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Pork bellies: This fat is where it's at

Published May 11, 2003

In case you missed the news, pork bellies are in. I'm not talking about the futures trading in pork bellies that Hillary Rodham Clinton profited from when she was the first lady of Arkansas. I'm talking haute cuisine - pork bellies on the menus of some of New York City's finest restaurants as Americans renew their love affair with the exquisite fat of the hog.

The story by Julia Moskin in the New York Times' Dining Out section last week began: "Ten years ago, pork bellies were about as likely to appear on a fancy New York restaurant menu as sorghum or feed corn. Bacon in its raw, uncured state, pork belly is the fattiest part of the mature hog, thick stripes of pure white fat and rosy meat. New York chefs have, of course, long used bacon (and its European cousins pancetta, lardons and ventreche) discreetly, or as a garnish. They have been even more discreet about pork bellies. But now, pork bellies, along with other rich, unabashedly fatty cuts of the pig, have landed right on the menu. The futures market looks fat and happy."

Glory be and praise the much maligned hog!

The story came with color photographs of some of the pork belly sensations served in the city's priciest restaurants - swell dining establishments such as WD-50, DB Bistro Moderne, Alain Ducasse, Brasserie 81/2 and 11 Madison Park.

One photo cutline read: "At WD-50 (I assume that's a restaurant and not a can of oil), the rich fat that tops slabs of pork belly is meant to be eaten rather than cut off."

Well, of course it is meant to be eaten, like everything else about a hog.

Another cutline read: "Pork belly, the raw form of the meat that could grow up to be bacon, is on menus all over town. Left, a slab of pork fat cures in a marble box at Osteria del Circo. Right, crispy pork belly with endive, frisee and apple salad at Daniel."

Moskin's prose is almost as delicious as the pork belly entres she describes. She writes: "Filmy slices of lardo - pure white pork fat - are proudly presented at Le Cirque 2000 and adorn a buzzed-about pizza at Otto." And this: "A taste for pure pork fat, long restricted to a furtive devouring of the white nubbin in the can of baked beans, can now be worn as a badge of honor."

I'd like to pass this article around some small-town cafes in rural Georgia at breakfast time.

I never thought I would see the day that the New York Times would celebrate pork bellies in its restaurant section. I suspect it may have something to do with the Alabama upbringing of the newspaper's executive editor, my old friend Howell Raines, who never met a pig he didn't like - barbecued or fried.

Southerners, of course, have long appreciated the succulence of pig meat, fat and lean. We know the best biscuits are made with pure lard, and that green vegetables taste like stewed grass without a slab of fatback or a ham hock tossed into the pot. Some of us preferred fried streak-o'-lean or fatback to bacon at breakfast. My grandfather used to fry thick slices of country ham. He'd trim the fat off and eat it and throw the lean ham to his dogs.

I have been on a low-fat diet for years, but I have never lost my craving for pig fat, anyway you want to slice it or cook it. The Atkins Diet, which is loaded with fat, may have helped break what Moskin calls "the Great Fat Panic" that started in the 1970s. Until recently, Americans were urged to maintain a low-fat diet. Fat was a bigger killer than cigarettes, the health nannies told us. People turned away from fat, even as they kept getting fatter on so-called healthy diets.

Meanwhile, pig growers tried to adapt their pigs to the times, and in the process they nearly ruined the taste of pork. According to the Times story, today's pigs are 31 percent less fatty than those of 1983, and chefs complain that commercial pork is so lean it's almost impossible to cook. The industry advertised this leaner pork as "the other white meat." It got to the point where pork tasted more like chicken than chicken tasted like chicken.

The war against fat is being lost on several fronts. Even health spas around the country have given in, if not up. According to a story in the Wall Street Journal last week, some luxurious spas have become fat farms where customers put on weight instead of taking if off.

"After years of counting calories and pushing health, spas are moving into comfort food in a huge way, with deli dishes, five-star desserts and all-you-can-eat pasta bars," the Journal reported. "At Texas' luxurious Lake Austin Spa, the chef recently launched a five-course tasting menu, while Canyon Ranch in Tucson, Ariz., has ditched its no-fat frozen yogurt for real ice cream."

Next thing you know, pork bellies will start showing up on the menus at these spas. That would be about the only thing that could lure me inside one.

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