It is rare that the memories of childhood are more than that. For the most part, what we grew up with is gone, unheard of in today’s bigger-is-better world. It’s called “progress.” Think once-pristine coasts now lined with cheap condos; the dull malling of once iconic and individualistic thoroughfares like Fifth Avenue and its smaller-city counterparts; the replacement of small, highly organized specialty shops offering endless choice (100 white blouses, anyone?) with department stores with imposed brand preferences and insultingly manipulative layouts. And of course, that tragic emblem of all progress: the commercially available, red-but-not-ripe tomato. Add the juicy, deeply flavorful pork of my youth to that, and you have a lost dinnertime world that truly is a taste memory.
For a long time, it was possible to keep the tomato memory alive by only eating tomatoes in the summer, when you could grow them yourself or buy them down the road from your local farmer—and even that has become touch and go, given the seed business, unless you raise or find heirloom varieties. But the pork of my youth was pretty much gone, and for me, this was truly distressing. My favorite meal in the world growing up—the one my mother or grandmother made for me when I came home from college—was stuffed pork chops with homemade applesauce. My grandmother would cut a pocket into the fat-side of a 2”-thick pork chop; fill it to overflowing with a simple stuffing of seasoned bread, onion, and celery; and bake it until the fat melted into the bread and the stuffing oozed out, rich and moist.
I gave up making this many years ago. It just didn’t work anymore. I confined my pork-eating, other than bacon or sausage, to pork tenderloins, which I would braise or grill for flavor—i.e., I gave up on the idea of having flavorful pork without intervention. But that didn’t mean I didn’t still think about it.
Then, of course, came Niman Ranch in the 1980s. OK, “natural” and carefully raised, the best available for a while, good for eating out, and for the occasional mail-order splurge. But not, you know, like home. Then suddenly, or maybe not so suddenly—revolutions take time—heritage breeds of pig, raised completely on organic pasture, vegetables, and necessary amounts of organic grain, started showing up at farmers’ markets. The heart races: it looks like the pork of your youth. It has fat—in it. Like a good steak. It’s not pale. It’s not trimmed to within 1/16 inch of its life. OMG, it’s pork!
Two of the most readily available heirlooms are Tamworth and Berkshire, both old English breeds. Thanks to the American Berkshire Association, set up in 1875 when the Berkshire was first introduced to America, the Berkshire, a black pig with little white feet, sort of a big version of my sister’s cats, is much as it was 100 years ago. It is pork with a pedigree. And it is delicious. So ask your farmer not only how he raises his pigs, but what kind of pigs he has—including whether they are certified Berkshires. They are worth seeking out.
Here are some Berkshire pork chops simply grilled with salt and pepper for a work-night supper, accompanied by equally simple grilled potatoes and a little rhubarb puree. Not the favorite supper of my childhood, but a remarkably tasty cousin for another welcome return, the hot and sunny spring day. Memory incarnate.