Last year, I had the extreme honor of being asked by St. Petersburg-based author Ray Lampe to write the foreword for his new cookbook, “Pork Chop: 60 Recipes for Living High On The Hog” (Chronicle, $22.95).
To be thought of in relation to pork by a man who goes by the handle “Dr. BBQ” is high praise.
I took the opportunity to humbly declare the pork chop to be the finest cut of meat any human ever could hope to eat.
Mankind roamed the Earth in search of meaty deliciousness long before learning to walk upright and phone in to reserve a table at the place where cooks make pea-size food using liquid nitrogen. Being smaller than a cow, slower than a rabbit, nicer than a bear and meatier than a bird, pigs made for a dandy meal.
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That our ancestors discovered the pork chop is not much of a shock.
After all, the T-shaped bone offers its own handle. Food with a built-in place to grab made eating supper more efficient while running from the things that wanted to eat us as well.
The same could be said of ribs, but one must plow through a ton of them to fill a belly. (Goodness knows, I’ve tried.) The leg has its own handle properties, but only two of those are worth the effort of cooking. Primitive man may have been primitive, but he found the tender part of the porker in the chop region and made it work for him.
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I grew up in St. Petersburg, the same city where Lampe lives, and the exact part of the world where the pig first came ashore in the Americas. Pork is a magnet that attracts all men.
Geography, though, has nothing to do with Ray’s expertise. Across this delicious nation and around the world, he has honed his skills at cook-offs, throw-downs and smoke-fests. His sense for making pork even more delicious than it comes in its original packaging is more acutely calibrated than that of mortal cooks.
Lampe’s keen senses noticed a hole in the marketplace. There were dozens of books about burgers, chicken and ribs — including many he’d written himself — but none was dedicated to the humble pork chop.
One might think this would be a one-note topic. You grill the chop, you eat it. Or you braise or slow-cook it. End of book.
Lampe saw an opportunity to incorporate pork chops into dishes where you might not otherwise use them. Pork chop chili. Pork chop gumbo. Pork chops cordon bleu. Pork chop suey.
Then there’s the chapter of Extreme Pork Chops recipes. Pork chop Philly cheese sandwiches. Deep-fried pork chops. Pork chop-stuffed French toast.
Lampe says he can’t figure out why pork chops have been overlooked for so long. Maybe they just fell out of fashion. When Aunt Bea cooked for Sheriff Andy Taylor on “The Andy Griffith Show” in the 1960s, pork chops was his favorite meal. On the ’50s-themed “Happy Days,” Howard Cunningham would melt for his wife’s pork chop dinners.
One reason pork chops aren’t served more often may be that home cooks are grilling, pan-frying and broiling the hell out of them, way past the temperature that they’re considered done. In 2011, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration lowered the suggested serving temperature for pork to 145 degrees after decades of recommending that all pork be cooked to 160 degrees.
Lampe spends part of his year touring the country as a National Pork Board spokesman. He becomes a clearinghouse for consumer fears about pork-related trichinosis, which hasn’t been a problem among commercial producers since the 1960s.
“Even people who consider themselves foodies are afraid of pink pork chops,” he says. “You can’t get it out of people’s heads. It’s unbelievable.”
Lampe suggests cooking them as you would a steak, with 145 degrees being the proper temperature for a rare chop. Cooking to 160 degrees qualifies as medium. Anything beyond that, you don’t really want to eat. A cooking chart in the book guides the way to grilling, broiling, sauteing and braising, and provides tips for spicing and seasoning.
In June, Lampe will be on the CBS daytime TV show “The Talk” sharing his favorite tips.
“If you want a really great pork chop, brine it or put some rub on it,” he says.
In his hands you can feel secure that not only are you making the tastiest and most tender cut of the pig, you’re doing so in the company of an expert.
He is, after all, a doctor of barbecue.