“That pork knocked me down,” Mitchell recalls. “It tasted like the barbecue I remember from the tobacco days: juicy and full of flavor. I knew that was the pork my grandfather ate all his life. I knew that was the old-fashioned pork we lost when near about everybody went industrial.”
Like many a craftsman at the top of his game, Mitchell had come to believe that he owed his success to technique, to an accumulation of knowledge stored in his head and executed by his hands. That first taste of pastured pork led him to ponder the possibilities: How much better could my barbecue be if I cooked these hogs every day? If I cooked these hogs every day, would my customers appreciate the difference? And, if they did, would they be willing to pay the price?
Mitchell didn’t have the resources to put that pork on his menu. He needed a network of farmers to guarantee a steady supply. He needed a partner who could prove to a skeptical public that what his palate told him was true. North Carolina A&T State University, in Greensboro, the historically black college that birthed the sit-in movement, was willing. And in January of this year, Mitchell signed a development and marketing deal with their School of Agriculture.
“The idea is that A&T provides the science,” says Mitchell. “They work on what breeds are best for barbecue, which ones give us the right amount of fat. We brand that as Pitmaster pork. And we work together on what feed results in the best-tasting pork. Based on those factors, we choose a pig and a feed and a protocol for raising it. But science only gets you so far. My palate tells me when we get it right.”
The potential for the partnership is great. The appeal is as much moral as it is sensory, and the consumers of North Carolina may well prove to be the ideal targets. Aware of the massive waste-lagoon spills of the ’90s—the ones that gushed from factory hog farms, befouling rivers and threatening the water supply—and attuned to the plight of small farmers who refuse to succumb to the false allure of large-scale contract farming, they constitute an informed class of eater.
Ed Mitchell has grand plans: He envisions a chain of Pitmaster Barbecue Markets. His crew will mentor a new generation of pitmasters, men and women with pockets deep enough to buy into Mitchell’s franchise system. In addition to the takeaway markets, Mitchell also envisions a collection of Pitmaster Barbecue Restaurant and Lounges—each with a point-and-scarf pig-picking bar as its focus.
In the meantime, Mitchell is recruiting farmers. He begins with four, none of whom keep their animals in confinement pens. All have pledged to ban growth hormones and antibiotics. And all will feed their Berkshires and Durocs and various crossbreeds a natural diet of locally raised crops such as barley, sweet potatoes, and peanuts. But that’s about as specific as Mitchell will get; the Pitmaster brand of pork he plans to develop with A&T remains, for now, a dream.
Read between the lines and you’ll realize that the odds are against Ed Mitchell. On paper, his resources are meager. As this magazine goes to press, he’s battling both a loan foreclosure and accusations of tax evasion (Mitchell says that he is innocent) while exploring expansion plans with venture capitalists. And he’s been known to flirt with the idea of cooking confinement-raised hogs again, a scenario that a large-scale farmer from Wilson briefly convinced him was the sure path to economic stability.
But it would be foolhardy to count Mitchell out, for he travels the state like a circuit rider, forging coalitions, recruiting investors, and winning converts. As he comes to terms with the ills of the reigning system of hog farming, his righteous indignation builds. This past winter, Mitchell visited his first confinement facility. He exited with tears in his eyes, though it was unclear to his companions whether he was crying from the high stench of hog urine or the realization that, by dint of his chosen career, he bore the burden of change.
Almost anyone can study the hog industry and cite a gruesome litany of statistics. And many are the chefs who, for reasons both savory and smug, feature pastured pork on their $25-an-entrée menus. But Ed Mitchell’s vision is both subversive and sublime: His model is one in which access to the kind of pork his grandfather knew is not restricted to white-tablecloth consumers. Ed Mitchell imagines a day when Mary and Nelson James will take seats at his table, order three-buck sandwiches, and savor what they, brothers and sisters in bond, have wrought.