Slowly, quietly, and without a great deal of fanfare, pork has staged a kind of revolution on U.S. plates. Between 1990 and 2013, Americans’ pork consumption increased about 18 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That jump seems particularly noteworthy when compared with beef consumption, which edged up just over 5 percent during this same period.
But if pork is becoming a bigger deal in the U.S., its popularity is positively exploding in nations where per-capita incomes have surged in recent years. In both China and Mexico, for instance, pork consumption has grown more than 140 percent since 1990.
It seems logical to conclude, then, that at least some of pork’s domestic popularity may be attributable to the large number of immigrants who continue to arrive in the U.S. each year from China, Mexico, and other pork-loving nations in Asia and Latin America. After all, immigrants from these two regions together made up 76 percent of total U.S. new arrivals in 2012, according to the Office of Immigration Statistics–Department of Homeland Security. That’s a lot of new pork proponents among us. And they’re interested in more than just bacon, you can bet.
How might quick-serve operators find opportunity in pork? Consider these approaches.
Think ethnic barbecue. For many, if not most, Americans, when we’re talking ribs, pulled pork, or even carnitas, we’re ultimately talking barbecue. And indeed, signature American barbecue styles suit many cuts of pork quite well. The question is, why stop there? Why not scour the planet for other, more adventurous barbecue flavor profiles that will satisfy Asian and Latin palates? Argentinean barbecue, with its distinctive jalapeño-and-lime-fueled kick, would enliven any pulled-pork sandwich. Ditto a Mexican-style chipotle-lime marinade or rub. On the Asian end of the spectrum, Shanghai-style barbecue pork would blend sweet and savory—with hints of ginger, sesame, and five spice—to delectable effect. And Singaporean barbecue, with its signature blend of garlic, chives, chili peppers, and soy, is in a league of its own. All of these options represent simple but exciting takes on meat cuts that are typically used for American-style barbecue.
Market the meat. Stroll into a white-tablecloth establishment in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, or L.A. these days, and you’re likely to see some new and perhaps unfamiliar modifiers in front of your pork entrée options. Berkshire, Yorkshire, Red Wattle, Tamworth—all refer to breeds that are now classified as “heritage pork.” And just as Angus beef became synonymous with quality after chains began marketing it as a superior cut of meat (and charging a premium price for it), so are various heritage pig breeds becoming signifiers of quality and good taste among establishments that like to tempt patrons by talking about the origin and provenance of their ingredients. It’s not hard to envision a future when Berkshire carnitas and Tamworth pork-tenderloin sandwiches are fixtures in fast-casual chains, and perhaps fast-food outlets as well.
Give thought to unusual preparations and cuts. There’s a wide world beyond barbecuing and slathering when it comes to pork preparation. Braising, marinating, potting, brining, curing, dry rubbing, frying—all of these techniques impart different textures and flavors, and all have a place in pork preparation, even if not all would be at home in every quick-serve environment.
Beyond the many available cooking techniques and preparations that suit pork to a T, there are many choices—some more exotic than others—when it comes to cut: Cheeks, bellies, tenderloin, trotters, even pig face (yes, you read that right) are becoming voguish in some circles as pork prices remain relatively high and chefs work to use as much of the animal as possible. Again, some of these suggestions are admittedly far-out for fast food, but the key is to bear pork’s versatility in mind as you mull various possibilities for pig at your place.
Go all out. For those who just can’t get enough, there is the considerable appeal of pork-on-pork, as in porchetta, an Italian pork roast that’s typically stuffed with, you guessed it, more pork. It’s red hot in fine-dining circles nowadays, and absolutely mouthwatering. That might seem a stretch for a fast-food or fast-casual setting, but what about the idea of stuffing a hamburger (or “porkburger”) with pork? A pork-stuffed hot dog or sausage? Deep-fried pork bites wrapped in bacon? Though many cuts of pork are far leaner than they used to be, the meat is still perceived as decadent and enticing, which makes the idea of marketing it as an alternative splurge quite intriguing.
Whichever approach you choose, the results are likely to be delicious, novel, and, given pork’s generally low profile in the quick-serve world, even groundbreaking. I look forward to seeing the results of your experiments on menuboards soon.
As a postscript: I’m writing this column in January during a particularly inauspicious time for hog markets. A deadly porcine virus is wreaking havoc on herds in 22 U.S. states and causing widespread speculation that pork prices are set to skyrocket. Here’s to hoping that the situation is resolved quickly, and that harm to the herds can be minimized.