When I was child, my mother saw a tomato roll off a supermarket shelf and fall five feet to the floor, landing unscathed. She calculated that the speed of the impact surpassed the auto-industry standard for car bumpers; such was the state of American agriculture (and the auto industry) in the 1970s. I think you can still get indestructible tomatoes (the ones in the plastic three-packs), but no one would prefer them to a garden or farm tomato. The difference in taste is clear.
Although lots of people grow their own garden vegetables these days, very few raise livestock. This led me to wonder how meat from animals raised by Maine farmers compares to the supermarket, industrial-ag variety. To find out, I went to the Portland Farmers’ Market for bone-in pork chops.
Why pork chops? Well, for starters, they are a common cut (I didn’t want to be comparing a T-bone to a tri-tip). And though pork is substantially cheaper than beef, I prefer the taste.
There were three farms selling pork chops at the market that day: Middle Intervale Farm, in Bethel ($8.75/lb.); Balfour Farm, a dairy operation in Pittsfield ($9/lb.); and Olde Mill Farm, in Brownfield ($8.50/lb.). Each package was sold frozen and contained two chops.
For comparison, I got a fresh chop from my neighborhood butchers at Fresh Approach, in Portland’s West End ($4/lb.); another from Hoglund’s Countryside Butchers, in Scarborough ($3/lb.); and a package of chops from Shaw’s (on sale for $4.50/lb.).
I couldn’t discern much difference among the raw meat. The Middle Intervale chop was the thickest, the two butcher-shop chops looked very much alike, and the Shaw’s chop was the thinnest. Once the frozen ones were defrosted (or dethawed, as we say in my house), each chop was dusted with salt and pepper and left to sit for 20 minutes.
My method of cooking steaks or chops is to heat a (in this case, very large) cast-iron pan on a high rack in the oven at 550 degrees (or hotter, if your oven has a “Clean” setting). When the oven gets to temperature, switch to broil and add the meat. This method utilizes the three kinds of heat: heat transferred by conduction (the heat from the pan that sears the bottom), convection (the heat inside the oven), and radiation (grill action from the broiler that chars the top). If done successfully, the meat will not need to be turned. It’s done when it no longer sticks to the pan.
Each chop was cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees [OK, I’m lying here; the temps varied from 145 to 175, but they all came out plausibly “medium”] and rested for five minutes before sampling. We served the pork with scalloped potatoes that my partner Caroline made, some braised cabbage, and Mott’s unsweetened applesauce.
And the winner is: the scalloped potatoes. Because, honestly, neither of us could tell any difference from one pork chop to another. Caroline did express a slight preference for the thin Shaw’s chop, probably because it was cooked closer to well-done and had a relatively higher proportion of salt and pepper.
Maybe we should have compared beef? Or perhaps the inconclusive result is due to our being low-tasters? Who knows? I tried so hard to taste a difference that I probably ate more than three chops, which gave me a stomach ache.
Naturally, one can assume the local farm chops are more, um, natural. If you consider how repulsive industrial hog operations are while chewing one of their products, it’s easy to think a wild-foraging forest pig would taste much better (Balfour Farms describes their pigs’ diet as the byproducts of the farm’s cheese-making operation and the underbrush of the woods nearby).
There are plenty of other sound justifications for paying a premium for locally produced pork. But I like buying meat from the butcher, because I can order the exact quantity I want (one chop, in this case) and they don’t need to be dethawed. Plus, I prefer to buy meat on an as-needed basis and save my freezer space for Chinese dumplings and bread from the day-old store.
When it comes to pork chops, it seems beauty rests in the hands of the chef and in the mind of the beholder.