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Positively pork

    There’s a new king in Iowa

this issue stuffed with

By Jim Duncan

A pig state of mind — there’s a new king in Iowa

The pig state Photo by Ben Gordon

Last year the owners of Des Moines’ hockey franchise renamed their team the Iowa Chops and commissioned a pig-faced logo. That piqued the loin portion of Iowa’s population, the high end that perceives itself as too cosmopolitan to associate with their rube cousins and ancestors. Last century as Iowa changed from a rural to an urban-suburban state, loin-end thinkers dominated its mindset, obscuring old identities like “The Tall Corn State” motto and condemning such traditions as six player girls basketball, saving seeds and growing foods for human consumption.

Their heyday may be over. Signs now suggest the dawning of the age of belly-cut Iowans. Proud of their state’s agricultural heritage, the belly-cut faction now marches behind the banner of a new, pigheaded king. A century ago, King Corn built Iowa into one of the richest states in the richest country on earth. One hundred years later that king pegged his future on a 10 percent share of America’s car and tractor fuel market, at dubious costs to the environment, the economy and the world’s food supply. To the overwhelming majority of Iowans who are not engaged in industrial agriculture, King Corn’s crown lost its shine. A Pig King now rules the hearts and minds of the part of the state that embraces its heritage. Consider the new monarch’s popularity:

• The second annual Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival this year sold out in a few hours and drew media from both coasts.

• Last week, The Taste Network brought Cochon555, its touring celebration of heritage pigs in the culinary arts, to Des Moines. That put the city on an exclusive foodie map that includes only Napa, San Francisco, Boston, New York City, Chicago, Atlanta, Portland and Seattle.

• World Pork Expo will return to the Iowa State Fairgrounds next month for its 21st annual mega tradeshow and public celebration of all things piggy.

• The Iowa BBQ circuit, predominantly a pork affair, has expanded to 13 events and high stakes competitions.

The pork tenderloin is a state icon. Photo by Jim Duncan

• Iowa leads the nation in hog production.

• The state has farrowed a litter of niche companies producing high end pork products for the world’s most discriminating chefs — La Quercia of Norwalk, Niman Pork of Thornton, Eden Farms of State Center, Vande Rose of Oskaloosa, Iowa Farm Families of Hubbard, Becker Lane of Dyersville, Graziano Brothers of Des Moines and Lewright’s of Eagle Grove.

• Iowa Culinary Institute’s SwineFest combines the Midwest’s top wine competition with pork feasts by Iowa’s best chefs.

• Iowa chefs are reaching unprecedented heights of culinary respect with pork as their pick ax. George Formaro (Centro, Django) and Matt Steigerwald (Lincoln Café) won three consecutive semifinalist honors for the James Beard Award as the Midwest’s best chef. Andrew Meek (Sbrocco) won two, Enosh Kelley (Bistro Montage) and Steve Logsdon (Lucca) both won one. All use Iowa pork in their repertoire; Steigerwald and Formaro particularly feature it. Shad Kirton and Darren Warth (Smokey D’s) of Des Moines have become superstars of the BBQ circuit. Kirton’s vehicle is named “A Boy and His Pig.”

The new king is more populist, transparent and lovable than the old one. Consider their differences. Pork is valued for its tenderness; corn for its industrial convertibility. Pork inspires pâtés and hot dogs; corn inspires patents and law suits. Pork’s heritage breeds have remained in the same Iowa families for a hundred years; corn’s hybrid seeds can’t be saved nor replanted. Pork is always ready to sacrifice its life that your children might grow; corn is fresh enough for humans to eat only about three weeks a year. Pork hasn’t been disguised since the Sepoy Mutiny in the 18th century; corn is hidden in about 90 percent of all supermarket items and even many hardware store products.

Rise of King Pig

'Bacon explosion' wowed folks at Bacon Fest.

