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I grew up in a kosher household.
That sentence bears a little explanation. My parents weren’t the ones who insisted on keeping kosher. It was my older brother, Andrew, who even as a little boy succeeded in bending the household to his will. At 8—a good three years before I came along—my brother became a highly observant Jew, abiding by kashrut and all the other codes of Jewish law with an ardor that shamed the less devoted, which included, well, everyone else.
His orthodoxy put a particular crimp on what we ate. No cheeseburgers, no shellfish, no ice cream after dinner. My parents were reduced to sneaking out of the house for ribs, crabs, and all the other treyf that was verboten at home. Often, I went along with them. Going for ribs became a particular pilgrimage, my father taking us through the backwoods of Charles County in search of open-pit smoke—the culinary holy grail for the non-kosher-keeping Klimans.
And then my brother made aliyah—went off to Israel. For good, we thought. I stayed home from school the next day, mourning his absence. For a week, the house was morose. My brother had provided the structure of our lives, of how we lived and ate and even thought.
Another week passed, and as we absorbed his absence as a family, the realization dawned that we would no longer have to sneak out of the house for the pork we so obviously craved. One night, my mother made a ham. I was 10. I had eaten ham before, but always in watery slivers in a sandwich. Never like this—never these thick pink slices carved at the table, the very image of prosperous, Christian holiday fare—and never at home. Did we like it? That’s almost beside the point.
To say there was something mystical about that ham is no exaggeration. It was a kind of talisman that delivered us in a luscious, smoky instant from the tyranny that we had endured for so long. We went wild. Bacon at breakfast, pork-roll sandwiches for lunch, pork chops for dinner. My mother even tried her hand at ribs. It was a season of pork fat.
I never experienced anything like it again until this past year, as I made my rounds of the area’s restaurants and took part—happily, willingly—in the ongoing orgy of pig product that eating out has become.
Maybe it’s because of my romanticized coming-of-age, but two of my favorite dishes of this past year were celebrations of pig. The pig-knuckle stew with fried lettuce at Arlington’s Thai Square ranks high on my list of terrific dishes under 10 bucks: There’s just enough fattiness in the “knuckle”—really the hock—to make it moist, and the juices enrich a wonderfully fragrant braising liquid, strong with scents of cinnamon and star anise. And probably the best thing I put in my mouth all year was Michel Richard’s “not-quite-famous pied de cochon” at Citronelle. Richard stacks a kind of sausaged patty of pig’s feet, foie gras, sweetbreads, and chanterelles atop a pool of puréed mashed potatoes and crowns the whole thing with a crispy sheet of lacquered pig skin. Few dishes are so exquisitely rich or so exquisitely executed.
Bacon, especially, is undergoing a metamorphosis. Synonymous with greasy breakfasts and truck stops on the highway, it has lately become a boutique meat on the high end, especially for chefs trying to weather the low-carb pandemic. Lardons used to be reserved for salads, a way to bring a little richness to a plate of greens; these days they’re popping up in main courses, too—witness the crunchy bits of bacon that Johnny Monis uses at Komi to judiciously up the fat content of an otherwise Spartan arctic char.
The dish of the moment is pork belly, the name favored by most chefs these days to describe a hunk of slab bacon with its thick cap of fat. Two of the best dishes at two of the best restaurants to debut this year were Cathal Armstrong’s confit of pork belly at Restaurant Eve, in which the fatty meat is cooked slowly in its own fatty juices in a fancified expression of Armstrong’s Old World roots, and Eric Ziebold’s rectangle of slab bacon at CityZen, cut from a tiny shoat pig and centered in a rich pig’s-ear gastrique, a dish that displays his surehanded blend of barnyard and boulevard. And at Bob Kinkead’s Colvin Run Tavern, a hulking rack of pork is upstaged by its accompanying thin, melting cut of pork belly, which delivers all the sweetness and savor of the putative star without all the chewy heft.
Pork fat was not the only story of the year, of course. Small plates are still spreading like a contagion—who would have ever imagined that we’d see French restaurants copying Spanish? Or that miniburgers, that Little Tavern staple, would become so fashionable—$3 a pop at the new Tallulah in Arlington? For that matter, who would have imagined that such suburban-hip places as Tallulah and Jackie’s in Silver Spring would attract such large and immediate followings? Meanwhile, the drift away from formality has seen a spate of restaurants compartmentalizing themselves, adding casual options to high-end dining rooms—Palena Cafe, Galileo’s Osteria, the newly opened IndeBleu, with its upstairs/downstairs split.
In the end, though, I prefer to remember this, my first full year as a full-time food critic, as the year of pork fat, as the year that I went wild once more on the newly abundant glories of pig. And with not a smidgen of guilt. —Todd Kliman
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