Monday, September 13, 2010
WITH THE PIGS IN AMERICA
I was at the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona, sitting on metal bleachers watching the pig racing. If I’d been a betting man my money would have been on Mr. Jowl. There were two women sitting behind me and one of them was saying to the other, “Oh, I couldn’t. No way. I just couldn’t. I couldn’t possibly put a thing like that in my mouth. I just couldn’t. I’d gag. I’d just die.” Her companion was doing her very best to persuade her to try some of the chocolate covered bacon that was on sale all over the fair. For all the drama, the woman did eventually try a piece. She didn’t gag, she didn’t die, and why would she? I knew, as I’d known all along, that she was protesting way too much. And frankly if you were worried about putting odd things in your mouth, there were far scarier items than chocolate covered bacon, such as the “frosting shots” and the fried dill pickles.
But the chocolate covered bacon was really, really good; pieces of bacon of varying lengths, coated with dark chocolate of varying thicknesses so that each piece had a slightly different ratio of bacon to chocolates. The pieces were served chilled to keep them crisp and crunchy. I had mine with a pint of ice cold beer, thereby simultaneously hitting three major food groups.
I’d decided my visit to the LA County fair would be all about the pig. I realized recently that I’d never seen a live pig in America. Back in England I saw them all the time as I drove up the A12 into Suffolk, hundreds of happy, odorless, free range porkers rooting in fields either side of the main road. But never in America, and given that there are about 60 million pigs alive in America at any given moment this didn’t seem right. It was a situation that needed to be corrected. I hoped the LA County Fair would get the job done, and it did.
I saw 29 pigs at the fair. The majority of them should more properly be called piglets; there were 19 of them along with three sows in a large pen in Thummer’s barn. There were also four fully-grown pigs lying singly in pens. You could reach right in and touch them, which I duly did. The flesh was far more solid and unyielding than it looked, and the pigs seemed to have no objection to being gently prodded and stroked. Then there were the racing pigs – three races with four pigs per race, along with a tiny little piglet thrown in for comic effect. That makes 29.
But I hadn’t gone to the fair just to view pigs; I’d gone there to eat them. The fair could provide pork in many forms, pulled pork sandwiches, barbecue, hickory smoked pork butts, sausages, carnitas. I’d also heard reports of the intriguing “pork chop on a stick” and I thought I needed one of those to extend my porcine education.
Certainly as a whole, the event seemed less about pork and more about dough. I knew, of course that county fairs are the home of deep-fried everything: Twinkies, Oreos, Krispy Kreme chicken sandwiches, White Castle cheeseburgers, all coated in dough and submerged in hot fat. But I was a little surprised to find it was also the home of deep fried frogs legs, deep fried avocadoes and deep fried cheese on a stick.
I only tasted some of these, but I was especially taken with the idea of the cheese. I could see them there at the counter, blocks of bright yellow cheese looking like cheese popsicles; how could that fail? Well, reasonably easily actually.
In my naivety I was imagining that the blocks were some good solid, flavorful, mature cheddar but they turned out to be Velveeta, or at least the bulk catering equivalent, and by the time one of them had been doughed and fried it turned to rather bland cheese sauce. It was OK as far as it went, but why couldn’t it have gone further with a lump of artisanal goat feta or some regional blue?
The problem with dough, or at least with the dough I ate at the fair, is that it overwhelms whatever’s inside it, so it becomes dough with cheese, or dough with avocado, and I dare say dough with frogs’ legs. The one thing that did work really well was the deep fried Klondike bar. Here dough tasted very much like a doughnut, and ice cream and chocolate are two things you can plausibly eat as topping on a doughnut, so this was absolutely fine. The melting ice cream and chocolate lubricated the dough and made a perfectly good dessert.
Given the presence of all that dough, I assumed the pork chop on a stick would get the same treatment, coated and deep-fried. That gave me some slight trepidation but by that point I was willing to go for it. I was wrong, however. There was no dough, no deep-frying, just a well cooked pork chop that somebody had pushed a stick into and cooked on a grill. It was very good, and I’m sure it tasted better than a doughy, deep-fried version would have, but I was still somehow disappointed. My appetite had coarsened, and I was wanting something grosser and more vulgar, something more like county fair food. I wondered if the fair would have had the same effect on Ferran Adrià.
Given the presence of livestock, not only pigs and cows, but also goats, sheep, chickens, rabbits, even yak, I thought the organizers might have made something out of rare breeds, heritage, sustainable agriculture, that kind of thing, but there was none of it. Cows were being milked, but the milk that came out of the cows couldn’t be sold, for health reasons. There was a display of cheeses, but they were in sealed glass-fronted cabinets and none of them were for sale either. This seemed a bit much. Surely even the most committed cheese fancier wants to do more than just LOOK at cheese.
So I tried to imagine a county fair in which the gourmets and the food obsessives were let loose to run the asylum. If absolutely anything could be doughed and deep fried, why not deep fried snail porridge or pig cheek? Wouldn’t visitors enjoy the new sous vide fad that’s sweeping the nation? Why not try hot dogs or S’mores that had been vacuum-sealed and cooked in a water bath for a few hours? Rather than smoothies and shaved ice how about pints of sea urchin foam or tomato water? Why not a deconstructed corn on the cob? Why not a molecular taco? How about a freeze-dried hotdog?
I was getting a bit fevered by now. I bought myself a basket of hot, freshly deep-fried potato chips. They calmed me down no end. It felt like coming home.