BY ED MURRIETA
In about 36 hours, one of the little porkers that Cheryl Ouellette raises on her free-range farm in Summit will be served as a pulled-pork special at Primo Grill in Tacoma.
But first, dinner must wake up.
“Pigs are lazy,” Ouellette said. “He’s having a nice rest in a warm pig pile.”
It’s minutes past 7 a.m. on a recent Friday. Pigs like to sleep until 10.
Ouellette, or rather the feed she’s scattering on the ground, lures the pig from the barn and into a wooden crate. It will travel 46 1/2 miles from the farm to the slaughterhouse to the restaurant.
The day before, Primo Grill chef/owner Charlie McManus handpicked the 4-month-old, 160-pound pig, one of Ouellette’s signature Berkshire-Duroc-Landrays breed. About 14 hours after slaughter, McManus will slow-roast the pig overnight in his restaurant’s wood-burning oven. Later, he’ll serve pulled pork with caper-mint salsa verde, garlic mashed potatoes and green beans.
“One of the most dramatic things that’s happened at Primo Grill is bringing almost-warm pigs into the restaurant – eyes open, straight from the slaughterhouse,” McManus said. “A lot of our younger cooks have never seen a whole animal before. It’s important that our staff understand that it’s not just a piece of meat. It’s a life that’s given that day.”
With this one pig’s death, a cycle of sustainability survived: The farmer stewarding her animals and land. The chef supporting the farmer and feeding local diners. Diners supporting the farmer and the chef.
LOCAL PIG PRIDE
Ouellette is better known as Cheryl the Pig Lady, which is also the name of her 5-acre farm, where she runs a Community Supported Agriculture program that supplies meat and produce to 20 local families.
“I’m proud when people come to the farmers markets and go, ‘Are you the same Pig Lady that grows for Charlie?’ ” she said. “People go, ‘Oh, well, she really is local. She’s selling to this restaurant. She’s at this farmers market. She’s in our neighborhood. We should take care of her.’ That gives them a buy-in. They’ve got to know the warm, fuzzy story to make it worth it to them to pay a little bit more for that product.”
That warm, fuzzy story goes like this: About every other week, Ouellette delivers a freshly slaughtered pig to Primo Grill. McManus turns the pigs into pulled-pork dinner specials. Customers pay $24. McManus pays Ouellette $6 for every entree he sells. Ouellette makes about $100 more per pig under this arrangement than she would selling pigs wholesale.
Sustainability is “a big part of our philosophy for the restaurant and our life philosophy,” said McManus, who, with his wife and business partner, Jacqueline Plattner, has a certified wildlife habitat with fruit and nut trees in the backyard of his West End home.
Like other chefs, McManus buys the bulk of his ingredients from commercial suppliers. McManus figures between 15 percent and 20 percent of his fresh produce comes from local gardens during spring and summer months; that drops to about 5 percent in the winter. For the past five years, McManus has purchased fruit and vegetables from Teri’s Berries in Puyallup. Two years ago, he started buying Ouellette’s pork. This month, McManus signed a deal to buy organic chickens from Olympia farmer Gerry Stokesberry and convinced Holly Foster of Tacoma’s Zestful Gardens to grow whatever herbs and vegetables she can for him.
So far, Primo Grill is these farmers’ only restaurant account.
“Charlie’s trying very hard to make sure that all the farmers in the area get a chance to succeed,” Ouellette said. “He said, ‘Whatever you grow best, bring it in. I’ll make a special out of it.’ ”
Now, in addition to having wintered 30 piglets for McManus, Ouellette is also growing herbs for him.
“He did roasted carrots with spearmint,” Ouellette said. “The taste was just magic. I said, ‘I’m gonna grow you spearmint because I grow spearmint really good and I want it to be part of your magical carrots.’ ”
SUSTAIN THE FARMER
With her CSA and farmers markets commitments, Ouellette is maxed out. Twelve sows, two boars and 240 piglets a year is all she can handle.
“We can’t grow any more pork,” she said. “I feel comfortable that this is the amount of pork I can grow and do it well. To me, sustainability means that the farmer’s not gonna burn out and they can keep doing it over and over again.”
To hear McManus tell it, sustainable is almost spiritual.
“Ultimately that’s what it means – understanding the life of the person who grows it and knowing the animals are well treated and have as natural of a life as possible as they come to feed us,” he said.
The pig that was awoken early to begin his trip into McManus’ oven was treated well. Ouellette raises her pigs, cows, chickens, turkeys, lambs and sheep on a free range. Even their slaughter is humane.
Outside the slaughterhouse, pigs that were trucked in from a “factory” farm in British Columbia squealed wildly. “That’s what I’m trying to avoid,” Ouellette said. Her pig lay quietly in his cage. “Stress causes the animals to tighten up. The animal releases adrenaline. That makes the meat tougher.”
McManus said he tastes the difference.
“The first thing about it is that it tastes different from factory pork,” he said. “It’s a lot sweeter and cleaner-tasting.”
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Ed Murrieta: 253-597-8678
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SIDEBAR (E03): SWINE STATS
Weight, in pounds, of pig on farm.
Weight, in pounds, of pig after slaughter.
Portions of pulled-pork dinner specials served at Primo Grill.
Price, in dollars, of Primo Grill’s pulled-pork dinner special.
Amount, in dollars, Cheryl Ouellette earned per portion.
Amount, in dollars, Primo Grill paid Ouellette for pig delivered May 11.
Amount, in dollars, Ouellette would have received if she had sold pig wholesale.
Cost, in dollars, of slaughtering pig.
Food-cost percentage of Primo Grill’s pulled-pork special entree.
Food-cost percentage of Primo Grill’s conventional pork entrees.
Distance, in “food miles,” that pig traveled from farm to slaughter to restaurant.
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SIDEBAR (E03): PIG OUT FOR YOURSELF
Primo Grill chef/owner Charlie McManus roasts one of Cheryl the Pig Lady’s pigs every other week. He’ll roast the next pig June 8 and serve it as a $24 pulled-pork dinner special starting the next night. Pork specials usually sell out in two or three days, McManus said. Primo Grill: 601 Pine St., Tacoma; 253-383-7000.
THE CRITIC SAYS
My first bite of pulled pork tasted something like turkey – a clean, sweet flavor that landed brightly on my palate. I was in hog heaven throughout the rest of the meal. Fennel and lemons that chef Charlie McManus placed into the pig’s cavity further sweetened and scented the pork. After roasting, the pork was pulled from the carcass. Meat from the entire pig – shoulder, belly, head – was mixed together. Prior to serving, McManus crisped the pork in a hot pan. A salsa verde of salt-cured capers, basil, mint, parsley and marjoram (like pesto, but zestier), enlivened the pork with a fresh, briny bite. For wine and pork pairings, rose and pinot noir were puny, but zinfandel and Riesling struck fine, fruity notes.
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Ed Murrieta, The News Tribune
PORK AT HOME
Cheryl the Pig Lady sells free-range, humanely slaughtered pork products – roasts, chops, sausages – plus beef, chicken and eggs at South Sound farmers markets:
Thursdays, downtown Tacoma; Saturdays, downtown Puyallup; Tuesdays, Tacoma Dome district.
For information on Cheryl Ouellette’s Community Supported Agriculture program, contact Cheryl the Pig Lady at 253-535-6322.
(c) 2007 The News Tribune)