Why would anyone drive three pigs' worth of pork more than one thousand miles to celebrate local food and the farm-to-table movement? Members of the Madison-based Underground Food Collective thought closely about that question when they presented a trio of meals celebrating the "Pre-Industrial Pig" last month in New York City.
These culinary celebrations featured eight courses centered around pork sourced from Red Wattles raised by Henry Morren and his family at Morren Fruit & Vegetable Farm in Orfordville, west of Janesville. This rare heritage breed of pig, a hardy and foraging-oriented variety with lean but flavorful meat, were pasture-raised, hormone- and antibiotic-free, amidst plenty of nuts and fruit from surrounding oak, hickory, sumac and apple trees. The marquee affair was a dinner presented by Slow Food NYC at the Astor Center in Manhattan, bookended by a pair of "underground supper club"-style meals at private homes in Brooklyn. The collective served a similar feast for Madison diners at the Goodman Community Center last November, which in turned followed a series of pig dinners the year before.
Three cars and a cargo van filled with coolers made the cross-country excursion to serve Wisconsin-grown eats to New York foodies. Collective members Jonny Hunter, Ben Hunter and Kris Noren were aided by quality control tech Kevin Walsh, cheesemaker Andy Hatch of Upland Cheeses, Mike Miller of Just Coffee, and Lee Davenport of Pamplemousse Preserves, along with many family members.
The Hunters and Noren worked with farmer Henry Morren to assemble the menu for the three meals. Along with pork, it included red corn polenta, Snug Haven Farm winter spinach, more veggies (carrots, sunchokes, and potatoes) purchased from New York farmers markets, sauerkraut from Kindy Kraut made by Dane County Farmers' Market vendor Andy Hanson, cheeses, and preserves and desserts prepared by Davenport. Beverages included the coffee, along with Death's Door vodka and Lake Louie Milk Stout.
Meanwhile, Slow Food USA staffer Cecily Upton, who met brothers Jonny and Ben during their travels as bike polo devotees, organized things in New York. What the collective found in the culinary capital was a hungry mob of friends and food writers ready to eat and critique. The first review was offered by Kathya Ethington on her Chocolateria blog while the crew was still out east. Less than a week later, though, came a write-up from Gourmet, describing the scene at one dinner as "magical." An appraisal and thanks from Upton followed a day later, along with another notice, this one by Winnie Yang, editor at Eating Well and host of the third dinner. The flurry of press was capped by another positive report from the New York Times. These reviews, as well as links to a series of photo galleries from the dinners, are collected in a summary and thanks from the collective.
But what about bringing Wisconsin pigs to New York for a local food celebration?
Along with noting their close relationships with both Morren and the pigs, Hunter also cited the bounty of Madison and its surrounding countryside in a comment on the Times report. "It was also important for us to highlight some of our favorite things from our community and our region," he wrote. "It wasn't about trying to say that something was better but rather showcase people from the area that we have worked with for the last few years."
Hunter explained more in an interview with The Daily Page, discussing the meals in New York and their reason for serving them.
The Daily Page: What do you think of the concept of the "underground supper club"?
Hunter: I think a lot of people who are professional cooks are interested in working in somebody's house, trying to recreate a restaurant feel while paring down the unnecessary elements. I think we are shooting for something a little bit more than that. We bring a large crew and set of equipment into a house, tables and everything, so it's a little more extravagant situation, and a little tighter, I think, than many other underground supper clubs. This may be one reason why we got so much attention.
How did you collaborate with Henry Morren for this series of pig dinners?
We developed the pig project a few years ago with him. Henry is like a partner. It's a collaboration. He came to us about personally raising a few pigs, and we thought, let's do something interesting with us. Ben did the research, found the heritage breed of pigs we wanted, and then Henry raised them. We helped out where we could. Two years ago we did the slaughter ourselves, and this year we did the processing.
Henry also grew the corn for the polenta, beans, and all sorts of other things for these dinners as well.
When we work with Henry, he is involved in the menu planning. He also does the wine pairing, and helps us prep. In fact, his sisters came out to New York and helped us prep too. Finally, he introduces the meals, and talks about why we decided to do this together.
How did the dinners go in New York?
Great. The first one is always really hared, particularly because we had never cooked the menu before. But it was relaxed. The second one had a lot of people, and it was definitely the most stressful. The third one was relaxed, and everything I wanted it to be.
How else did the three dinners differ?
The first dinner was put on a pretty close friend of ours, and the people there were mostly old friends and bike polo folks. A lot of Catacombs kids were there too.
The Manhattan dinner sold out instantaneously. It was very well publicized through Slow Foods NYC, and then the New York Times highlighted it as a thing to go to in its Dining section. The next day it was sold out.
There were definitely a lot of people we didn't know at that one, which had just under 100 seats. Though it was the most formal, we made people share through the serving dishes, which I think is a little different.
There were so many food writers at the third dinner, it was kind of ridiculous. I'm glad it was the last one, so we were able to rocket. I felt really good about everything coming out of the kitchen that night.
What were the easiest and most difficult elements of executing these dinners?
The hardest thing about them was that we basically had to set up an entire banquet hall in all of these places. We were loading in tons of equipment every night, and bringing in all of this food, in some cases carrying it up four flights of stairs. This takes a toll, so after the third dinner we were feeling pretty beat. Through all of he dinners, though, the cooking just came together, and it felt really tight once we had everything set up.
Were you expecting the intense interest from so many foodies and media outlets like Gourmet and the New York Times?
Absolutely, that was part of the reason why we went there. We wanted to build our name, and be involved in the discussion about a lot of this farm-to-table stuff. We had a window in which we could do something that's kind of exciting. It wasn't like we just went out there and didn't expect it, we knew who was going to be coming to the dinners.
What do you hope this attention will do for the Underground Food Collective?
We don't want to just be doing simple catering. We want to work on more exciting dinners like this, keep working with small producers, and keep on doing the supper clubs. We're hoping to maybe start butchering for some restaurants around town and work more with Henry on raising the pigs. I'm just hoping it opens some doors for us.
What was most surprising about your experience with these dinners?
I'm always surprised; I always have this feeling when I realize food is about to go out, there's always this nervous, jittery feeling in my stomach. When we're done cooking, it goes through my head. I was surprised by the general reaction to the dinners, selling all three of them out and having so much excitement about it, especially in a city like New York where there is so much access to high-quality food.
The Underground Food Collective is already looking ahead to more dinners featuring pork and other tasty farm products. Up first is their latest Pre-Industrial Pig dinner in Madison in collaboration with the Morren Fruit & Vegetable Farm, scheduled for Saturday, March 7 at a location revealed upon inquiry. Tickets are $60, and can be purchased online. Like the first local presentation last fall, and the trio of meals in New York this winter, this feast will feature multiple courses structured around Red Wattles provided by Morren, four in this case, the hogs once again billed for their former lives beneath sumac and apple trees.
More are on the way, both in Madison and beyond. "We're going to do more traveling," says Hunter. "We're definitely going back to New York. I've also heard from a bunch of people in other cities asking us to share our dinners there. Here in Madison, we're looking into a few spaces, and might start doing more supper club-style dinners on a regular basis."