THE INSANE ASYLUM AND THE IRON CHEF
I bumped into Mario Batali on the grounds of a defunct insane asylum.
The vacated campus of the historic Traverse City State Hospital is undergoing a renaissance. Deserted buildings are being repurposed into the hippest restaurants. There’s an urban winery, a bakery, and this restaurant start-up by the name of Spanglish. Spanglish serves up a fusion of south-of-the-boarder fare with locally-sourced ingredients.
It was August. My wife Erin, our daughter Ana, and I were were returning to Grand Rapids via Traverse City from a wedding on the shores of Lake Superior. We decided to stop by this charming little restaurant. Our family of three was joined in the lunch line by another family of three: Batali, his wife, and one of his sons. Since we had all had arrived within minutes of its opening, we were the only ones there.
Back in the ‘90s, Batali became a behemoth in the world of celebrity chefs thanks to the Food Network’s Iron Chef. He’s decorated with the food industry’s highest honors. He owns dozens of restaurants in places like New York, Los Angles, and Hong Kong. He also owns a small place on the Leelanau Peninsula where he spends his summers…
What brought Batali from his summer home to Spanglish was no doubt what brought us there: we’re locavores. Convinced that great food begins with great ingredients, we believe that locally sourced ingredients are fresher, more wholesome, and more flavorful.
All I had to do was turn around and put out my hand…But what to say?
I could have said, “You know, my Dad’s a chef.” That for more than thirty years, he was head chef at the restaurant he owned with my grandfather, uncles, and aunt. That, after opening in the early ‘50s, Duba’s Restaurant had a reputation for West Michigan’s finest steakhouse.
I could have pointed out that, like Batali’s Babbo Ristorante e Enoteca in New York City, Duba’s was an award-winning restaurant, including Restaurant of the Year (Grand Rapids Magazine). It’s not the New York Times or the James Beard Foundation bestowing the award, but still: high-honors in this neck of the woods.
I could have made the observation that Batali sits on the board of Heritage Foods USA, and that I own Duba & Co., the only other heritage meat market in the United States.
Now here was something to talk about:
- Why he insists on serving heritage pork at his restaurants.
- How heritage meats are, hands down, the world’s best proteins.
- The fact that virtually no one knows about them, except for the kind of high-profile chefs invited to deliver T.E.D. talks.
- How heritage meats are the last frontier in the craft food and beverage revolution that’s sweeping our nation.
- That the only way to get exceptional flavor out of meat is through breeds that mature slowly (the heritage breeds). How time translates into flavor, like a 20 year-old Scotch.
- How conventional wisdom is completely wrong with its over-emphasis on “fat equals flavor” and how it’s really so much more: things like heritage breeds, pasture, and quality feed (think apples, nuts, and soybeans).
- How only small farms with farmers who are true experts in their field have what it takes to raise them.
- How large, industrial factory-farms churn out a very homogenized, bland pork product. And how, with no exaggeration, 99.9% of all Americans don’t know what real pork—or beef, or turkey—tastes like (they haven’t tried pastured heritage meats).
- How the meat industry today is where the beer industry was in the ‘80s (on the cusp of the microbrew revolution). And that what is happening with heritage meats is every bit as dramatic as going from drinking Budweiser to the craft brew explosion. It’s a meat revolution that offers a color-palate of flavors; that emphasizes craftsmanship and small farms that use traditional farming methods. It’s a reassurance of passionate farming by men and women who buck an existence as indentured servants to “Big Ag”. Instead, they become instead entrepreneurs who emphasize flavor and quality over the blandness that comes from high-yield.
Yes, here was fodder for a very animated, lengthy conversation. Perhaps he would invite us to continue the discourse over a bottle of wine at his lake house overlooking Grand Traverse Bay.
All I had to do was break the ice…
Instead, I said nothing. I did nothing. My goodness, we’re close enough to step on each other’s toes!
It’s utter insanity.
So, I watch as the small restaurant fills in a matter of 20 minutes (the word of a celebrity sighting spread quickly). Some approach for autographs, others photos, and others just to exchange a few words.
With their lunch finished, Batali and his family quietly get up and slip away in their black Honda Odyssey. Erin, Ana, and I load up our navy blue 2001 Oldsmobile Park Avenue, driving back to Grand Rapids in complete obscurity.
The exact same kind of pork that Batali offers at New York’s Del Posto restaurant is raised here in Michigan. And Idle River Farms is the only place you’re likely to find it—at least of the kind of quality that chefs like Batali are looking for.
Matt & Kristal Burdick run this small, family farm in Burlington, MI, where quality over quantity is the order of the day. And so these hogs mature slowly on pasture (the secret to exceptional flavor). To achieve well-marbled pork, the Burdicks round out these happy hogs’ diet with GMO-free soybeans. With an eye towards quality-control, Matt takes pains to grow—then slow-roast—the soy on site.
After seven long months’ care at Idle River farms, the hogs are finally ready for harvest. And what you get is nothing short of a masterpiece…
- Well-marbled, slow-smoked hams
- Pork chops: cut generously thick, and with all the tenderness and flavor coveted by the French New Orleanians of the 1700s (they originally raised America’s first Red Wattles).
- Bacon: sizzling, sweet, and smoky
- Bratwursts for searing on a summer grill
- Breakfast sausages that caramelize in a cast iron skillet
- Italian sausage to showcase in your famous quiche for Sunday brunch
- Chorizo that takes tacos and tamales to the next level
- St. Louis or short ribs, lathered thick with barbecue sauce
- Pulled-pork sandwiches, from a slow-roasted Boston Butt (your guests at family reunions, birthdays, and graduation parties won’t be able to get enough of ‘em)
- Leaf fat, full of healthy omega 3s, for rendering into lard and turning into any number of pastry creations
All this—and more—comes with the purchase of a half hog, and it’s delivered FREE in Grand Rapids.
[The pork chops] are fantastic. We did a side by side with our current chop which had the benefit of an overnight apple cider brine and the Red Wattle was better as is.” (Tom Webb, Executive Chef, Boatwerks)
We could taste the difference, it was an obvious difference really. The brats were excellent, we were fighting over the leftovers!” (Jenny Johnson, Comstock Park, MI)
READY TO INVEST IN A HALF HOG?
Idle River Farms now has their Spring harvest of 100% GMO-free and pasture-raised heritage pork for sale by the half hog. It’s 5 – 7 days dry-aged for enhanced tenderness and flavor. It’s fully butchered. And it comes to you in a one-size-fits-all, crowd-pleasing cutting order:
- Smoked hams
- Pork chops
- Boston Butt
- Assorted sausages
- Leaf fat for rendering into lard (that’s for the Laura Ingalls Wilder or pastry chef in you)
THE PRICE: $3.99/pound (hanging) plus processing. FREE DELIVERY to Grand Rapids addresses.
That’s 65 – 75 pounds of all the above cuts for about $499 (or about $7 per pound).
INTERESTED BUT NOT YET READY? A MONEY-BACKED GUARANTEE
If you’d like to try Idle Rivers’ pork before you invest in a half hog:
For $12.99, the Duba family will personally deliver a pound of Idle River heritage pork chops to Grand Rapids addresses (add $23.99 in shipping costs if you’re out of town).
While pork of average quality can be buried in bacon or snuffed out in sausage, a pork chop is the real test of the meat’s mettle. If you try this chop and don’t agree that it’s the best you’ve ever had, your money will be cheerfully refunded in full.