The arrival of a freshly-slaughtered South Carolina hog incites a bit of ceremony at High Cotton. Chef Anthony Gray and Sous Chef Michael Wutz go out to the street and greet Upstate farmer Steve Ellis when he pulls up in his gold minivan. Together they unload the huge, white coolers that contain 200 pounds of pig.
"My son calls these coolers caskets," laughs Ellis. "I guess we're the pallbearers."
It's easy to draw such an analogy and imagine that this just might be a vegetarian's worst nightmare, but truthfully these men hold the pig in the highest regard. Ellis works with other members of the Upstate Farmers Alliance to raise the very best heritage pork. This means that they find historic breeds (like this Tamworth) that nearly died out during "the other white meat" campaign, and they raise them in pastures where they can roam and forage (as opposed to the tight confines of a concrete feed lot).
Gray and other local chefs take this pork reverence one step further as they use every part of the pig in their restaurants. Those who doubt the pair's porcine respect should watch Gray and Wutz butcher the animal. Ellis brings in the pig already halved and with the head and offal (innards) packaged separately, but the rest is left up to the chefs.
Gray and Wutz take nothing but small paring knives and go to work. They clearly understand every muscle in the pig as they deftly remove legs, ribs, and more — taking the animal down to "primal cuts" in about 20 minutes.
Gray says that the first time it took nearly two hours, but now they work with the finesse of surgeons. Their primary concern is keeping the meat cold and consequently moving with speed.
Luckily, butchering comes naturally to Gray, who grew up hunting and fishing in Georgia. He remembers his father showing him how to break down deer at an early age. This cultivated a love of the land and its bounty that eventually brought him to Charleston for culinary school. Over the past 10 years, he's worked his way from dishwasher to executive chef, and he has developed a true appreciation for raw ingredients.
Consequently, every part of the pig represents a different culinary purpose to Gray. Obviously, the bone-in pork chops will be an easy sell, and the 14-ounce porterhouses will be a delicacy not often seen. (A porterhouse consists of a T-bone steak with the tenderloin still attached; most purveyors butcher this into separate cuts.) Gray admits that the porterhouse is his favorite; yet clearly his passion for the pig in its entirety runs deep.
He speaks of plans for the other cuts with subtle excitement. The rear legs will become cured hams that will be served as a sort of South Carolina prosciutto on their charcuterie plate. The front legs (or shoulders) will become pulled pork for their barbecue plate served at lunch and brunch. The belly and breast will become house-cured bacon and fatback for greens. The kidneys and other offal will become pâtés, and the head will be split and braised to make "head cheese," a terrine of sorts. Gray says a perfect lunch would be a slice of head cheese served over dandelion greens with sherry vinaigrette.
The list of High Cotton's pork products could go on and on, even to the pastry station where they tested out a lard crust for the apple pies. However, Gray knows where to draw the line. He says that a lot of people would be disturbed by this idea, and they don't plan on using lard in desserts anytime soon. But he also admits the crust came out beautifully — light and flaky.
Gray sees the most important aspect of this entire process as reviving old world cookery. He is quick to point out that before modern times people used all of these charcuterie techniques to utilize every bit of valuable meat and preserve it. He loves this link to the past and credits much of this connection to his mentor Jason Scholz (previously chef at High Cotton in Charleston, currently chef at High Cotton in Greenville). In fact, Scholz's move to Greenville put them in better contact with Upstate farmers like Ellis.
Gray sees this genuine tie to the land as invaluable in today's age when the Food Network glamorizes the restaurant world. "This is real life and real people," says Gray. His words ring true as Ellis packs up his empty coolers and prepares for a long drive back to the farm.