Friday, February 18, 2011

My Response to Eddie Huang

Eddie Huang commented on my post responding to his blog post (reprinted in Slate) that said things I consider inaccurate about Mangalitsa. He pointed me to his original essay on his blog, which is different than what I saw on Slate.

I'm happy to respond to the version on his blog. I'll excerpt the stuff I consider relevant and put in my response:

From Skate to pork belly to razor clams, there's always something that's priced reasonably, previously ignored, and able to fill a role on a menu. That's where these things start. Your purveyor comes to you with a new product, say, Mangalitsa Pork and asks you to try it. It was almost extinct in Hungary as a lard animal but now they want you to experiment with it. There's an introductory rate. The pig really isn't good for anything but lard, yet, you can charge a premium for the experience and novelty. Call it kobe pork! While the purveyor is showing it to you, he's showing it to 5 other chefs in your neighborhood, boom. We have a trend.

Mangalitsa isn't a product that has existed in the USA, unknown until it was discovered by trendy people. It is a foreign delicacy that I recently imported to the Western Hemisphere.

Reading Eddie's paragraph, the following questions occur to me:
  • Why would someone spend a lot of money to import some pigs that don't taste much different from regular pigs?
  • Why do my live pig customers pay a lot more for Mangalitsa feeder pigs and breeding stock than normal pigs?
  • Why would people in Hong Kong pay a fortune in air freight to buy our Mangalitsa?
  • Why would it pay to take hams from Mangalitsa pigs in Hungary and move them to Spain to have them cured? Why would people outside of Spain pay a lot of money for cured Mangalitsa products?
  • Why do Per Se, Corton and other Michelin-starred restaurants in New York City, spend so much money on Mangalitsa pork, when they could save some money and buy regular pork?

2) Eddie writes, "The pig really isn't good for anything but lard..."

Mangalitsa pigs produce the raw material used to make some of Europe and Americas best cured products. They aren't just used to make lard.

As lard-type pigs, Mangalitsa pigs have better meat and fat quality than meat-type pigs. They beat everything else on every conceivable meat quality metric - flavor, juiciness, color, marbling, etc. They beat everything else so handily, when you do a principle components analysis, Mangalitsa is in its own category.

Eddie continues:
The Mangalitsa isn't a bad product. It's interesting. I'd like to spend some time with it, slowly integrate it, and figure out how to deliver it at a fair, sustainable price so it isn't here today/gone tomorrow on my menu. Am I selling a trend or selling a good dish? By the time you cycle through those thoughts, Mangalista prices go up for a summer, then they level out. But by the time it levels out, the eating public is bored. They just paid $30+ for a mangalitsa experience that doesn't really out-do your average berkshire...
If a chef can't use Mangalitsa to produce something markedly better, he's screwing up. Similarly, if you give a chef some great Wagyu beef, if he can't make it taste better than the regular beef, it is the fault of the chef.

Eddie continues:
With pork, the problem has never been marbling. With the loin, YES, the Mangalitsa has an advantage there, but in terms of the rest of the animal, especially belly or butt, I doubt the berkshire lacks marbling. On top of that, chefs are coming up with specials and pushing trends before truly understanding the product because they don't have to. The novelty sells itself.
When I read Eddie's essay in Slate, I replied with a photo of a Mangalitsa loin. I don't see how anyone can look at that and not immediately grasp that Mangalitsa pigs are totally different. I didn't intend to restrict myself to just the loin.

Eddie pointed me to the essay on his blog, which actually mentions loins specifically.

If I understand him correctly, he's saying that although the loins of meat-type pigs are inferior to Mangalitsa pigs, the other parts of a meat-type pig aren't all that bad.

If that's the case, I think he's right, in the sense that for most people, meat-type pigs are fine.

Nevertheless, Mangalitsa bellies have more fat than Berkshire bellies, and the shoulders are more marbled. The Mangalitsa fat tastes lighter and cleaner. The meat has a strong meaty flavor. In comparison, Berkshire lean meat tastes like chicken. Just look at the Mangalitsa pancetta in the above photo. Berkshire bellies don't look like that. Of course, pancetta from Berkshire pigs doesn't cost $34.80/lb either.

Some people strongly prefer the non-loin Mangalitsa cuts to meat-type pork. Here's a guy writing about his cured Mangalitsa neck:
What really makes this stuff ridiculous is it's unctuousness. Sliced paper thin, it actually melts on your tongue.
The fat of normal pigs can't compete. Similarly, here's people writing about Mangalitsa jowls:

It turns out that this pig is worth every bit of hype that’s been surrounding it. What incredible flavor. The stuff is tender, moist and just melts in your mouth. It is insanely rich and I can’t recall a more flavorful meat I’ve ever eaten. Just amazing.

There's plenty of examples of that across the web, many of them copied on this blog. Basically, there are some people who strongly prefer Mangalitsa necks, fatback, hams, bellies, jowls, etc. to those of non-Mangalitsa pigs. They are willing to pay a big premium to get the stuff they really want.

Similarly, there are some people who want a Ferrari. They don't want a Honda Civic. If you are the sort who is happy with a Honda Civic, it is hard to see what's cool about a Ferrari, much less stomach paying for one.

Obviously, people who are happy with non-Mangalitsa stuff will keep using the regular stuff. At the same time, the people who want better stuff now have the option to buy Mangalitsa.


MagicDongHuang said...

dude, i didn't "amend" anything. the blog is the original. salon cut out what i said about the loin.

Heath said...

MagicDongHuang: Thanks for the information. I will edit my post.