If the reason behind the SlowPig tasting celebration was, in part, for "people to get excited about fat again and realize it won't kill you," as founder of the event, Chef Dan Fox of the Madison Club, put it in an email, it seems to have fulfilled its mission.
While the photo I shot of Chef Tory Miller's porchetta with 12-year-cheddar polenta and mushroom ragout looks like a pile of brown, it was one of the best plates of food I've ever tasted. The fat wasn't something you ate around, let's put it that way.
Organizers estimate about 250 general admission tickets were sold and all 50 VIP tickets sold out in advance for the event held Sunday, October 30 at the Madison Club. Doors opened at 5 p.m.; less than 15 minutes later, the second and third floors of club were crowded with would-be samplers seeking out the best dishes from four chefs/kitchens: Tory Miller of Graze, Francesco Mangano of Osteria Papavero, Justin Aprahamian of Sanford in Milwaukee, and Paul Zerkel of Roots, also of Milwaukee. Each had been given a local, sustainably-raised heritage breed pig to make five to seven dishes from.
Five mixologists were also vying for top punch to accompany said pork dishes. Two chefs were on the second floor, two were on the third floor. Interspersed were other various craft food purveyors like Fromagination, Underground Meats, Bolzano Artisan Meats, Willow Creek Pork, Vom Fass -- all of which made it a bit difficult to know where to steer.
Lines were immediate at the Graze booth, where Tory Miller oversaw the plating and serving of myriad pork dishes. Scoring one of each would have required advance planning. Once to the head of the line, samplers are obviously limited by the number of plates they can hold (two, probably, or juggled with a punch glass, one). But that's the way of a tasting event. You'll miss things.
Besides that first plate of porchetta, a most convincing argument for heritage pork, I had a dish featuring an odd gray something on radish salad. The radishes were great. The gray something turned out to be tongue confit. After sampling another Graze dish, pork schnitzel, I found the crowd in around the booth so thick, I headed upstairs. (By the time I returned, around 6:30 p.m., Graze was apparently mostly grazed over.)
On the third floor, Sanford was doing brisk business with a heritage pig corn dog and foie gras mustard, which were snapped up as soon as they emerged from the kitchen; I never did get one. Somewhat easier to nab was a small cup of head cheese pot au feu with horseradish mousse. These were, in fact, easy to nab. Even among 300-some pork enthusiasts, a corn dog is an easier sell than head cheese. Pot au feu may be a good way to be introduced to head cheese (terrine of pig head) as it's not easily visible and happily overshadowed by the shot of horseradish.
Osteria Papavero's menu concentrated more on charcuterie and salumi. "This is the single best paté I have ever tasted," a fellow perched near me at a small table announced to no one in particular. This was the very good finocchiona and truffle pork paté -- spicy, earthy and smooth at once. The sopressata was meltingly tender, paired with balsamic-braised cippolini. A pork belly confit, sunny-side-up quail egg and fried oyster dish was perfect.
Back downstairs, Roots served pork on a sunchoke puree and showed a sense of humor with a fig-pig jam and peanut butter sandwich. Good for a PBJ, but it didn't stand up against the more pork-centric items. Still, it's good to note that sometimes the humblest kitchen standbys can be improved by good ingredients.
There were more extremely skinny people there than you would think would come to an event based on eating pork.
The winner in the chef's contest -- weighted, according to Dan Fox, 70% to the people's choice vote and 30% to a panel of eight judges from the profession -- was Milwaukee's Sanford, which used a Swabian Hall pig (a breed originating from Germany)[Ed. note: This particular pig came from Iowa, a Swabian Hall pig "patterned after" the German breed, notes the breeder.] The winner of the punch competition was Ruben Mendez from L'Etoile, with a vodka cocktail he personally topped off with French cider -- "that makes the punch," he said.
Chef Fox will be organizing a similar event to take place in Milwaukee in early spring and "absolutely" plans a second Slow Pig for Madison in fall of 2012.