You know you’re looking for a small town when you try to find the place on a map and strike out on Google. Apparently there’s a Myrtle up by Kirksville, but it’s not the one Mark and Rita Newman live in. Their Myrtle is in Oregon County, down on the Arkansas border. Go a couple thousand feet south from their place, and you’re in the Natural State. Not that the seclusion bothers Mark at all. No, he’s happily turning out 100 hogs a week for some of the best restaurants in the country. You might not be able to find Myrtle on every map, but the world has found Myrtle just the same.
The rest of the story, also in today’s Columbia Tribune, after the jump:
The Newmans own a small family hog farm, one of the few remaining heritage-breed pork producers in the nation. They’ve survived not by exploiting economies of scale and cutting corners but by identifying a key component missing from modern pork production: quality. It all started for the Newmans in the mid-1990s with a decision to switch to raising 100 percent purebred Berkshire hogs. Meat from Berkshires is a far cry from the pale, neutral flavor of most modern pork. It is deeply pinkish-red in color, rich-tasting and beautifully marbled. It is pork that will not be confused with chicken, marketing campaigns notwithstanding.
“Other red meat is more like it,” Mark says with a laugh. This is pork, friends, and Mark Newman produces some of the best in the world.
Missouri has always loved its pigs. The early homesteaders who came this way from points east and south almost always brought pigs with them. Hardy, easy to raise and almost preternaturally edible, hogs were butchered in the fall and cured to last through winter. Madeline Matson writes in “Food in Missouri,” “Pork was so well liked and easy to prepare that some Ozarks people ate the meat three times a day.” And so it’s no accident that Burgers’ Smokehouse in California, Mo., still churns out 750,000 hams each year.
Pork is in our blood. But as agriculture became increasingly industrialized after 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.
“Thirty years ago, there were more than 400 pig farmers in Oregon County alone,” Mark remembers. “Today, I’m the only one left.”
It’s not the easiest way to make a living. Each week, Mark loads 50 to 75 pigs into a trailer and delivers them to a small processor north of Kansas City. It’s an eight-hour drive each way.
“A lot of people wouldn’t do it,” Mark says. “You gotta have it in your heart, or you’re never going to make it.” But make it is exactly what he has done.
Five years ago, Dan Swinney – executive chef at Lidia’s Kansas City – realized he could get the heritage-breed pork he was using in the restaurant from a local producer. Soon, other chefs in the Mario Batali restaurant empire followed suit. Then Heritage Foods USA began carrying the Newmans’ pork. The group connects consumers interested in traditional, regionally produced foods with the small farmers doing the work. Their mission is to save our food heritage by eating it.
Today, a lot of that eating and saving is going on in New York City. Fully 65 percent of Newman Farm pork goes directly to New York City, where it has become a cult favorite at restaurants from SoHo to the Upper West Side.
Over in Greenwich Village, we found Lupa, Batali’s casual dining room with a focus on traditional Roman food: lots of organ meats, hearty pastas and simply prepared vegetables. Chef/partner Mark Ladner turns Newman Farm pork into rustic, adventurous charcuterie: coppa, lingua, testa. We dug into the earthy, aggressively seasoned tasting platter without stopping for a translation.
Cruz Goler, Lupa’s head chef, points to the humane treatment of the pigs and their marbling as major draws but adds, “It’s got a lot more porkiness, a lot more of a flavor profile to it.”
It was ruinously good; I might just pitch my meat-curing cookbook altogether. And it made me wonder what the good people of Myrtle were having for lunch.
But the world’s best pork is not just for thick-walleted New Yorkers. The Newmans will sell you their bone-in pork chops – the only way you should be buying the things, anyway – for around $5.50 per pound. Sure, it’s more than what you’ll pay at the grocery store, but when was the last time five bucks bought you the best of anything?
As for the future, Mark plans to focus on further improving quality rather than getting big.
“We talk about that all the time. ‘Should we expand? Should we do more?’ But we always come back to the same thing. We just like being small.” Small enough to stay off the map. Staying off dinner plates is a different story.
Scott Rowson works in communications at the University of Missouri, lives and eats in Columbia and writes about it at ShowMeEats.com. Reach him at ShowMeEats@gmail.com.