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No other protein has anything like the entourage of the pig.

By Jim Duncan

“Pig Meat Blues” by Leadbelly was not a blues song as much as a love song. “I Crave My Pig Meat” by Blind Boy Fuller, and “Pigmeat Is What I Craves” by Bo Carter further celebrated the love of pork by Southerners. Memphis Minnie had a hit with “Pig Meat on the Line.” like Lyle Lovett and Ry Cooder have more recently released songs with “pig meat” in the titles and love in the theme.
No other protein has anything like the entourage of the pig. Relish’s mission here is to take pig meat’s greatness away from Southerners and place it where it now deserves to be — in Iowa. Since WWII, pork has conquered beef as the state’s signature meat. As Iowa farmland became the most expensive in America, the cattle industry moved west to cheaper grazing pastures. We went from the country’s leading beef-producing state to No. 10.
Meanwhile, Iowa has been either first or second in pork production every year for the last two decades. With quantity increasing, quality took leaps of greatness. Two elite pork producers — Niman Pork and Berkwood Farms — were formed mostly with Iowa farmers who agreed to raise pigs under standards of humane husbandry. They also agreed to raise heritage breeds, mostly Duroc and Berkshire, that produce a fattier, better-tasting pig.
That was a response to a longtime industry strategy that portrayed pork as “the other white meat.” That was a slogan developed in the 1980s when cholesterol paranoia gripped the American public due to the misguided nutritional “discoveries” of the era — that cholesterol was the chief cause of heart disease.
Remember that medicine is the softest science and nutrition is the melted margarine of medicine. Most nutritional discoveries are debunked about 20 years later. So it was with that one. It turned out that trans fats (like margarine) are far more dangerous to cardio vascular health than cholesterol. The pork industry won market share with its lean white meat but created a product that was bred, often under inhumane conditions, to produce pork that had little flavor. That began with breeds created to go to market as fast and lean as possible.
When the public woke up to the cholesterol misinformation, it wanted better-tasting pork. Niman led that movement, and top restaurants from San Francisco to New York City began serving Niman pork exclusively. Niman pigs are raised with pasture access so they are happy pigs. As Niman Pork head Paul Willis put it, “Our pigs only have one bad day in their lives.”
Herb and Kathy Eckhouse then started La Quercia, which quickly became the country’s most honored charcuterie maker. Their pig meat rivals that of the best Italian and Spanish pork processors in world competitions. They even found a pig farmer to raise hogs on acorn diets — the historic diet of the famous prosciutto pigs of Parma, where the Eckhouses lived for years.
La Quercia (the oak in Italian) has expanded their line of European-style charcuterie products. Besides prosciutto (acorn version or regular), they have Iberico products from the legendary Spanish Mangalitsa pigs. They make lomo (tenderloin); coppa, which is like prosciutto but made from whole shoulders, not hams, guanciale (cheeks), N’duja (spicy paste of prosciutto), pancetta (belly), and five salamis. Super collections of La Quercia products can be found at Cheese Shop (833 42nd St.), Proudfoot & Bird (1000 Walnut St.), Eatery A ( 2932 Ingersoll Ave.), and Centro (1003 Locust St.).
Iowa bacon upgraded with companies like Vande Rose leading the ascension. Bacon critic Scott Gold on Time Inc. named that Iowa company the maker of America’s best bacon. Des Moines bacon fans started a Bacon Festival that grew exponentially for years. Iowa State Historical Society Director Leo Landis, aka “Professor of Bacon,” determined to visit every Iowa locker and factory to taste their bacons. Pig meat is the future of Iowa food history as well as the past.

Immigrants and pig meat
In Des Moines, pepperoni and Italian sausage are the most preferred pizza toppings. Here, as many chefs make Bolognese with pork as with beef, and osso buco is as often made with pork as with veal. Tony Lemmo’s famous cavatelli are made with pork. The Iowa Cubs serve hot dogs made by Berkwood Farms.
Iowa also has the most pig meat diversity in America. Thank Gov. Bob Ray for that. He made Iowa a sanctuary for Asian immigrants from the Vietnam War, and that attracted Latin Americans. They both brought rich pork culture with them. Vietnam’s pork consumption accounts for 65% of its protein.
When CITYVIEW inaugurated our Ultimate Food Challenges, the first winner was the breaded pork tenderloin (BPT) at B&B Meat, Grocery and Deli. That sandwich is rather unique to Iowa. (Indiana also claims to be its founder.)

Probably Iowa’s greatest contribution to pig meat greatness is the bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich (BLT). This is a universal delight, unlike the BPT, but it reaches superior status in Iowa every summer when the rich black soil produces the best tomatoes, especially since Decorah’s Seed Savers Exchange began propagating stunning heirloom varieties of tomatoes, now commonly sold at farmers markets, co-ops and grocery stores in the Hawkeye state.
Bakeries like La Mie and South Union upgraded the bread. Green grocers, inspired by the Seed Savers revolution, have made the “lettuce” grown here as variegated as anywhere. If the BPT is not the favorite sandwich of Iowa, it surely is the BLT.