The new king should rule Iowa compassionately. Pigs get us humans. Of all animals, their DNA most resembles ours, making their tissue most useful in medicine, especially transplant surgery. One company in Ames raises organic pigs for their heart valves, the rest of the animal is a byproduct. Cannibals, in multiple cultures, have described their favorite dish as “two-legged pig.” Once domesticated, pigs became man’s best friend. Combative and fearless, they protected farms from predators. Because they can’t digest leafy plants or grasses and prefer the same things humans eat, they left farm crops alone while cleaning up garbage and fattening into protein.

Pigs adapted better than any other livestock to Iowa’s hostile weather and complemented family farms. The state’s fertile soil produced grains in such abundance that farmers could feed surpluses to pigs, multiplying fast enough to provide both food and income without depleting a herd. Hog numbers grew so fast in America that pork became a commodity for the first time in history. Every part of the pig could be eaten or preserved as sausage, bacon, ham and barbecue, sustaining settlers through long Iowa winters.

Each immigrant group in Iowa brought marvelous new applications of pork to the state’s table. Most famously, Iowa became the western capital of the pork tenderloin empire, which runs from Indiana to Omaha, Neb. Since tenderloins resemble wiener schnitzel, it’s likely they originated as pork-for-veal trade in the Cedar Rapids Czech community, though one Indiana town argues otherwise. Other Germanic and British immigrants brought new recipes for Iowa pork — bangers, brats, sausages and pork shanks.

Italians, mostly from Calabria, brought their pork specialties to Des Moines. Many of the best marinara in town have traditionally been made Calabrese style, with pork bones. Braccioli (a.k.a. involitini), a Calabrese invention, is an old Des Moines specialty, featured at Centro. Graziano Brothers sausage is likely Iowa’s most famous pork product. Most of the best Italian restaurants that don’t use Graziano’s make their own sausage.

Iowa chefs embrace the art of charcuterie. Photo by Jim Duncan

Vietnamese and Thai cafes added French and Asian recipes. Popular Vietnamese bargains include “bahn mi thit” — fresh baguettes filled with roast pork, cilantro, cucumbers, shallots and red chili paste. Cool Basil’s Liam Anivat and King & I’s “Mao” Heineman treat pork to curried coconut milk baths. Some Vietnamese places even serve the exotic “nem,” a chile-laden aspic made from all parts of the pig. Le’s Chinese Barbecue famously roasts whole hogs. You can buy a decapitated pig, or just a pig’s head. If you do, check out the teeth — a young pig who has worn its molars down to almost nothing, in just six months, is NOT eating a natural diet. It’s being forced to eat hard grain when it would prefer human food.

In the last decade, Mexicans added another spicy homemade sausage, chorizo, to the scene. They also popularized new pork specialties. “Carnitas,” which can differ drastically, is usually made by braising or even boiling Boston butts (shoulders), then slicing and seasoning them, before either baking or frying. Some places serve carnitas that includes all parts of the pig, with ears, noses, skin and feet as well as ribs, loins and shoulders. “Pastor” is usually made from shoulders. It’s often marinated and grilled on a rotisserie like a gyro. Pozole is a hominy stew that might use trotters and other pork parts. “Chicharron” is pig skin that has been boiled and then deep fried. La Tapatia supermarket sells a good introductory version. Unlike the big supermarkets, most Mexican butcher shops sell any part of the pig. The Brazilian “fejoada” at Café Baudelaire in Ames might include any part of the pig, too.

In third millennium fusion Iowa, Troy Trostel (Greenbriar) and Dom Iannarelli (Splash) serve double bone chops with Latino and Pan Pacific accompaniments that can make humans oink in delight. Hal Jasa (Phat Chef’s), Bill Overdyck (Centro), Cyd Mull (Cyd’s Catering), Enosh Kelley (Bistro Montage), George Formaro (Django), Andrew Meek (Sbrocco) and Tag Grandgeorge (Le Jardin) all make rillettes, a heavenly pâté of pork parts that is hard to find outside the culinary capitals of the world. Jesus Ojeda (El Chisme) brings scratch made Mexican applications to scratch made Italian starches, and vice versa. In the final piece of a circular puzzle, the Japanese restaurant Taki offers “tonkatsu,” which is pretty much the same thing as wiener schnitzel.

