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Wednesday, March 4, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 16.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Behind the kitchen door with the Underground Food Collective
A lot more than pork goes into its Pre-Industrial Pig dinner
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The activity level was energized, short of frantic but definitely busy.
Credit:Kyle Nabilcy

An evening with the Underground Food Collective is an evening filled with dualities. There's the pig, raised with care and individual attention by Henry Morren of Morren Farms, and standing in stark contrast to The Way Things Usually Are of massive commercial hog operations, relatively poor diet, and more of an eye towards dollar signs than developing a flavor profile.

There's the crowd taking their seats in the dining hall of the Goodman Community Center. Most are foodies, drawn weeks in advance to the intricately seasonal menu like moths to a flame. Some, however, just happened to see the sign up on the door at Goodman, and thought it sounded tasty. There's also the Center itself. Now a clean, beautiful space of playground, family, and Ironworks Café, it was once a turning cog in the gears of the Second Industrial Revolution.

It should be no surprise that the Collective's operation is itself comprised of dual personalities. I joined them in the kitchen as they were just setting up on Saturday, March 7, and the atmosphere was similar to meeting in someone's home kitchen. The members of the UFC, Jonny and Ben Hunter and Kris Noren, were jocular and boisterous, laughing and teasing each other. Morren and Lee Davenport of Pamplemousse Preserves, the pastry chef for the evening -- both essential partners to the Collective -- were themselves more reserved and quiet.

When I arrived at Goodman, I was unsure of where to enter. Then I saw a tall man with a shock of light-blonde hair carrying a massive, antique-looking pumpkin; I knew this man to be Morren, and simply followed him in. The pumpkin would become part of one of the seven courses on the menu for the meal, and as I drifted about the kitchen, trying to stay out of the way, I saw more components pile onto the counter-tops.

There were small yellow onions, to be used in a jam with Meyer lemons. Celeriac, as big as softballs and dirt-fresh from the field, piled and ready to be braised with pork belly and pureed for a soup course. A bin of semi-charred wood and corn cobs would provide the smoke for a playful dish of smoked oyster mushrooms. A big batch of cocoa-colored dough destined to serve as the foundation for a delicious chocolate-caramel torte.

And the pig. Oh my, the pig. A gorgeous leg of one of the original Morren red wattles cured for two years and blessed with a deep red color and an immaculately rich and salty taste -- it would be paired with roasted golden beets and citrus fruits in something of a deconstruction of the usual prosciutto and melon. Out came a large bucket containing two wet-cured hams, soaking in a little ocean of garlic, bay, juniper berries, and coriander; these hams would be sliced and wrapped in a potato galette, earthy yet light.

I departed their company to let them work unpestered, and when I returned around 6 p.m., the atmosphere had changed completely. The kitchen crew had doubled, at least. The activity level was energized, short of frantic but definitely busy; no one was joking around much anymore. Only Noren's sonorous voice emerged from the kitchen, still jovial but peppered amidst the clatter of pans and plates. Meats were being chopped, chile peppers being placed delicately atop jars of an amazing pork liver pté, and massive sauté pans being stirred. Only the setting chocolate-caramel tortes were calm, smooth like mirror pools and dark as sin, still unflecked with sea salt.

And then, at about quarter after seven, the first course of frybread, pté, and onion jam arrived. In our minds, the conductor had tapped his baton, and the symphony could begin. All the activity of the kitchen continued on the other side of that door, but in the dining room our faces were the opposite -- ready, calm, rapturous before the beauty and delight of such a well-crafted meal.

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