Some reasons why Iowa is pig meat’s citadel
BBQ culture has transformed Des Moines with Flying Mango (4345 Hickman Ave.), Whatcha Smokin? (Highway 17, Luther) and many Jethro’s leading the way. Pork ribs and pulled pork shoulders rival brisket as the most popular offerings.
Graziano Brothers (1601 S. Union Ave.) has specialized in Italian pork sausage for 111 years. Their deli features the grinder that is synonymous with Des Moines. It stars the fennel-rich sausage of Francesco and Luigi Graziano with fried peppers, Mozzarella and sauce on a Fancy Breads roll. Deli sandwiches employ coppa, ham, mortadella, salami, pepperoni, prosciutto, hot soppressatta and mild soppressata. All those pig meats are part of the Italian Des Moines legacy.

Asian splendor
Cha Gio, as served at Pho All Seasons (1311 E. Euclid Ave.), are a fabulous version of egg rolls stuffed with roast pork and taro paste. That restaurant also offers spring rolls made with grilled pork, cured pork or shredded pork. Five spice pork chops come with choices of quiche or sunny-side eggs with shredded pork, plus pork pate. Their crepes are stuffed with pork, shrimp and vegetables.
At Pho 515 (801 University Ave.), Quang Ni noodles are served with pork riblets and pork belly. Their Biet banh mi are made with pork loaf, ham and head cheese. They stuff French crepes with pork and other things.
Most Vietnamese cafés in Des Moines serve banh mi, a legendary sandwich that the French brought to Indo China. It is served with multiple kinds of pork, vegetables, pickled and fresh, on a baguette made with rice flour instead of wheat. Pho 515’s bakery makes most of these baguettes for the whole city.
Eat Thai, Thai Eatery (1821 22nd St., West Des Moines) serves grilled marinated pork in chilies, or with any of six different curry pastes with coconut milk, or with myriad noodle or rice dishes. Most Thai places make dumplings, spring rolls and egg rolls with chicken rather than pork but Cool Basil (1250 Eighth St., Clive) offers pork salad as well as chicken or beef salads.
Le’s Chinese BBQ (1200 Sixth Ave.) looks like a BBQ in San Francisco Chinatown with whole BBQ pigs hanging and sold by the pound or smaller. You can even specify what part of the pig you want. That’s a service I have only found in West Tennessee and East Carolina, and it’s disappearing in both those spots.
Fawn’s (1107 E. University Ave.) makes egg rolls with pork and offers pork versions of 25 dishes. TNT (3452 MLK Pkwy.) is probably the most pork centric of Des Moines’ Southeast Asian restaurants. They offer shredded pork skin sandwiches, pork hash in rice paper, thit kho trung cut (pork stew with quail eggs), red pork noodle soups (my grandson tells me that’s more Cambodian than Vietnamese), pork ribs and pork chops. One pork chop comes with shredded pork topping. They also stuff crepes with pork.
China is by far the world’s greatest consumer of pig meat, both total and per capita. Its per capita consumption rate is increasing about 4% a year as the Chinese become more prosperous. Shang Yuen (5717 Hickman Road) offers 10 pork specialties on its menu, not even including noodle and fried rice dishes. So does Dragon House East (2470 E. Euclid Ave.). Wong’s Chopsticks (5500 Merle Hay Road, Johnston) offers 12, plus dim sum service on weekends. They make shu mai and potstickers with pork. (Many in Des Moines prefer chicken.)
One Des Moines favorite is moo shu pork. It is made with pork, mushrooms, cucumber and eggs, plus other variables. The name is Chinese for the “osmanthus tree,” which is said to blossom in the color of egg yolks. It is often eaten with pancakes. In Des Moines, even upscale restaurants like Harbinger (2724 Ingersoll Ave.) take inspiration from Asia with steamed bun pork belly looking a lot like moo shu pork. They also make their own lemongrass pork sausage.
The Japanese version of the BPT is ton katsu, a delicious pork cutlet Panko battered and deep fried. Miyabi 9 (512 E. Grand Ave.) and Akebono 515 (215 Tenth St.) offer good versions. Akebono also grills pork belly. Sakura (1960 Grand Ave., West Des Moines) serves a pork dumpling soup.

Mexican cuisine prefers beef and chicken to pork, but its pork dishes are elaborate. Many local places make carnitas and pastor. Pastor came to Mexico with Syrian immigrants and is a pig meat version of schwarma and gyros. Usually, it is made by stacking pork steaks, often with onions and pineapple, then grilling it on a rotisserie and slicing from the outside.
Carnitas preparations vary. Often it is simply roasted pork shoulder, but sometimes it is deep fried after roasting or brazing for crispness. These can usually be served red or green, in tacos, or tortas, straight up or soaked in sauce and fried.
Or red and green, because it is always Christmas for pig meat in Iowa.

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