SAVING A NEARLY EXTINCT SPECIES
Not far removed from the immigrant food artisans like Ron Marks and Tasia Malakasis are the Accidental Producers, like Nick Pihakis. Pihakis is the CEO of Jim 'N Nick's, a Birmingham-based chain of barbecue restaurants that, with 29 outlets in seven states, sells four million pounds of slow-smoked pork a year. Pork in that volume has to be sourced from huge producers, but Pihakis is part of a brotherhood of chefs and restaurateurs interested in improving the quality and lifestyles of the region's hogs, which they say were made too lean and bland by factory farming.
In 2005, he toured Alabama and Mississippi with former Niman Ranch owner Bill Niman, with the simple idea of finding small producers to supply him with meat. He found almost none. What to do?
Today, an Alabama government grant later, Pihakis has bought a plant formerly devoted to emu processing and is approaching farmers to raise a hog breed of his own devising; he's been playing around with a Mangalitsa-Berkshire cross that produces delicious meat (a rib roast I served with a wild cherry sauce was one of the best pieces of pork I've ever eaten). The business plan he presents to farmers promises $70,000 net income per year (same as the Belle Chèvre proposition) if they sign on to the Pihakis method. Signing on means raising the pigs according to a protocol: "We're looking for farms that raise pigs outdoors, pigs that get fed properly and are behaving properly" (i.e., pigs with a slow-food stamp of approval). Local pigs, living piggy lives.
Consider this possibility, then, if Pihakis were to succeed on a five-year plan that is really just getting started this fall: A nearly extinct breed of small-production hog farmer returns in sufficient numbers that Pihakis can get enough pork to supply his mass-market restaurants. Problem is, mass-market customers are extremely leery of price jumps. To raise prices even a bit, Pihakis needs a story that really appeals.
"My goal is to tell the story that these are Alabama-raised hogs: raised, processed, and eaten in Alabama. There's pride in that. Their feelings [his customers, he means] get shaky when you start to talk about the political side—humanely, ethically raised animals. People just want food that tastes good."
Take pride in local: If Pihakis is right, a slow-food tenet can be sold well outside of the natural downtown habitat of the well-to-do foodie.
Further down the artisanal road, we find the Regional Innovator. Exhibit A is Bill Walton, a former Massachusetts oyster farmer who joined the Auburn University Shellfish Laboratory in Dauphin Island, south of Mobile, on Alabama's narrow wedge of Gulf shoreline. Walton had seen farmed oysters from small, local producers located far from the Gulf command premium prices in New Orleans restaurants. These were promoted not by species but by origin: Fanny Bay, Rappahannok River. Just as wine has its terroir (local flavor derived from local soils), oysters, Walton says, have their "meroir," from nutrients peculiar to local waters.
Gulf oysters are good but don't command Botticelli prices. The problem, Walton says, is that Gulf waters, teeming with life, produce wild oysters whose shells tend to be blemished. Walton proposed a nifty farming technique in which oysters live in basket contraptions, suspended in water above the ocean floor, which are periodically yanked into sun and air to kill freeloaders such as barnacles, leaving the mollusks pristine. The first of these oysters, from Point aux Pins, have been harvested, and they are as plump and delicious and pretty, Walton insists, as any from American waters. Here's the hopeful subtext: "We want to make it possible for people to stay here and earn a living. The teenage son or daughter of a shrimper or oysterer, facing hurricanes and regulation, has to ask if there's enough reason to stay here." Premium pricing can provide that reason, extending the craft-food formula to the life aquatic.