Brined pork chops with fennel
Cypriot Terracotta Pig Vessel (3rd-2nd Century BC)
Taking off in the dark, the plane window reveals many small lights, like flames in the night. This is only a small place, a small moment. There are only two objects, the night and the illuminating. Looking out the window again, approaching the runway, many small flames light the way.
Brined pork chops with fennel was the meal for the evening. Fennel, as noted here, supposedly encourages lactation in breastfeeding mothers. This meal was one of the final meals we would make in our kitchen and carry in a warm pan to the local NICU.
The recipe was simple and efficient. The chops rest in a combination of water, sugar, and fennel seeds to saturate the meat. A brine functions as a simple and elegant solution to the problem of dry meat. Anyone who has taken a bite of a home cooked pork chop knows how easily the meat within can become chewy and gray, each bite a laborious task asking more of the jaw and the saliva than it gives in return. The brine is a prayer against this, a preparing for a successful voyage.
The pork chop is a piece of loin from a pig, the area surrounding the long, sharp back section that houses the tenderloin cut. The chop, thick and sturdy, takes in the moisture that surrounds it without compromising any of its structural integrity or allowing the brine water to take anything from it in return.
The brined chops, hours later, are to be carefully lowered into a high heat cast iron pan filled with vegetable oil. After the initial sear, immediately transforming, the chops are removed from the pan. The chopped fennel bulbs simmer and become clear and soft in the now-fatty oil before the chops are returned to the pain and a final roasting in the oven cooks the meat through. The brine the chops were soaked in hours before will keep the meat from drying out against both the initial shock of heat and the lower ambient heat that finishes it.
Pork Butcher, Adriaen van Ostade (1610-1685)
Against the guidance being given to me, I dropped by hand, rather than gently lowering with the use of a fork, the first couple pork chops into the vegetable oil—a high flash point oil that, by this time, was giving off clear clouds of smoke. The sudden meeting of the pig meat and the hot oil caused an eruption, a miniature volcano of smoke and errant oil droplets. Some of this shrapnel found my arm, foolishly hovering above the pan, and landed across the underside of my forearm, elbow, and upper arm.
An immediate constellation of burn marks bloomed across. This was a more severe version of an event that happens often when I—a clumsy person who sacrifices caution and safeguards in a desire to intervene directly, to expedite, to work unencumbered—attempt to cook or bake something. In these events, I am brought into the act of food making, touched by force of heat that facilitates and catalyzes the creation. I’m consistently reminded of what’s required in this alchemic process.
The pork chops—covered in fennel needles and resting on a bed of softened fennel bulbs, imbued with the soft touch of anise—will soon be gone. The burn will linger a little longer.
The average hog, birthed and raised to be consumed by people, bears a lot of physical similarities to the animal that that rules over and devours it. Many of its internal organs and the arrangement of those organs are mirrored in people. The blood vessels the systems that weave them through the body, are similar to humans. The muscle construction, too. The loin area of back meat and muscle in a pig is anatomically nearly the same as a human.
I was told that, as my grandfather battled lung cancer in the 90s, he had to have his esophagus removed, and that part of it was reconstructed with the use of a pig’s esophagus. After this, he developed a fondness for orange juice.
I’ve also been told by older relatives about a farmer who ran a pig farm. As he poured slop into the feeding troughs for his hogs, in the darkness of the morning, he bent his body too far over the barrier and fell into the trough himself, devoured by his livestock.
Paysage Metaphysique, Jean Dubuffet (1952)
Staring at Jean Dubuffet’s Paysage Metaphysique is, like many paintings, foremost an attempt to understand a landscape. This landscape happens to be abstract, but it is also textural, physical, immediate.
The eye is drawn upwards toward the northern edge of the painting. Here, peninsular outcroppings of the dense, un-uniform red—a red the color of the burn on my arm—push outwards into the lesser gray space.
I find the points where the round burn marks on my arm intersect with my unharmed skin the most fascinating. Here is the moment of departure, the place where change appears at its most binary. The interior of the burned spots, like the interior of the red space in Paysage Metaphysique, is made up of randomly intersecting swaths of red—maroon, crimson, rust. It challenges the eye, muddles perception. In the place where the wound meets the non-wound, the clearest sense of a border between before and the after, the former and the now, is formed.
Raising pigs for slaughter—the only purpose pigs are housed in large numbers—has a long history and entrenched present in the state of Iowa. So much corn and soybean is produced in the state that it makes it a natural location in which to house the livestock that will be engorged on a diet culled directly from those staples. Iowa is still the largest producer of pork in the United States. As of September of this year, there are 75.5 million pigs in the country. 23.6 million of them are in Iowa.
A 2003 report noted that, though the number of hog farms has dropped drastically since the middle of the 20th century, the number of hogs raised in the state increases exponentially in confinement environments, as opposed to sustainable family farms.
The effects of this are material. Even in Des Moines—the relative metropolitan heart of the state—a smell that’s quite similar to dog food but uncannily different, is often reported in the downtown and surrounding areas, depending on the wind and other weather conditions.
This smell is, quite literally, the smell of death. It emanates from a rendering plant on the east side of the city where livestock that have died before becoming commercially viable as “meat” are taken. At the rendering plant, these discarded animals are essentially liquidated and made into, among other things, feed for other animals.
In northwestern Iowa, near the Minnesota border, a man recently sued the city of Sibley for attempting legal action against him for creating a website where he complained about the smell of “rancid dog food” in the town.
In eastern Iowa, where the hog confinement facilities have marked their territory, a driver passing through the country with their windows down will experience the fullness of the sweetly rancid manure smell that can travel for miles out from its point of origin.
Pigs, Franz Marc (1912)
Weeks later, the constellation of burn marks on my right arm has faded. A faint circle where the largest burn was can still be seen, flickering and faint. It’s directly to the right of another fading burn mark, received from a dutch oven in a º500 oven during a years-ago bread making.
The burns, along with other marks, constitute the textural composition of the surface of my body, subtle changes that have to be known already in order to be named. Many of them have no event attached to them, the cause forgotten or unnoticed.
This is the composition of the somewhat fixed but always changing body, the physical embodiment of the identity that relentlessly changes. Every scoring mark made to mark the way, to indicate the change that is occurring, inevitably washes away.
As the return flight began its descent into Charlotte, where the connecting flight waited, the sky was on fire. The red of the sunset was the color that lives in the bowels of fire, not at its edges. A red the color of a fresh wound, the color you would find in a human body torn open. The population of the plane craned their necks to the westerly aisle windows to see it. The cold expanse of night, blue and dark, pushed down on the ribbon of flame as it faded beyond the horizon.