Walking the grounds of a farm in Katy recently, we realized something shocking, even more shocking than the fact that there are any farms left in Katy. The land on which we stood, it suddenly occurred to us, would one day come to be seen as sacred. Generations of locavores as yet unborn would grow up thinking of these 10 precious acres of pasture in Katy—the Black Hill Ranch—as the birthplace of something important, by which we mean the pig-to-table movement.
“I’ve been working in the restaurant industry in some capacity or another since I was 15,” says Felix Florez, who is now 35. But there was always something strange about the pork, the strange thing being that it was not from Texas. “It was from California, New Zealand, Australia.” The same people who wouldn’t dare eat an eggplant from Chile if they could pick one in their backyard, the same chefs who proudly trumpeted the virtues of Texas Wild tomatoes over the greenhouse variety, were curiously indifferent to porcine provenance.
“Even when the farm-to-table movement took off, most of the restaurants that were doing anything local, they were doing it with produce, not meat,” Florez tells us. But he knew it was only a matter of time before the chefs came around, and sure enough, he soon crossed paths with Chris Shepherd, a bona fide local-pig champion.
“Felix came to me with a belief and idea that nobody else did,” says Shepherd, whose restaurant Underbelly was Black Hill’s first customer. “He was giving up everything to try and do something that he felt was right.” Actually, Florez was still working as a sommelier at Brennan’s in 2010 when he started his farm, which began as two acres and three Berkshire pigs, but we take the point.
Shepherd says he appreciates knowing that the pigs he serves diners do not come from a feed lot, where they are usually confined to small pens and fed corn slurry, antibiotics, and hormones, i.e., a diet firmly focused on the rancher’s bottom line. “I want the pigs to run free and happy. Felix has been doing that [for them] since day one.”
Still, producing free and happy pigs poses more problems than you might think. Swine that are pasture-raised (read: actually able to walk) have more muscle structure, which in turn results in meat that is denser, and potentially tougher. This posed a problem for Florez, who quickly discovered that chefs didn’t want to serve tougher meat, no matter how much they sympathized with the plight of shackled, unsmiling pigs. They also didn’t want to pay the 20 to 30 cents more per pound that Florez was charging.
Thus was his transition to pig proselytizer born. First, Florez built a truck capable of transporting them humanely, and then he went around the country expanding his selection by collecting different heritage animals—traditional livestock featuring a wide variety of shapes, colors, sizes, and attributes that were popular prior to the onset of large-scale industrial agriculture, which only raises a handful of breeds. Along the way, he developed a network of local farmers, the Texas Rancher’s Network, dedicated to raising animals the same way he does, so that he can be the source for other types of meat, such as beef, goat, and lamb. He also set about educating local chefs on the best way to butcher and cook heritage animals, demonstrating why the additional cost was worth it.
Now, in addition to picking up all of these animals from his network of ranchers for delivery to Houston restaurants, he’s also the delivery guy, the salesman, the butcher, and the teacher, continuing to train chefs to break down their own meat. As a result, Florez logs more than 20,000 miles on his truck each month, and all, he says, so that the people of Houston can have pork and other meat that is wholesome, healthy, hormone-free, and…Texan.
“You are what your food eats,” maintains Florez, reasonably enough. “People need to ask the questions. When you eat commercially raised animals whose diets consist of corn, you’re basically eating sugar. This leads to diabetes, heart disease, and other health problems.”
“If you were to eat the things we’re feeding our animals—sunflower seeds, flaxseed, milo, oats, barley, rye, local rice, local fruits and vegetables—you’ll have a healthy, well-balanced diet.” Thus spake the high priest of porcine proximity.