Monday, March 14, 2011

Review: Pig Perfect, by Peter Kaminsky

On a recent visit to Las Vegas, my husband and I had dinner at Thomas Keller's Bouchon restaurant in the Venetian. I had the steak frites, my husband ordered a pork chop that he swore was, "the moistest, most flavorful pork chop" he'd ever eaten.

Now, I know I can buy a copy of the restaurant's cookbook and get the recipe for this pork chop, but I also know from experience that in cooking, it's all about the ingredients, so I called the waiter over and made some inquiries. Why, I asked, is my husband's pork chop so good? What do I need to know when I buy your cookbook and attempt this at home.

The waiter - who was as well-informed as one would expect a waiter at a foodie mecca to be - explained that it was all about the cut: Delmonico, which is extra thick and on the bone. That's it? I asked. And where exactly did your chef get this particular cut?

Well, the waiter explained, our pork comes from Snake River Farm. I encourage you to click on the link - because it's not just any old pork cut Delmonico-style that Thomas Keller is serving, and my husband is raving about to anyone who will listen.

So I was excited to read Peter Kaminsky's Pig Perfect, especially as Thomas Keller himself raved about the book with a blurb on the back cover, "I didn't want to put the book down, but finally had to when I got too hungry. Yes, it is that good."

Unfortunately, although Mr. Keller knows a fine piece of pork, I'm not sure he knows a fine piece of foodie literature: I found Pig Perfect to be a slog to get through.

The author's basic premise is that pork and ham has suffered greatly as a result of factory farming, and he goes off on a quest to find authentic flavorful ham, and discover how it is produced. He travels to meet artisan producers of country ham, European and American producers of heritage breeds of pig, and to answer other curious questions such about pork, such as why two different religions have taboos against its consumption.

This sort of thing fascinates me, and is filled with potential to be a quirky, personality-filled travelogue. But right off the bat, the Kaminsky's descriptions of what may be the most amazing country hams fell flat - I had no sense of the flavor or texture of them. I believe he thought they were awesome, but nothing about the descriptions made me want to run out and try them.

Kaminsky spends a lot of time on minutia that slow the writing down, for example, when he decides to learn more about the Ossabaw pigs:

I emailed Dr. Brisbin, or Bris as he is known to friends and colleagues. He wrote back that he would be glad to speak with me.

Well, that's swell and all, but doesn't really keep the story moving. When he gets to Ossabaw Island, he meets its last private resident, a 91-year-old woman who sells the property to the state for a song, just to preserve its habitat - a fascinating woman, I have no doubt, but his description of her conveyed none of her personality, or the life story that I sensed must be fascinating.

Kaminsky's writing suffers mostly from a lack of depth: He skims along the surface where he should dig in and try to tell more. I was interested to learn why both Muslims and Jews have a religious prohibition against pork, but in the chapter that discusses this, old theories (trichinosis) are dismissed with a single sentence, and only one theory is given any elaboration: that chickens were a preferable source of protein since they did not compete with humans for food. Never is it explained how this found its way into a religious prohibition, but it is explained that the theory "needs more research."

And that's the rub: so does Pig Perfect. Lacking in depth as well as background, it's quick to digest and the reader will come away with some entertaining bits of pig trivia. But unlike Thomas Keller's fabulous chop, it won't be savored and is ultimately rather forgettable.

My good friend Col over at Col Reads read this book along with me - why not cruise on by her blog and see if she liked it any better?

1 comment:

  1. I'm not sure I liked it any better than you did. It had great potential, but I didn't think he did as complete a job as, say, Tim Ecott did with Vanilla. It did have some interesting information, but wasn't an awesome package. Maybe Mario Batali doesn't read much?

    How about The Love Goddess' Cooking School next? That's been on my TBR for a while!


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