This past fall, I drove from St. Louis to Osage County, in central Missouri, to meet a hog farmer named Russ Kremer. As I pulled into the driveway of the white farmhouse where he was raised, Kremer ambled out in his rubber boots, offering me a hearty handshake. We got into his silver Chevy truck, a circa-1992 model caked with hog-infused dirt, and drove along the rolling roads of Kremer’s native countryside. He showed me the barns where he raises his herds, pointing out the deep straw, the roomy paddocks, and the many-hued, multi-sized pigs destined for sausage and bacon. As we walked up to one of the barns, Kremer started explaining that pigs raised naturally and allowed to root and run around taste better, in his opinion, than those raised in industrial operations. That taste, he said, is what has allowed him to make a living while other hog farmers are going out of business.
Then he said something that sounded startling coming from a farmer in the Ozark foothills. “I love chefs,” he smiled. “They’ve gotten into story pork.”
Story pork. Not just any old shrink-wrapped chop, but pork from a place, raised by a farmer, with a story. Meat with a narrative.
In fact, I had approached my editors at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch with a related idea just two years before. As I put it at the time, I wanted to create a beat that focused on “food issues”—a beat that looked at food safety, systems, regulation, and habits. As a metro reporter, I was eager to liberate food from the lifestyle section and cover it as news, in the metro pages, normally the province of homicides and politics.
Among the evidence I presented to support my idea was a long list of front-page stories about food from newspapers across the country. I pointed out that those stories invariably ended up among the most e-mailed and read. I tried to persuade my editors that food was, or could be, a viable news beat, a way to look at issues—economic, environmental, agricultural, political—through a different lens. I noted the popularity and influence of books such as Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. Even The New Yorker had taken to publishing a special food issue each year.
Food, I argued, was not only a serious subject—it was a wildly popular one as well. Chefs were attaining superstar status in this country. A proliferation of magazines, Web sites, and television networks was turning food into fantasy, sustenance into “food porn.” While most magazines struggled to survive, food-related titles were, and are, on the rise, with 355 published in 2008—roughly 40 percent more than in 2001. As I saw it, the celebrity status of food opened the door for harder coverage. If people loved Paula Deen, wasn’t it fair to assume that a good chunk of them would read a news story about antibiotics in swine? Labeling laws? And who, I asked, didn’t care about what they put in their own mouths, or the mouths of their kids?
The editors liked the idea, but didn’t bite. Then, a year later, as the paper was retooling its newsroom, I pitched it again. This time the editors said yes.
I became the “food reporter” on the metro desk—a role that puzzled some of my colleagues. The equation of food coverage with restaurant reviews and recipes is so ingrained, certainly at smaller papers, that one veteran cop reporter insisted on calling it the “cooking beat” for several months. The confusion and semi-derisive comments were a small price to pay. So was my new schedule: in exchange for my new gig, I agreed to cover a general assignment shift on Saturday, which means everything from murder sprees to parades.