An Heirloom Pig Party Celebrates Slow Food

SlowPig showcased gourmet foods, handcrafted cocktails and Slow Food delights

For the uninitiated it probably sounded a little … unusual? Even for those familiar with the global Slow Food movement, SlowPig conjured up a slightly humorous image. In part it’s because it’s hard, for reasons we’ll explore here, to pull off these kinds of food events. And in part it’s because, well, it was all about pig. But that’s what made the SlowPig event organized by Madison Club chef Dan Fox so successful and enjoyable.

Billed as “a celebration of heritage pigs and the people who drive the movement,” SlowPig was a mix of information and skill, talent and genuine respect for the animal of the evening and absolutely devoid of the pretension that can so often make these kinds of experiences heavy and boring. SlowPig was a well-organized, collaborative effort by really good chefs from Madison and Milwaukee, artisan producers, brewers and merchants who all seemed to enjoy working together and celebrating the qualities of some very good pigs. And that was the idea.

Chefs from L’Etoile, Underground Kitchen, Osteria Papavero and Merchant from Madison, and Sanford and Roots from Milwaukee, were each given a heritage pig. There was a Red Wattle, an Ossbaw-Neishan cross and a Swabian Hall. Some of the hogs came from Micah Nichole’s farm. One came from Tony and Sue Renger’s Willow Creek Farm and while most chefs took the pig they were given, the Rengers made sure theirs went to loyal patron Tory Miller from L’Etoile.

At the start of the evening Fox talked a bit about the different breeds of pig and their characteristics, one with the rich, snow-white fat treasured by Italian chefs, another prized for its bacon and a third for its pork. The theory is that responsibly, carefully raised pigs taste better than what you can find in a grocery store, with nuances produced by what they eat and where they’re grown. And because of that care, both the meat and the fat are healthier. Fox painted a picture of happy pigs and the folks who love them.

And then we sampled. And sampled some more. There were superb meatballs with cinnamon and nutmeg poached in caul fat from Merchant, and a sophisticated “corn dog” from Sanford. Milwaukee artisan butcher Scott Buer, owner of Bolzano’s, offered slices of salami with fig and cocoa and the Rengers served a silky smoked braunschweiger. There was a craft punch cocktail competition, good, local beers, hand-crafted bitters and French cognac.

We enjoyed having the folks from Fromagination on hand, and the team from Jordandahl Farms. There was a pig butchery demonstration and a celebrity chef whole hog competition. There was a continual showing of the movie Pigbusiness, although we can’t imagine that anyone put down their plate long enough to watch it. There were even SlowPig T-shirts. And we all, some three hundred of us, happily waited in line, wandered from floor to floor and engaged chefs and producers in conversations about pig. It was quite a crowd, young for the most part, and smart and curious. Tom Garver and Natasha Nicholson added flair to the event as they inevitably do. At one point Tom commandeered the microphone and took over the role of describing the ingredients that went into Merchant’s meatballs. There was even a contest for the best pig product that attendees voted on with scorecards. Eventually winners were chosen—Sanford’s Justin Aprahamian for pork, and L’Etoile’s Ruben Mendez for his punch cocktail—but the judging was almost beside the point. This was a great event and a serious celebration, perhaps even a
bit of a coming of age for the Madison food scene. It had a little bit of cachet and a whole lot of integrity. And while we left feeling like it might be some time before we could look at a piece of pork again, it was a good feeling fed by good folks and good pigs.

Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. Comments? Questions? Please write to genuinearticles@madisonmagazine.com.

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