In Praise of Raw Pork

by Lisa Elbert, Tastemaker in Residence -  Food & Wine 

Let's celebrate National Pig Day!

 Koron/Getty Images

Koron/Getty Images

At Cleveland's The Plum, pork tartare is a nostalgic delicacy. Here's why you should give it a chance.

“That’s a no from me,” the man said. “I’m just getting over food poisoning, so that’s allllll you,” said his wife. My friends, brave and adventurous as they may be, cowered at the very mention of raw pork—at first.

We sat down at the bar and ordered three pints of Coors Banquet (on draft, an important detail). Chef approached us with two plates of food. “These are 48-hour Mangalitsa pork ribs with white barbecue sauce, topped with a smoked Shishito relish,” he said. “And this is Budweiser-battered celery root with whey brine and dried hot sauce served with a side of our house ranch. Enjoy.” It was just the beginning of our meal from chef Brett Sawyer of The Plum in Cleveland, and these dishes were the opening acts for the main event (though they could very well have been the main events themselves—I mean come on, house ranch).

Within minutes, the plates were bare save for a few bones, and my friends, their faces dripping in ranch, were all ears as Sawyer placed a plate of raw pork in front of them.

Behold, the pork tartare that I’d arguably crossed state lines for, and the dish my friends refused to eat not one hour prior. “The pork is tossed with apple, parsley and white soy, topped with a petite potato salad and celery ribbons and served with barbecue-spiced apple chips,” said Sawyer. The set for his tartare was inspired by a barbecue (as expressed via the pork, potato salad, and chips, in case that wasn’t clear). “The potato salad has all of the classic elements of traditional tartare: aioli, eggs and mustard,” he said. Sawyer replicated a nostalgic, Midwestern meal but with something as unfamiliar as raw pork in a composition that exudes sophistication and whimsy. The dish sells itself, even in a city whose diners inexplicably adore peanut butter and fruit loop-topped hot dogs … don’t ask. And just like that, it too was gone. 

 Courtesy of Brett Sawyer

Courtesy of Brett Sawyer

On his menu, Sawyer lists the dish as “Raw Pork Tartare,” making it abundantly clear the meat is raw. "We have literature on trichinosis ready for anyone who asks, but no one really does," he said. Let me back up. Trichinosis is the parasitic disease long associated with the consumption of raw pork in the United States, and since the turn of the century, it has been mostly eradicated with reported cases in the single digits—none fatal—over the span of several years. The successful eradication is due to regulation and improvement of farming and industry practices. Listen, I get it. Trichinella is a worm; nobody wants to eat a worm. About a decade ago, the CDC noted less than 20 cases of trichinosis per year over a five-year study, most of which weren’t even traced back to pigs. (Maybe skip the walrus tartare tonight, you guys.) It’s fairly simple: don’t feed your pigs garbage or scrap meat, and voila! They’re worm free.

The consumption of other raw meats and tartares—beef, fish, lamb, venison—has been destigmatized among consumers since the 20th century, but the fear of trichinosis has prevented the same from happening with pork. Until now. According to the experts at the USDA, trichinosis has been relegated to more of a perception than a reality. As a result, raw pork has been popping up on menus across the country over the last several years, and it’s about damn time.

With today’s emphasis on transparency when it comes to the origins of food—for chefs and consumers alike—you’d be hard-pressed to find a chef like Sawyer who doesn’t know exactly where and how his ingredients are raised. Sawyer’s hogs, among other ingredients, are sourced from friend and butcher Adam Lambert of Ohio City Provisions, conveniently located just down the street from Sawyer’s storefront. Ohio City Provisions is owned by Trevor Clatterbuck, whose farm—Wholesome Valley Farm in Wilmot, Ohio—is the origin of the shop’s pasture-raised, vegetarian-fed bounty. Clatterbuck takes great care in raising everything on his farm, and Lambert takes the same initiative in the butchering, handling, and storing of the product for its future buyers. (For inquiring minds, there’s something called a HACCP in place at OCP, which is a food safety certification that involves quite a lot of paperwork.)

Sawyer buys what his friends at OCP butcher, typically three- to six-pounds of pork per week. He divides it into three-ounce portions, vacuum seals it and freezes what he won’t need for service that night. Nothing is more than three days old; everything is certifiably cleared for consumption. “We use the tenderloin, which has a light chew similar to beef tenderloin, but the flavor is undeniably pork-y,” he said. “It has less fat than say, a piece of shoulder or butt, so the flavor is slightly more mild.” He uses meat from Berkshire or Mangalitsa heritage hogs, which, for reference, are breeds like Napoleon and Snowball from Animal Farm, you know, like pig royalty but not evil and without the whole rebellion situation.

We finished our beers, downed an Underberg for digestion and asked one question to settle our bewildered brains: Why raw pork? The impetus behind Sawyer’s dish was simple: He wanted to see if he could get away with it. “We fully expected some backlash, but we didn’t get any,” he said. After a lot of research, and with pork from trusted, traceable origins and proper sanitization and handling (HAACP!), Sawyer not only got away with it, but he’s changing the way we view our fine swine.

The takeaway? Don’t listen to your friends and trusted loved ones, listen to me. If you spot raw pork on a menu, order it. And in case it wasn’t clear, don’t try this at home. Also, don’t tell my Jewish grandmother that I eat pork.