thoughts enter our heads when we sit down to a meal these days. When we go to the store to buy steaks for dinner, do most of us even know where that porterhouse came from? What about the top round? Skirt steak? Tenderloin? Hell, for all we know, steaks might grow on trees now (Spoiler alert: they don’t). What matters to us many times is how we can get dinner on the table for the least amount of money, not the quality of the food we are ingesting.
“People are saying, ‘Well, maybe rather than having a really inexpensive, terrible product, maybe it’s worth the extra money to have a higher quality product,” Jessica Gorin, Executive Chef at Big Grove Tavern (where I also work), said. The restaurant recently did a nose-to-tail pig dinner in conjunction with “Buy Fresh Buy Local,” a Pennsylvania-based program that celebrates local food in chapters all over the country. Nose-to-tail dinners, or dinners that are made with parts from the head to the tail of an animal, have been trending in dining circles. They allow consumers to try more unusual parts of an animal (such as head meat and innards), familiarize both consumers and chefs with their food and let chefs mix up their menus.
“The ‘Buy Fresh Buy Local’ people contacted us about being involved in their Local Flavors dinner series, where they went around and did a dinner every month somewhere in town,” Gorin said. “I wanted to do something different than what we normally do, but I didn’t want it to be inaccessible to the rest of the community … At my last restaurant, Thirsty Bear, we had done a couple of different whole animal dinners, and because it was a tapas restaurant, it really lent itself to doing lots of different small plates that each use different parts of the animal. So I was thinking we could get a whole pig, and we could break it down into different plates… I think when you do a whole animal, you sort of draw people into trying things they wouldn’t normally try because there’s the option of going with the safe parts, like the loin, the belly — but then there’s the other, more tantalizing dishes, and it’s not really a commitment if it’s a small plate. You’re not buying into a whole entrée-sized portion of weird parts of an animal you wouldn’t normally eat.”
Our food system has been manufactured for ease, not for taste. Quantity, not quality. We’ve come to expect that if we want to make apple pie in March, there will be apples at the grocery store — and there are. Technology has also made eating simpler. Long gone are the days when we had to truly seek out all the foods that would provide us with the nutrients on a daily basis. Now, everything has been genetically modified or engineered to contain the vitamins and minerals that we need.
“I think it’s important that people are connected with the fact that they are eating an animal, because it’s the disassociation from it that allows things like gigantic pig farms and commercial chicken houses to develop, because they’re just trying to feed this demand for this unidentifiable piece of meat in a bag that’s not associated with something,” Gorin said. “I think if people actually thought about where their food comes from and how it lives before they eat it, that people would care more about making sure that all the steps in the process are sustainable.”
The lack of knowledge we have about what our food is, where it comes from and what it might eat before we eat it is drastically affecting how we utilize and view our food system. What does food even mean to us anymore? Has it been merely relocated to calories necessary for energy, or does it still have meaning for some?
“If it’s just a chicken nugget, then sure, you can put away 40 of those and not have to think about what it came from,” Gorin said.” “But if you actually think about it, each little chunk of those at one point was a bird, and that bird was crammed in a cage with four or five other birds — then it’s like, you don’t want to eat that nugget so much anymore. But I’m being straightforward with you. This is a whole pig. All of the parts on your plate came from the same pig. But that pig got to live in this sunshine-filled prairie and got to walk around, and there will be people who will disagree with this obviously. There are people who think we shouldn’t use animals at all, but I’m okay with a pig that’s being held in a low density condition, that has room to live its life and be treated well and have a healthy life. And you know, animals eat other animals, so, when the time comes for its purpose in life to be fulfilled, at least I know that it didn’t have as huge an impact on the environment and that its life was as good as it could be for what it is.”
The nose-to-tail dinner at Big Grove Tavern consisted of a five-course menu with a 214-pound Large Black pig from Moore Family Farm. Chef Gorin spent several weeks conceptualizing the dishes she would eventually put on the menu. She wanted the dishes to be familiar and nostalgic for people, which was reflected in the meal that featured plates such as the ham hock stuffed collard greens with fried okra and smoky split pea puree.
“Whenever I’m coming up with a new menu, I sort of break it down… I made a big chart, and I had the basic cuts that I knew I would have enough of to do a number of specials with,” she said. “I just had this blank chart in front of me that I was staring at for a couple of weeks that just had the parts, and I was thinking about different things that I wanted to do with the parts, and as I came up with ideas or flavors, I would put them in the chart next to the cut I was thinking about. I was also thinking about feasibility for the kitchen because I didn’t want to put five specials all on one guy’s station — so I was trying to think of it in terms of each guy is going to get a station — that means one item needs to be a grill item, one item needs to be a fryer item and one item is sort of going to be a cold production. So I was trying to think of it in terms of moving parts and then also what ingredients were coming into season that I wanted to use, and then pairing those up.
Being close to your food also helps to create new relationships and friendships between chefs, consumers and farmers.
“We’ve built this relationship with the Moores,” Gorin said. “I think they’ve actually increased their production to keep up with us, so I like to kind of help them because they have changed their operation to help us.”
Over the past couple years, the trend of eating more “adventurous” parts of animals and nose-to-tail dining has increased significantly, Gorin said.
“I would say in the past two to three years, people are much more open to eating things, calling them what they are,” Gorin said. “I think in the past, people went to fancy French restaurants and they ate things with names that they didn’t maybe know exactly what it was. Yes, you were being served a pig head, but it was called tête de cochon, and that sounds like, ‘Oh, tête de cochon, sure.’ Whereas if you actually say ‘pig cheek,’ it’s a lot more, ‘You are eating an animal.’”
She said that the trend stems from the natural progression of people eating more locally and being more aware about their food and the environmental impact of their decisions.
“Those ideas are growing and becoming more common, and it’s almost kind of a cyclical-retro thing that it’s kind of ‘cool’ now to be more in touch with farms,” Gorin said. “There are more people who are leaving tech jobs and city jobs and going and trying to be a new group — a younger generation of farmer. And I think it’s this sort of farmer chic, almost, that’s happening now, but I think it’s a responsible movement. People went from subsistence farming to commercial farming, trying to fill this demand for people who weren’t associating with where their food was coming from anymore, and it got out of hand, and people are seeing the impacts that it has… I think it’s just sort of an inevitable conclusion once someone decides that it matters what you put in your body.”
Big Grove Tavern serves lunch and dinner Monday – Saturday and is located at 1 E. Main Street in downtown Champaign.
Article can also be found here.