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Newman FarmsBerkshire hogs, a breed almost three hundred years old, roam freely on the Newman farm near Myrtle on the Missouri and Arkansas border.
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Newman FarmsChris Newman and Chef Reny prepare the pork for the dinner. About forty guests attended the Newman Farm tour and dinner that featured the fruits of their labor.
“Hello, I’m Reny Alfonso, and I’m a porkaholic.” We were standing in the receding heat of an early summer night deep in the Ozarks, sipping Budweisers and offering phony confessions. An IT pro from St. Louis agreed, “I, too, am a porkaholic.”
Around the group we went with the introductions: farmers, chefs, IT pros, beekeepers, restaurant consultants, and the hopelessly food-obsessed. We’d spent the day touring Mark and Rita Newman’s 220-acre hog farm, and it was almost time for the main event—a whole, roasted hog.
It might seem strange that normal, gainfully employed adults would drive hours to spend a day ogling farm animals and then feast on them while their kin frolic nearby. But these were not your average pigs, and we were not on your average farm. Mark and Rita own and operate Newman Farm, a hog operation in southern Missouri almost on the Missouri and Arkansas border. The nearest town is Myrtle. The nearest city is Thayer. The pigs are Berkshires, a heritage breed that dates back nearly two centuries in the United States and is renowned worldwide for its superior flavor.
“We think we have the best pork in America,” Mark announced earlier to the assembled chefs and food-nuts, there to see firsthand why the Newman’s free-range pork is in such demand. The high-quality meat is due partly to the breed of hog itself and also to the methods—an pains—the Newmans take in raising their animals. The pigs are raised entirely outdoors, so they forage, roam, and generally do things pigs are supposed to do. On an extensive walking tour, we were introduced to the Newmans’ elaborate system of pastures, farrowing pens, and fields.
The takeaway is richer, more generously marbled pork than the conventional, other-white-meat variety. If you’re thinking “pork is pork,” it might be helpful to take a look at who’s buying Mark’s pigs; 60 percent of the animals end up on the menus of New York City’s best restaurants. Restaurateur, host of the Food Network’s Molto Mario, and überchef Mario Batali was an early convert. Manhattan hot spots like Bar Boulud, Lupa, and Momofuku Ssam not only serve the Newmans’ products, they often give them prime billing on the menu. “BBQ Rib Sandwich (Newman’s Farm, Mo.)” brags the menu at Momofuku. Mark claims his pork is on the menus of eighty-nine out of the one hundred best restaurants in Manhattan; the rest of the nation—Seattle and San Francisco specifically—is catching on to Newman Farm, with the Midwest coming around as well, he says.
Mark is the enthusiastic front man for this operation, and his farm is truly a family affair. When you call to order some pork, Rita will answer the phone. The couple’s sons, Chris and David, lead various parts of the farm tour. David, a doctor of muscular biology, guided an afternoon session on breaking down a freshly slaughtered hog into the cuts you’d recognize at the supermarket. “Nose to tail eating is big right now,” he says, explaining the newfound affinity Americans have found for pork beyond chops and bacon.
“If I could find a way to grow a six-footed hog I would,” Mark chimes in about pigs’ feet. “We can’t produce enough trotters to keep up with demand.” The chefs nod and offer personal perspectives of the emerging trend: pig-ear salad, braised cheeks, slow-cooked head. The scene became a kind of vegetarian horror show, but it just made us hungrier. Meanwhile, Mark and Rita’s daughters, Susan and Courtney, and Chris and David’s wives help Rita prepare dinner: rolls from scratch, salad from the garden, and grilled corn on the cob. Reny, the porkaholic, mans the La Caja China whole-pork roasting box that smokes lazily by the house.
A number of the chefs in our impromptu confessional are from Memphis. Reny is one of them. Newman Farm is the only pork he serves at Chez Phillipe in Memphis’s historic Peabody Hotel. Back in Missouri, we’ve always loved our pigs. The early settlers who came this way from the east and south almost always brought pigs with them. And why wouldn’t they? They’re hardy, easy to raise, and almost entirely edible. Hogs were butchered in the fall, cured in a number of ways, and preserved for use throughout the winter. In the years before electricity, this preservation of pork was a necessity. It’s no coincidence that Burgers’ Smokehouse in California, Missouri, still churns out 750,000 hams each year. Pork is in our blood.
But as agriculture became increasingly industrialized following World War II, small producers took a beating from mass production facilities and were eliminated by the thousands. What was once a vital Missouri food tradition became the sole dominion of giant factory farms. “‘Go bigger, or go home’” has become the industry standard when it comes to pork production, David says. “There’s no way we could replace all the pork that’s out there by doing it like this. But it’s something.” “Thirty years ago, there were more than four hundred pig farmers in Oregon County,” Mark says. “Today, I’m the only one left.” Each week, he drives from Myrtle to north of Kansas City to take his hogs to be processed.
The Newmans survived by identifying a key component missing from modern pork production: quality. In the mid-1990s, the Newmans switched to raising 100 percent purebred Berkshire hogs. The animal, developed in England some three hundred years ago, first arrived in this country around 1820. The pigs are dark, spotted, and richly marbled with delicious fat. They will not be confused with chicken, marketing campaigns not withstanding. “Other red meat is more like it,” Mark says. The switch has allowed the Newmans to lock down a pretty good niche, but the question of where they go from here comes up often, Mark says. “We don’t want to be big. When you talk to us on the phone, you’re talking to the person that also carries the feed bucket.” That doesn’t mean they’re not working to get even better. Modern confinement hog operations, which churn out almost all of our pork today, have earned a pretty grisly reputation as cruel meat factories. By contrast, the Newmans have been accredited by the Certified Humane Raised and Handled program for about four years, a source of pride for Mark.
After the introductions and tours and demonstrations, it’s time to eat. We sit down to a buffet dinner under a tent on the Newmans’ front lawn. Card tables groan beneath platters of pork, grilled corn on the cob, salad, homemade rolls, and chili butter. Tubs of beer and ice sit off to the side. A hundred yards away, as if on cue, a half-dozen month-old piglets emerge from their hutch and skitter off into the fescue, feigning bravery but never venturing more than a few feet from their mama.
For information about ordering, call 417-938-4391 or visit www.newmanfarm.com.