Putting the Feet Before the Belly: How Pork Trotters Became Such a Thing

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Crispy pork trotters with Mission figs at Flour + Water, ca. July 2009. Photo: Jesse Friedman/Beer & Nosh

Some of the most welcome offal to come out of the trend of head-to-tail cuisine are pork trotters, a.k.a. pigs' feet, and we're now seeing more of this humble pork product pop up on respectable menus in New York, L.A. and San Francisco. More often than not, the meat is braised, deboned, and formed into a crab cake-like portion, browned on both sides, and served with any number of sauces likely to win over even picky eaters as they were last spring on the menu at the critically adored Frances, with a sauce gribiche. Semi-rustic preparations of trotters have made appearances in New York over the last few years at places like Craft and Baba, and last winter Northern Spy did a trotter cake with mustard greens a play on collard greens and ham hocks that caught the attention of the Times and became the lede for their review. ("Slice into it and the pork spills out, outrageously tender. There is nothing to tip off the squeamish that weve entered hoof territory.")

But how did pigs' feet which many of us probably associate with the pale, puckered, and all-too-anatomically-intact versions we saw pickled in jars in the ethnic foods section of grocery stores as kids become the stuff of haute cuisine?

San Francisco food writer Marcia Gagliardi (The Tablehopper) points back to the first wave of chefs embracing offal here in the last few years. "It started with the whole-animal guys like Nate Appleman when he was at A16, Chris Cosentino at Incanto, and Mark Denham when he was at Laiola," she says. "What you're seeing now in S.F. is a second wave of restaurants doing rustic European dishes (Flour + Water, Frances, Contigo), and diners perhaps being a bit more adventurous."

Below, a rough timeline of the trotters' recent rise to prominence:

1999: Thomas Keller features Pig's Feet with French Green Lentils in The French Laundry Cookbook.

2001: Tom Colicchio opens Craft in New York, later begins featuring pork trotters among his mix-and-match menu offerings.

2002: Chris Cosentino comes on board as executive chef at Incanto, bringing with him a passion for head-to-tail cooking, and using trotters in his pork ragu. Later launches the website OffalGood.com.

2004: The Bouchon Cookbook features pieds de cochon with a sauce gribiche.

2007: Fergus Henderson publishes Beyond Nose to Tail, which contains the recipe for Trotter Gear.

2007-2008: Trotters make their appearance on Nate Appleman's menus at A16 and SPQR in San Francisco. He later wins the James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef, as well as a Food & Wine Best New Chef nod. They continue to make appearances on both menus under new chefs Liza Shaw and Matt Accarrino, in ragus, terrinas, and Shaw's pork trotter zampone, which are deboned foreshanks stuffed with either sausage or a meatball mixture, then braised and finished off in a wood-fired oven.

Early 2008: Hakata Tonton opens in New York, with 33 of its 39 dishes containing pigs' feet. The UK Telegraph declares them 'the new superfood.'

June 2008: Animal opens in Los Angeles, and chefs Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook garner loads of attention for their bold use of offal, and they frequently work trotters into their menu.

June 2009: Bouchon opens in Beverly Hills, features trotters.

July 2009: Flour + Water opens to loads of press early in the year, and that summer begins featuring trotters breaded and fried and served with Mission figs and mustard greens.

December 2009: Josef Centeno's Lazy Ox Canteen opens in L.A., and receives a bunch of attention for, among other things, pigs' feet.

February 2010: The Times writes up Northern Spy and their trotter dish.

Spring 2010:
Trotters appear on the menu at Frances, braised and seared in cakes, served with a sauce gribiche and pickled vegetables. Frances is nominated for a Beard Award for Best New Restaurant.

April 2010: Saveur spotlights the very rustic crispy pata (fried pigs' feet) at Patio Filipino in San Bruno.

June 2010: Prospect opens in San Francisco, from the team behind the uber-successful Boulevard, featuring a dish that combines pork trotters with lobster. Critic Jonathan Kauffman later calls out the dish as a point where chef Ravi Kapur "hits a sweet spot" of edginess.

October 2010: Lowcountry opens in New York, offering "trotter tots" as a starter; Coi chef Daniel Patterson opens a casual offshoot in Oakland called Plum, featuring a pork trotter burger.

Earlier: 7x7 Declares 2010 the Year of the Izakaya, Also the Year of Goat Belly [Grub Street]
The Next Wave on S.F. Menus: American Regional [Grub Street]