Where the Pigs Have No Name

How one underground supper-club dinner put food geeks back in touch with reality.
supper club

Last week I ate dinner with my friend Francis. He invited me to a supper club of sorts, this one run by a Wisconsin-based group called the Underground Food Collective. The experience was similar to many of the underground supper clubs that have been thriving in cities across the country. The schtick, this time, was enticing. The Underground Food Collective had a pig raised just for this meal. It was a heritage breed, called the Red Waddle, and it had been grown, slaughtered, and cooked for this very event. They were calling it The Pre-Industrial Pig Dinner. That’s charming, so we went.

The Underground Food Collective was doing a very nice job cooking, and their ingredients were stellar. The pig farmer, Henry Morren, was there with his wife and young son. The cheese maker was there too. That aside, this dinner was just like many New York foodie dinners: The person sitting to my left kept a food blog, and the person to my right was a food writer for a magazine. The room was full of bloggers and food dorks. Most of us already knew, or knew of, each other. And this event was blogged about all over the foodiesphere immediately.

It was all starting to feel very bourgeois. While the pig farmer was trying his best to explain to New York City bloggers just why his pork was so good (and it was), he was interrupted by one food dork who felt the need to tell the rest of the room where they could find similar pigs raised close to home. A second started spouting off fat-to-meat ratios for the breed in question. It was getting embarrassing.

But then something magical happened.

A third foodie raised her hand to say that she’d heard the farmer’s pigs all have names. What was the name of this pig, she wanted to know?

The farmer walked to the middle of the room and glanced over his shoulder in the direction of his son, who was playing on the couch in the adjoining room. He lowered the volume of his voice by half, and in a tone that was mixed with caution, pride, and loss he told us that yes, his pigs all have names; his son names each one. And while the boy knows that the pigs are for food, he just isn’t ready to deal with the idea of far-removed non-Morrens eating his buddy.

Some of the bloggers chuckled, not knowing exactly how to react to what the farmer had said. We were eating a member of his family. This was an intimacy beyond an animal that had been raised for a dinner. This boy and this pig, they had been friends.

It might seem like a bit of a cliché, or even a marketing gimmick, to hear that a farmer names his animals. We’ve heard of one chicken farmer who has named thousands of chickens Rosie (likely because that way it’s much easier to include a name on the label), but this was different. Mr. Morren’s sincerity and his loving, fatherly instinct to protect his young son’s connection to food really hit home.

The tone of the room changed instantly. Up to that point, the night’s conversation had focused largely on the careers of the bloggers, but we began talking about totally different things. The blogger to my left muttered something about how far removed she’d been feeling from her meals lately. The writer to my right and I started talking about our siblings and families. We talked about relationships and love, of loves lost and loves gained.

With his low-toned words, Henry Morren had given us something far greater than his delicious pig. He had reminded us, lovers of food, why we had fallen so hard and what we were really in love with: not food, but all that food can mean—connection, nourishment, family, intimacy, friendship, sharing, and love itself.

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