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A visit to David Byler, the Amish farmer who raises the pigs for Porter Road, is an ass-numbing experience. I rode on top of a metal table, the third person in a truck with only two seats. The refrigerated truck, like their shop, is a bit of a reclamation job. They picked it up third- or fourth-hand for $3,500. The truck was sitting in a ditch when they bought it, and it still has "Bob Evans" written faintly on the side.
As driver, Chris controls the radio, so the music veers somewhere between a podcast of This American Life downloaded to his phone to Tom Petty. Right now, our soundtrack is a cassette tape of Dylan's early '80s, reggae-influenced Infidels, an album Chris got attached to while working promotions at 107.5 The Pig, a jam-band station in Memphis.
An hour and a half later, we arrived at the farm, hopped out of the cab, and stepped back in time. Byler is running a sawmill with some brothers and a couple of neighbors, turning hickory and oak logs into boards. As we walk up to his father's house, it's obvious that we are the oddity here, not the folks in straw hats without electricity in their homes.
Before we can get out to see the pigs, the subject of chickens comes up. Chris and James would love to have another provider, especially in the winter when it can be harder to get fresh chicken that isn't raised in small cages. Beyond that, you've got to pick the right kind of birds. Chickens come in a large variety of sizes. Some are bred for specific things — plump breasts, good legs and wings. The industry is geared for large ones.
The Bylers produce a brochure from Mt. Healthy, an Ohio-based hatchery that says it is the "home of the healthiest chicks." After flipping through and picking out a couple of breeds, they outline a price, one that will push the final consumer price well north of anything you can buy in a supermarket.
For Chris and James, it's worth it. They're not competing with Kroger or Publix based on price per pound — that would be suicide. They make their money on being able to tell customers that not only do they know the farmer, they've also seen where the chickens are raised and what they've been fed. To be sure, the cost difference is notable: Chicken on special at Kroger can run as low as 99 cents per pound, while Porter Road sells theirs for $4.99 per pound. But at a time when Big Chicken is asking the USDA to kick out inspectors and let industrial poultry suppliers self-inspect their slaughterhouses, while ramping up processing speeds to "upwards of 200 birds per minute," paying more per pound for quality assurance doesn't seem like such a big cost.
"People say it's elitist food, and that's bullshit," James says. "People spend hundreds of dollars getting their hair cut and dyed."
Porter Road would like to start selling duck, too, but there's no way to do it without ridiculous transportation costs. These are already not cheap, because any chickens from the Bylers have to be processed in Florence, Ala., or Bowling Green, Ky. The nearest duck processor is in North Carolina. "It's the feathers," Chris says. "They put them in these plucking machines and the chickens lose 90 percent of their feathers. Ducks only lose about 50 percent." That requires more plucking by hand. The chefs hooked up with Byler through their egg guy, Jerry, at Willow Farms in Summertown, Tenn. Jerry acts as their liaison, going over to deliver the occasional message because the farm doesn't have a phone. James admits this can be "a real pain in the ass sometimes."
Nevertheless, he says a conversation with David Byler got the ball rolling: "We started talking to him about what he fed the hogs. 'Corn.' Well, where did you get it? 'I grew it.' " A light went on for the butchers. This was the kind of place they could feel comfortable getting their meat.
Walking back to the pasture where the pigs are raised is a little like walking onto the moon. What had begun as a few acres of land thick with scrub, small trees and grass is now almost completely barren, devoured by the swine. The farmers supplement the pigs' grazing with troughs of corn and feed. But the hogs love rooting out every living thing in an area, so David and his brothers will move them into an adjacent field they recently finished fencing.
As we step through the barbed wire, the pigs scatter. (If they ever realized that each of them outweighs the four of us, it might have gone a little differently.) Standing inside the pen, the Duroc and Berkshire blended pigs keep their distance until one comes up to sniff Chris. They're cute — think Wilbur with big floppy ears — but their cuteness ends about the time one wanders up and takes a nibble of his shoe. Hey, everything else in the field is fair game, right? Chris shoos them off and they flee.
David takes the boys through delivery dates and processes as we walk over to his house, sandwiched between pig and cow pastures. As we step inside, it's 15 degrees cooler, even without electricity. The windows are open, and the fly strip, some 20 feet long and running the length of the kitchen, is doing a booming business. David's wife produces some instant coffee and a roasting pan full of cookies she's made, and the three sit down at the table to talk business.
More pigs? Sure. The boys would like to try finishing a couple of pigs with acorns, maybe ending up with the buttery texture Spain's Iberian pigs are so famous for. Could they take a look at the new feed he had delivered from the co-op? David wants to make sure he's doing everything they need. As they talk, various children from the Byler families file into the kitchen. Quiet and well-mannered, they just stare at us. If the pigs were a novelty for us, we're certainly the most entertaining thing the kids have seen in a while.
