The fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic touches everything. Restaurants are particularly hit hard. Making things worse, their plight sets off a chain reaction in the food industry. As long as restaurants continue to struggle through the crisis, so too will the farms that supply them, leaving an uncertain future for many people.
Chubby Dog Farm, owned and operated by Karyn and Calvin Medders, specializes in ethically raised heritage pigs. Although the farm is in Grapeland — off U.S. Route 287 between Crockett and Palestine in East Texas — they supply the pork for noteworthy restaurants in Dallas. Yet, along with everyone else, they’ve felt the impact of coronavirus.
“It was just a handful of restaurants that were buying from us after the pandemic,” Karyn says. “We tried not to sell, actively sell [our pigs]. We were doing OK. We needed some time to grow some pigs, but after a bit we were like, ‘We need to sell.’ And we had contacted usual people, but yeah, everybody's just struggling.”
Not only is it difficult for the Medders to get their pigs to their customers, getting them processed became an issue. For over a year, they had a standing once-every-two-weeks appointment with a processor in Navasota, two hours away from the farm. That slowed down in May when processors across the state became overwhelmed with coronavirus outbreaks, shifting processing responsibilities to other regions.
As processing slowed down, the Medders were able to distribute their pork through Profound Foods. The North Texas-based outfit provides restaurants with produce, meat and dairy directly from local farmers. It helped the pork producers survive.
The Medders got into farming because they wanted to know where their food came from, as Calvin tells it. While Chubby Dog Farm is also home to goats and chickens, pigs seemed like a logical, somewhat low-maintenance choice even though they do require work and can be ornery.
“They’re easy to keep,” Karyn says. “They like foraging, they like hanging out in mud puddles, they don't need their coats trimmed like goats do, and they don't need a bunch of dewormer — all that stuff.”
What put Chubby Dog on the map — or plate, if you will — was Cochon555 2017 in Houston. The event pairs five local chefs with five pigs and five sommeliers as a celebration of heritage breed pigs.
That year, one of the Medders’ pigs, a wattle-litsa, was paired with chef Manabu “Hori” Horiuchi from Kata Robata. When the night came to a close, Horiuchi and his treatment of the wattle-litsa were victorious. It was the first of several “victories” for their pigs at competition, which helped them catch the eye of numerous restaurateurs.
In Dallas and the surrounding area, their pork and pork products can be found at places with menus as diverse as Harvest in McKinney, The Heritage Table in Frisco, Local Pint in Flower Mound, Mot Hai Ba in East Dallas and Victory Park and The Mansion at Turtle Creek, among others. But North Texas’ love affair had to start somewhere.
It was chef Matt McCallister, then at FT33, who was the first to go whole hog, so to speak, after the Medders pitched him on their pigs. While he can’t be certain, since it was around six or seven years ago, he believes the first pig was a Mangalitsa.
He used to drive down to Grapeland, just over two hours from downtown, to pick up whole pigs before the Medders began bringing them to Dallas. Now quarterbacking the kitchen at Homewood, McCallister continues to call upon the Chubby Dog pork, one of only two suppliers he uses for the meat, for various dishes on his menu — from tenderloins to headcheese.
“Obviously, they do a really good job raising their animals,” McCallister says. “Heritage breeds are always some of the best. I find that red Wattles, Mangalitsas — I like Berkshires, Old Spots, all of them — you just wind up getting a rich, more robust flavor. Obviously, when you take the time to raise them right, they have the opportunity to be able to develop that flavor as well.
“Their pigs are amazing, just beautiful. A lot of times the hams have a lot of good marbling in the intramuscular fat, which you don’t always see ... pigs. It’s really good stuff.”
He’s not alone in his affinity. Misti Norris of Petra and the Beast is also a convert. Norris is a fan of the variety of heritage pigs that Chubby Dog offers. From Berkshires, which are great for fresh cuts, to Mangalitsas, which are great for aging. She’s also a big fan of their Herefords. Besides the quality of the pigs, Norris simply likes the Medders.
“Their pigs are amazing,” Norris says. “They raise them really well, very responsibly. They let them kind of free range, roam around, eat what grows on the land. They live in a really great part of Texas that has a lot of natural things that grow.
“On top of probably everything, they're just really awesome people. They're very kind, very understanding, they always ask for feedback, they're always open to suggestions, they're always trying something new. It just kind of fit in with our philosophy and the way that I look at food and the way we cook and everything like that.”
They’re beginning to attract a following nationally, as well. Food and Wine recently named Chubby Dog Farm one of the best farms in America.
It’s affection and recognition that the Medders are counting on to keep them going. They were making trips up to Dallas and its suburbs to deliver their product to restaurants and anyone else who wanted a whole or half hog — even just for tasting menu events.
“We felt like rock stars,” Karyn says.
That ended with COVID-19.
For now, they’re making sure that Profound Foods stays stocked with their pork. That’s what’s bringing in the money to keep their pigs fed. They’ve also tried branching out into butcher shops before, but that’s been difficult because they say they simply don’t have the product on hand. It hasn’t been easy, but the Medders are managing. As for what’s on the horizon for them and their pigs, Calvin is succinct.
“In order for there to be 'a next' for us,” he says, “everybody’s got to wear their mask.”
Chubby Dog Farm, chubbydogfarm.com.