Today, Iowa pork is making a national splash. La Quercia’s artisan charcuterie has as impressive a list of culinary endorsements as any food product in America. For populist, belly-cut Iowa though, King Pig is still represented by a holy trinity of bacon, sausage and tenderloin.


Just as geography and climate merged to create the ultimate clam chowder in New England and the best chili verde in New Mexico, Iowa was uniquely placed to create the best BLT’s in the world. By late July, the happy coincidence of hot weather, rich glacial soils and specialty hog farms turns the state into Canterbury for sandwich pilgrims. Here between the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, the best smoked pork bellies meet the best heirloom tomatoes and lettuces on earth on the breads of artisan bakers like La Mie, South Union, Basil Prosperi’s and Florene‘s.

Chef Andrew Meek of Sbrocco with a friend at Cochon555.

The BLT should be Iowa’s official state food. For the belly half of the state, those who identify proudly with the bounty of Iowa’s black dirt, the BLT possesses all criteria of gourmet extravagance. Simultaneously salty and sweet, soft and crunchy, its hot bacon meets its cold mayo and lettuce. Gourmets add the bite of arugula. A full rainbow of colors dance between slices of bread. What other dish provides so much diversity?

The second annual Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival last January in Des Moines taste-tested bacons from 13 different bacon purveyors. Vande Rose Farms won Best of Show over national competition. Another taste test by The Iowan magazine found Perry Creek bacon of Ireton tops. A New York Times test named Niman Ranch the best in America. Both Niman and Eden Farms make prize-winning uncured bacons. All are Iowa products.


Ulysses discovered sausage on his long way home from the Trojan War, making it the oldest processed food in world literature. The U.S. consumes about 20 billion hot dogs a year now, with the Midwest and the South consuming twice as many per capita as the rest of the country. Twenty-first century Iowa has an extraordinary number of unique, quality wiener makers. Many use natural casings and meat from hogs raised under strict welfare protocols. The small pork companies that survived the 20th century did so with superior products, always including sausage.

Graziano Brothers is the alpha sausage dog of Iowa. Since Frank and Louie Graziano began making Italian sausage in 1906 on Des Moines’ south side, the whole state has been acquiring a taste for it. Hotel owners on the eastern seaboard have traded soft shell crabs for Graziano shipments. Natural casings and old Calabrese recipes keep this market growing.

Niman Ranch Pork is a rapidly expanding group of farmers, mostly in Iowa, who are dedicated to free-range, drug-free hogs that are treated humanely, in a sustainable fashion. Their Fearless Franks are a signature product, made at Mary Ann’s Specialty Foods in Webster City. They make myriad old-fashioned wieners, plus Provence sausage, sweet Italian sausage and knockwurst.

In 1937, Harold Lewright opened Lewright’s meat locker in Eagle Grove. The company won so many blue ribbons that they quit entering contests decades ago. Harold’s granddaughter Barbara and her husband Paul Bubeck own the company now and are so particular that they hand pick the hickory logs used in the smoke house. They make excellent brats, old-fashioned coarse ground wieners and other smoked pork products.

Wholesome Harvest is an Iowa-based brand representing organic producers of many foods. Their sausages have a distinctive composition and apple wood smoked taste.

Many Des Moines restaurants make their own recipe sausage and all have loyal advocates. Royal Mile and Hessen Haus have their house bangers and brats. Django makes its boudin blanc, served with foie gras on a Django dog. El Chisme makes homemade chorizo, for its ravioli. Christopher’s, Mezzodi’s, Café di Scala, Chuck’s, Noah’s, Scornovacca’s and Sam & Gabe‘s all make their own sausage. Bistro Montage, Sbrocco, Le Jardin and Greenbriar make specialty sausages.