When David shows Chris and James the new feed he's bought, there's a problem. There's an unfamiliar protein buried in the list of ingredients, and that just won't do. Chris says he will call down to the co-op in Lawrenceburg and get the right feed. They also agree to build it into the price they're going to pay for the hogs, so David won't lose any money on the bad feed. In the grand scheme of things, it's a few bucks more that will get passed along to some chops or shoulder, but worth it to do things the right way and take care of their farmers.
I ask about being organic. James says it's a lot less important than being right — natural food, no antibiotics, no hormones. None of their guys are considered "organic."
"It would bankrupt them," he says. There are too many hoops to jump through to be able to use the organic label. If they can do things the right way, having a sticker on a package won't matter.
"We all make money together. We all flourish together. We're not making it more difficult for each other. The reason why our prices are higher is because we pay our farmers fairly. Our pig farmer makes a living off of selling pigs to us. We sell their meat specifically and we pay them accordingly."
On the way back to the shop, they stop off at Cattleman's, their processor. It's little more than a cinder block cooler, halfway between Columbia and Murfreesboro. They run a couple of hogs — which we pick up — and a side of beef through here every week, making Porter Road the slaughterhouse's third-biggest customer.
Today's run will be about 180 miles round trip in a truck that's costing them a buck a mile to operate. By the time we hit the interstate and head back into Nashville, the coffee supply is exhausted, the windows are down and both guys are trading yawns. Chris checks the temperature in the back of the truck and hits a button that drops it a few degrees — a fan kicks in and blows air over a frozen metal plate, keeping things well under a safe temperature.
The high truck cab provides a funny vantage point for people-watching. Chris said he's seen everything going back and forth to Cattleman's. "For the most part, everybody drives with their pants on. ... For the most part."
As we pull into the shop, the six-hour round trip has pushed us just past noon. James stretches his neck and tries to wake up. He's got another eight hours of cutting to do before he can think about leaving.
It's safe to say the pair seem to be outpacing whatever was in that 15th business plan. Though they are Porter Road's founders and mainstays, the shop doesn't run on just those two.
Market manager Leslie Gribble has been with the boys since before they started. Same with Chris Hudgens, a longtime friend of Chris and his girlfriend Kelly (who, sadistically enough, is a vegetarian). Hudge has become almost exclusively a sausage guy now, such is demand. Between their charcuterie for nearby restaurant and bar No. 308, the andouille sausage and whole hog work they do for Merchants, and the sandwiches, sausage and biscuits they make for nearby Barista Parlor — a new coffeehouse around the corner that, in its attention to detail, process and quality, could be the Porter Road Butcher of single-cup brewing — everybody is working at capacity.
The four of them eventually expanded to six or seven with a couple of "stages" — the French term for "intern," although in the wrong place it can also be translated as "slave." I ask about Zach and Kyle, the current stages, whom the butchers seem to like. What are their last names? "Stages don't get last names," I'm told.
The work for restaurants has been a nice surprise, a recognition that they're doing things right. The finished products are also good value added for the whole animals they're using. Think about it this way: When a 1,300-pound Angus blend comes in at 900 pounds from the processor, they've already lost part of the cow they've paid for.
Almost every bit of the rest of it has to count, so there's a lot of stock-making and bone-roasting going on. And when the most popular 20 percent — the tenderloins, the ribeyes and the strips — is gone, the rest of that cow (or pig or lamb) needs to become something delicious. If it doesn't, Porter Road isn't going to last very long.
Sometimes that takes a little creativity. Everybody loves braised short ribs in the winter, but in the summer? They just aren't moving. So the butchers turn short ribs into hot dogs — fantastically delicious wieners that make it hard to go back to Oscar Mayer or Ballpark, retaining their succulence and beefy richness even roasted in a breakroom toaster oven. They've worked similar wonders with shanks, which lately they've been turning into confit beef-shank orzo salads.
A few things are just over the top. The bratwursts — a concoction of salt, pepper, nutmeg, ginger, Hatcher cream and Willow Farm eggs — go pretty quickly. And if the smoker out back isn't finishing some andouille, it's likely loaded up with any manner of bacon. They can't keep sausage in the shop right now. Not long ago they had to cut up an entire pig just to meet demand for sausage.
All of those parts, those pieces, add up to something. Porter Road means to serve as something bigger than the sum of its ingredients — as a small business, as a food provider, or as what the butcher boys think is most important, a neighborhood fixture that decreases the distance between a farmer and your table.
"What we're fighting against is a lot of lies now. 'All-natural' means 'nothing was added,' " James says, incredulous and his voice rising a little. "Why would you add something to raw meat!? We will never lie to you like that."
That indignance may explain why customers are making their way to a meat counter in East Nashville, willing to pay higher prices in return for peace of mind. A famous adage says something to the effect that people who like sausages and respect the law shouldn't see either one being made. By returning in essence to a bygone business model, maybe the novelty Porter Road Butcher has to sell is trust — one link at a time.
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