One woman's strange love affair with a pair of pig feet. (Originally a blog post)
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What is it about buying pigs feet that makes me feel so alive?
Leaving the butcher shop yesterday morning, pigs feet peeking out of my newly acquired canvas tote emblazoned with the "Olde Towne Butcher" logo, I couldn't help but smile stupidly at everything and everyone, even as my toddler attempted suicide by oncoming traffic over and over. It felt as though I was carrying around the world's greatest secret, and if someone were to ask what was inside and peer in, they too would smile stupidly and agree.
If you've never felt pure joy from the prospect of boiling down the hooves of an animal known to spend its days in mud, I can understand. I'm trying to think of any animal whose feet we consume happily, or that we are at least comfortable seeing severed and on ice... The further removed we are from the fact that the meat we eat comes from something with a face - or feet - the more complacent we are to eat that cute little piggy's ribs, hocks, and belly. Maybe our impulse to pull away when confronted with the dismembered hoof of an animal comes from the thought, "But I have feet!", almost like a primordial fear that someone will fatten us up and display our parts for sale by the pound, too.
Pigs feet weren't my only purchase that morning. I told the woman behind the counter that I was making stock (the "Universal Dark Stock" recipe in Anthony Bourdain's cookbook "Appetites", to be exact), and that I couldn't find the four pounds of chicken bones the recipe called for. (Unfortunately, the chicken seems to be the squirrel of farm animals, and its abundance leads to its less popular parts being taken for granted.) She told me that she makes her own stock at home as well, and that she uses pigs feet and beef marrow bones - another animal part that makes my heart soar with excitement and anticipation. Sixteen dollars for just one portion of a single recipe would normally have made my wallet ache, but I would've paid twice that just to walk out of there on my culinary cloud with my stupid grin. The horizon of home-chefdom was never so bright.
About once an hour after we made it back home, I would open the fridge just to visit with the feet for a few more seconds. Maybe it was out of disbelief that I had really bought pigs feet, and maybe it was just to gaze upon their weird glory - toenail-less two-pronged toes pointing at me from under their cellophane blanket, beckoning me to utilize their strangeness and cross that threshold into the world of people who cook with pigs feet.
After thawing in the fridge over night, the stock making process begins. While rinsing the pigs feet in the kitchen sink, I have never felt more brave. Courageously running my fingers between its alien toes, wiping the inner flesh and bone along the cut line, I am strangely at ease and feel closer to the pig. In college, I couldn't even bring myself to dissect a rat because I had had one as a pet, yet here I am, passing the foot back and forth under the water, with a bizarre urge to cradle it lovingly against my cheek. "Thank you piggy, thank you for your feet, and thank you for this stock we are about to enjoy. Amen."
To think I was once a vegan, urging others to follow suit and "stop the madness!" I reside on both sides of the meat eating fence, however: I believe whole-heartedly that our over-indulgence in animal products has a direct correlation in the steep uptick in disease in our country, but I also just fucking love meat and cheese and every by-product in between, and like to believe there can be a happy medium. Our local butcher in downtown Fredericksburg boasts "Clean, local, sustainable, humane foods prepared fresh!", and without preservatives. If I can take these hacked off hooves and bones and imagine the comfortable farm life these animals lived just down the road, I can happily and with good conscious put their leftover parts to use.
The feet and bones are roasting, in go the veggies to brown as well. After an hour, what's left is a heavenly scent of meat, and fat, and juices, and vegetables, daring you not to dig in right then and there. The feet have swollen as the skin moves away from the bone, and the marrow has broken down into a glistening jelly of melted fat. This gives me an idea; I've seen something before - on television. Anthony Bourdain himself has done this, I know it. I grab a knife and scrape as much marrow as I can out of the smallest bone...
Spreading the bone marrow on a thin crostini, I bite into the creamiest, most rich fat I've ever tasted. This is the closest I've come to a truly exotic food experience. I love sashimi (raw fish), and I'm down to crunch a few crickets if I get the chance, but bone marrow always seemed like a far off food dream. Marrow is something only high caliber chefs and the 1% get to enjoy, alongside foie gras and truffles. But, the truth is, for three dollars a pound, anyone can feel like a Michelin Star chef after a visit to your local butcher. Hell, even Wegmans carries marrow bones in their frozen meat section.
Having orchestrated this exotic food experience on my own gives me even more of a false sense of culinary superiority, so much so that I can feel the chefs hat being gently placed upon my cultured head as it floats down from food heaven. In all honesty though, the marrow was too much. So fatty and sickeningly smooth that it triggered my gag reflex a bit. I tried to savor every bite, however, imagining myself seated next to Anthony Bourdain in another far off country in another fabulous restaurant, indulging in life's most sumptuous and heart-stopping cuisine, while enjoying rapturous conversation and overpriced wine. All this from a little beef fat.
Cooking with pigs feet and bone marrow makes you feel like you could do anything, cook any recipe, and fearlessly hunt down any obscure ingredient. It makes you feel that much more akin to your chef idols, and brings foreign lands closer to your front door. As I sit here writing this, listening to the simmer of the stock pot - the most delicious white noise - the quiet thrill of the next culinary feat beats inside me, anxiously waiting to be tackled. A few pages over is a recipe for octopus stock...who knows? Next week I could be tracking down my nearest octopus purveyor.
"Contrary to what some may say, I do not enjoy seeing the death of any living thing. I do not promote animal cruelty. But I think people should know where meat comes from, and knowing, they should feel free to decide what they do from there." - Anthony Bourdain