by Mike Sula
So what does mulefoot taste like and where can you get some, you ask? Well it's wonderful, but it ain't easy to come by. Of the breeders I spoke with over the last few months, most seemed to have plumb sold out or consumed their own stash and didn't expect to finish any more pigs for slaughter for quite a while. Then I spoke to Tommy Clair of Crystal Creek Farm in Ash Grove, Missouri. Clair, who owns a mulefoot boar and three sows, is perhaps the most enthusiastic booster of mulefoot meat I've come across--his family doesn't eat any other pigs. "It's got a lot more marbling in it," he says. "The hams and the shoulders are so much redder and better tasting." His only criticism is that the breed grows a rather small loin, which makes for poorly pork chops. That's because in the mulefoot's heyday consumers were more interested in bacon, ham, and lard, which the breed produces extremely well.
A few weeks back Mr. Clair was good enough to ship up four and half pounds of assorted mulefoot cuts in dry ice. The pig had been fed on a great deal of grain, said Mr. Clair, partly due to drought in his area. Now his pigs are on pasture, which he prefers. "Now its so green we can't even find them," he says. I received one pound of sausage, one pound, six ounces of pork chops, one pound cured ham steaks, 12 ounces of bacon, and four ounces of the intriguing "hillbilly ends" which are cured pieces of shoulder, like bacon--only leaner. "That's the first thing that goes," says Clair.
I popped into the Jewelz and my neighborhood Cermak Produce for a comparable selection of concentration camp pork (excepting the hillbilly ends), and assembled a distinguished panel of tasters that included Slow Food Chicago's Joel Smith, The Land Connection executive director Terra Brockman, LTH Forum founder Gary Wiviott, the Food Chain's own Bayne, and Windy City Rollers cofounder Elizabeth Gomez, who pulled double duty as photographer. Now, to be honest the attitudes of this august group tend to skew toward fresh, organic, artisanally produced foodstuffs so I did my best to set up a blind tasting in an attempt to eliminate the appearance of bias. The pork was cooked unseasoned, side by side in two Lodge cast iron skillets (see pics below).
Mulefoot sausage vs. Odom's Tennessee Pride Mild Country Sausage: Visually this was a challenging comparison. Tommy Clair's sausage was lighter in color than the commercial brand, which appeared to be more heavily seasoned and perhaps slightly more coarsely ground. The panel had little idea which was which until the tasting. Most agreed that the mulefoot had a more apparent "greasiness" (not a criticism), which was odd since the Odom's rendered more liquid during the cooking. Terra Brockman attributed this to added liquid in the commercial product. Joel Smith said the Odom's had a familiar taste, like something you'd get at any greasy spoon. We generally agreed that the "off" flavor probably had little to do with pork and more to do with additives, something that may not be objectionable if it's all you know. The mulefoot in contrast had a clean, unadulterated flavor, observed Wiviott, identifiable by what it didn't taste like rather than what it did.
Four mulefoot pork chops vs. two Jewel center cut pork cops: Chops showed the starkest visual difference. The mulefoot chops were thin and a bit gnarly looking, the loin itself rather small and oblong shaped and attached to a very thick rind of fat. Mr. Clair warned me about tiny chops. The two Jewel pork chops had more meat on them, very little fat, and almost no marbling. The mulefoot chops developed a nice caramelized crust while the Jewel chops cooked up unappealingly gray. Both were a little dry, which I'll take the blame for--as I probably overcooked them--but again the mulefoot won out, having a pretty distinct clean flavor, nice caramelization, and again that gorgeous, luscious fat.
Mulefoot ham steak vs. Cook's Hickory Smoked Premium Lean Bone-in Steak Ham and Water Product: Nowhere was the difference more pronounced than in the ham steaks. I'll admit that the LP-size Cook's ham, produced by agribusiness giant Con-Agra of Omaha, Nebraska, is a product I buy with some frequency at my neighborhood Cermak, mainly for its convenience. But I never realized just how awful it really was until I ate it next to a mulefoot steak. In the pan the Cook's steak exuded a tremendous amount of liquid that took on at one point an unsavory looking grayish color. It refused to crisp up. Tellingly the label states "25% of weight is added ingredients." Next to the chewy, dark, rosy mulefoot meat it tasted like a foam rubber mat after a high school wrestling match.
Mulefoot bacon vs. Oscar Mayer thick cut bacon: Battle Bacon, the final, and in my view, most important test, pitted the fatty, gnarly mulefoot strips against a one pound package of uniformly striated commercial stuff. The mulefoot bacon had different fat compositions evidenced in different colored streaks. The commercial bacon had a more uniform appearance, more lean and somewhat slimy out of the package. During cooking the Oscar Mayer bacon took on crispy, almost burnt edges, while the mulefoot might have improved with a little longer cooking time--once again the difference between fat and lean. "The bacon triggered a memory of boyhood breakfasts," said Wiviott.
A few weeks later Smith, who prefers the taste of other naturally raised cross breeds he's tried, sent me some more impressions, which I think sum up our overall feelings: "My memory of the mulefoot taste was that it was very earthy, in a way that differentiated it from other conscientiously raised 'real' breeds. Most of the cuts had a nice unctuous greasiness that always gave away the mulefoot identity."
I'm guessing that's about all the the mulefoot we're going to taste until its time to eat our own pig. Until then we'll just watch how it gets there.