This little piggy went to the market, this little piggy stayed home … and this little piggy got chronic diarrhea and died. That’s no nursery rhyme. It’s what has happened to five million piglets since April of 2013 when the nearly one-hundred-percent fatal Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea Virus (PEDv) first started reeking havoc on hog farms in the U.S. Just since January, 1.3 million piglets in 27 states have succumbed to the disease. At least one plant in North Carolina has halted hog slaughter temporarily because of low supply. With pork prices already on their way up, the depressed supply that’s coming might make folks start considering turkey bacon.
Okay, that going a bit far, but bacon has already seen a hike over the last four years from $3.63 to $5.46 per pound, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Estimates show that by this summer that price could raise anywhere from an additional ten to 25 percent. That’s one expensive bacon cheeseburger.
The same goes for the raw product that becomes bacon – pork belly. This might be good news to New York food critics who have complained of pork belly “trend fatigue” for the past couple of years. I witnessed the popularity of this cut in New York where nearly every barbecue joint in the five boroughs features smoked pork belly on the menu, but it hasn’t really caught on here in Texas. For a while pork belly was featured regularly as a special at Pecan Lodge in Dallas, but they haven’t served it in months. A heavily spiced version from last year has fallen from the Granary’s menu in San Antonio. Every once in a while you can find pork belly ground into sausage at Micklethwait Craft Meats in Austin, and it was also in Austin where I had one of my finest bites of belly. John Lewis of la Barbecue served confit pork belly so tender that it melted in direct sunlight. Alas it was only around for one week, but the memory lingers.
There is one well executed version still available in Austin: the smoked pork belly at Freedmen’s Bar has a supple texture with a powerful rub. Its layers are a balance between juicy pork and silky fat – exactly what good pork belly is meant to be. You can’t even get it there every day, though. It makes it on the specials board about five days per week according to pitmaster Evan LeRoy. Some of those smoked bellies turn into house-made bacon for their German potatoes.
If you’re unaware of what exactly a whole pork belly looks like, you’re not alone. Most of us are used to seeing it already cured, sliced, and packaged as bacon. A whole belly is almost as big as a brisket, weighing in at around ten or eleven pounds, and can be purchased trimmed and skinned from most butchers.
Even barbecue champions that constantly cook pork can get confused. Two years ago on an episode of BBQ Pitmasters, Johnny Trigg, the king of competition pork ribs, was given a whole bone-in pork belly to cook. He was dumbfounded.
Unlike the pork butt that comes from the shoulder, the belly comes from right where you think it should. Above the belly on the hog is the pork loin. When you remove the ribs from the loin, you get a rack of baby back ribs. When you remove the ribs from the belly, you’ve got pork spare ribs. The whole belly is NAMP Item #408, which is a boneless belly. Leaving the bones in is rare (there isn’t even a NAMP Item number for it), but there’s one place in Texas where you can find it served that way.
Killen’s Barbecue in Pearland has had the bone-in belly, sometimes referred to as “bacon ribs” on the menu since he opened his permanent location last month. “It sells out first or second every day” said owner and pitmaster Ronnie Killen. I tried a few bones three weeks ago, and I think Killen is on to something, just don’t plan on ordering a half rack. Just one rib’s worth of belly (see top photo) felt higher on the indulgence scale than one of Killen’s massive beef short ribs. Eat two and your stomach might put you into a meat time out.
— Ronnie Killen (@killensbbq) December 14, 2013
The real challenge when cooking with such a fatty cut of meat is to cook it long enough to render out some of the fat without overcooking or drying it out. Overseasoning call also be an issue with all of that surface area. The way I’ve overcome that at home is to roll the belly and tie it like pancetta. That gives you a more even thickness from end to end. Also, less surface area keeps the edges from drying out as easily, and allows you to really rub on the the seasoning.
Like beef short ribs before it, I thought that pork belly would become the next new item embraced within Texas barbecue joints, and I thought 2014 would be the year. With these forthcoming price hikes, I don’t see the popularity growing anytime soon. We’ll have a better estimate of the affect that PEDv has had on pork supplies when the USDA releases their quarterly hog report on March 28th. News that’s worse than expected could send the pork market into a tizzy. That leaves at least a good week to pig out on pork belly before it gets out of reach, but in Texas, unless you’re in Austin or Pearland, you’ll just have to smoke it yourself.