Conceptually, the pork tenderloin covers Iowa's culinary identity like its breaded meat overlaps its bun. Though it barely differs from Lombardy's cotoletta di miale, Emilia-Romagna's orecchia d'elefante, Japan's tonkatsu, Austria and Germany's schwein schnitzel and the Czech Republic's sma?en? ¿’zek, it's an Iowa icon. Other parts of America know it as breaded pork cutlet or chicken fried pork. Some Milwaukee restaurants call it the 'Iowa skinny.' It is a bona fide state icon, known and loved in every county of Iowa yet almost unheard of beyond Minnesota to the north, Indiana to the east and the Iowa state line to the west and south.

The pork tenderloin also overlaps culinary definitions. In Iowa, it's served in some of the state's most distinguished restaurants as well as in convenience stores, gas stations and taverns. It's as popular in our cities as in our rural areas. It's the darling of some of the state's finest chefs and also the sine qua non of many beloved drive-ins, taverns and diners.

Pork middlins look like pasta.

B&B Grocery Meat & Deli in Des Moines serves the most authentic version. They cut it from the actual tenderloin, not tenderized parts of the entire loin. Joensey's in Solon has been claiming the state's best for decades. Such claims inspired so many polls and designations that have produced over 20 different claims to the title of IowaÔs best. So many are concentrated between Highways 141 and 44 in Guthrie and Audubon counties that the area has been dubbed 'The Tenderloin Corridor.' Bars and cafŽs in Hamlin, Bayard, Coon Rapids, Panora, Jamaica and Elk Horn all claim the best. In Des Moines, the sandwich has been taken upscale. George Formaro prepares Niman Ranch loins with panko for Centro. Gateway Market in Des Moines sells breaded Niman tenderloins ready to fry in their butcher shop.

Elite Pigs

Through most of the 20th century, a porker was a porker but King Pig has many specific looks, in the new millennium.

Purebred Duroc. Duroc recently became a favorite of gourmets because of its high Ph count. Both Iowa Farm Families and Vande Rose use only 100 percent heritage Duroc. Paul Bertolli of the celebrated Fra' Mani Salumi in San Francisco is a celebrity endorser of Duroc.

Berkshire-cross. One hundred percent Heirloom Berkshire and Kurobuta. In 1992, the National Pork Board tested nine sire lines for their meat and eating quality. Berkshire placed first in 19 of 20 traits and remained a favorite of chefs since then. Kurobuta is a Japanese Berkshire breed raised on special diets, much like Kobe beef. Eden Farms uses only 100 percent Berkshire.

Mangalitsa. The fattest of all pigs, Mangalitsa is the most expensive breed raised in America. Most go to Spain, where hams are finished and sold as Jam—n Mangalica, for over $70 a pound. Thomas Keller (The French Laundry) is a celebrity devotee.

Heritage pigs. Dozens of other old lines are coming back thanks to devoted farmers and chefs. Cochon555 celebrates these pigs.

Enhanced or pure pork?

Most so-called fresh pork in supermarkets is 'enhanced' with a solution of water, sodium, phosphate and sometimes flavorings and preservatives. It's popular because it allows water retention and acts as a tenderizer; it encourage reduced fat pork (but adds considerable sodium) and leaner hogs mature faster and it's not altered by overcooking as much as pure pork is.

Pure pork is the choice of most serious chefs because it has more pork flavor. The down side is that pure pork quickly overcooks if not expertly watched.

Coming Royal Events

The 21st annual World Pork Expo will take place at the Iowa State Fairgrounds from June 3-5. The largest pork-industry trade show and exhibition in the world, WPE draws tens of thousands of producers, exhibitors and visitors. Confederate Railroad and Sonny Geraci and the Outsiders lead the musical entertainment.

The third annual SwineFest will be June 20 at Iowa Culinary Institute in Ankeny. It partners 13 family vintners with 10 top Iowa chefs and the students of the institute.

Living History Farms BLT Fest will be Aug. 20, 6 to 9 p.m., with the Roxie Copland Band playing. CV

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