Wednesday, March 25, 2009

My Field Trip, or Russell and Hugh: A Love Story

Last week I took a great trip to Iowa, where I roasted that pork belly I was talking about last time, and returned home to Chicago victorious with several pounds of ham and bacon from a friend's home-raised pig named Russell. I met Russell as a baby piglet; he stood about 0'10" and weighed in at about 8 pounds. After an extremely idyllic life of eating, sleeping, and wallowing around with a couple of ducks and some huge chickens while gaining a couple hundred pounds, Russell the pig boarded the train to Russell the pork in January, and let me tell you, it was a wonderful trip. On the very farm where he lived, we cooked some Windsor Chops--a name for smoked pork chops that I'd been unaware of until I was standing next to a grill covered in hickory chips, the heavenly smell of that good smoke drifting into my nose and shirt. The chops got slow, slow smoked and while we waited, a ham roast that had been turning teasingly in a small rotisserie oven was sliced up and served as a "standing around the grill drinking beer" type of appetizer, and as I relished the browned, crispy outer layer of Russell's fat, the sun started to set on a gorgeously warm day, and the rolling hills of Iowa's shockingly beautiful landscape glowed as red as the burning hickory chips we'd entrusted with making Russell even better. (Hyperbole, perhaps, but hey, that's how it exists in my memory, and I'm convinced that pretty much everything happens in one's memory. I once persuaded myself to believe that I spent some time on Tattoine when really it was just the strangely beautiful sunset caused by the wicked wildfires in Colorado.) Better yet, we were able to pack a cooler with more of that ham and bacon, and were also generously given a chuck roast, some sirloin steaks, and a load of stew meat from another friend who buys sides of beef and has it broken down at the local meat locker.

And that pork belly. We got the belly at the aforementioned meat locker (sadly, Russell had already been made into bacon), where we were told no one ever gets pork belly. The guy in charge brought one out and cut it off the ribs right in front of us; I've never seen sharper knives move so surely--this guy has made these movements thousands of times in his life, and it was a treat to see someone so seasoned in his craft do his thing. I rubbed the belly with oil, salt and pepper and roasted it with some carrots and onions; mashed potatoes and made a little sauce with some apple juice and the drippings of the pork once it was nice and crispy on top. Mmmm...

The next day there were breakfast burritos to make to cure a night of drinking. (By the way, did you know that in Iowa, there are stars in the sky, and you can see them at night? I'd forgotten, living in the city. I hear this happens in Montana, too.) The thoroughbred of a man that we were staying with, who was out with us the night before 'till all hours, went to work at 5 am, fishing at 10:30 am, and was back in time to clean the croppies he'd caught as the rest of us were just starting to function again. Amazing.

Another thing about Iowa--they've got these things called Maid-Rites, or Loosemeat Sandwiches, depending on where you're from. And for something so unimpressive looking and made of the simplest ingredients (Ground beef. Onion. Bun.), they are delicious and something I crave when they're not around. The stuff is simply sauteed (the actual Maid-Rite chain steams the meat, but I go for the sauteed version, believing that the older your cast iron skillet/flattop grill, the better the flavor that is going to come out of it) and put on a bun, unless you upgrade to the cheese-rite, or the coveted bacon-cheese-rite. I used to make them for the too-skinny food runner at the restaurant, but I used a crumbled piece of meatloaf, if only to pack some extra weight on him. Slather it in mustard (as much as I love strong french mustard, you kinda gotta go with yellow mustard here) and ketchup, get some pickles involved, put the sandwich in a bowl or something that'll catch the half of the sandwich that will inevitably fall off, and get a fork. The greatest.

Anyway, it's really a culinary treasure trove, Iowa. It's got a pretty true version of genuine American food, and it's a great place to get in touch with what real people eat when they aren't eating foie-gras and caviar. Not that there's anything wrong with that.