Sunday, January 10, 2010

Fun with Pork

A few weekends ago (Labour Day in New Zealand, symbolic kickoff to the summer) included the Sunday of the Ngatimoti Festival, fundraiser and country fair for the Ngatimoti School. When the girls went there, 10 (!) years ago, it had three classes for seven grade levels, but now they've rocketed to five classes, and are subsidized by a hell of an event: Several thousand people show up to eat, shop for trinkets and crafts, go to kiddie rides, and get a little taste of the country. For example, there's a kind of lotto adjudicated by a cow's ass: a ten-by-ten numbered grid about 20 feet on a side. Buy a ticket, get a grid location. When enough of them sell, a cow is led through the area and, well, guess how they determine the winner?

So now we do a slow zoom from the ruminating multitude, over to the far corner where the Wild Foods booth sits, marked by a plume of smoke rising from the back. As the camera glides past the tent, we see a great long spit over a great big fire, where a great big pig (big in appearance only; actually only about 100 pounds) turns slowly over the fire, as it has done since about 4:00 AM. Black as soot from tooth to tail in a thick charred crust, much of it still has the bristly, though charred, pelt of wild pork. That's because it is. Neighbor Saul not only got up at 3AM to cook this thing, having shot it a few days ago in another neighbor's driveway.

The amazing thing is, black as the gyrating corpse is, it's not ready yet, and it's nearly noon. It won't be ready for another hour, as Saul demonstrates to me by sticking a big knife into the ham and showing the blood still running. This gives me an opportunity to harass Saul about not getting up early enough. Also, I notice Eamon's friend Stu beavering away at a barbecue inside the tent. Stu's a big guy, a builder by trade, and he looks like he's cooking in a world that's two sizes too small. Griddle plates are on, and what are those yellowish things he's flipping? Why, they're whitebait fritters!

It's the saving grace of this stand with the belated pig. Whitebait is the young form of a strange kind of primitive trout. Skinny, a couple of inches long, and semi-transparent, they're caught in nets by the fisherfolk who line the banks of river outflows and estuaries around the country. They're a cult item, if the word "cult" can be applied to the entire population of a nation. Invariably mixed with eggs and, cooked into fritters and served as sandwiches, whitebait is one of the more inexplicable infatuations of the Kiwi. Fritters made with whitebait and egg taste pretty much like, well, egg. At least to my Philistine palate.

Anyway, the pork deficit has prodded the demand for whitebait fritters to a frenzy, and there are ten or twenty customers waiting to be served when I show up with my exquisite timing and Eamon all but lunges to press a spatula into my hand, points out the second barbecue, and dives into making more batter as Stu and I go "head down, bum up". A couple of hours later, we had made several hundred of the things apiece and raised well over $2,000 for the school--with a little help from other support.

...but not before the pig finally achieved edibility. Down from the spit and borne onto the table, with three or four rough characters clawing at it to pile it into trays, thence to sandwiches for the ravening masses. It wasn't exactly the fork-tender down of Carolina pulled pork, but it wasn't bad, either. Wild pork is real meat, and it's going to blow your grain-fed beef and your dainty saline-bloated chicken breasts right off the table. It's for people who like meat, full stop. This pig tasted like exactly what it was: wild critter hunted down, cooked over a fire and thrown unadorned onto the tribe's banquette, ripped stem to stern into manageable chunks complete with gristle, odd bits of bone, and even little tufts of charred bristles peeking out here and there. For all my exertions, I got a couple of ribs. And THAT was reward enough: crisp, sweet, chewy and, well, real.

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