Washington -- I came, I scribbled, I ate pork.
I tasted pork entrees prepared by 14 chefs because I was a judge in the regional finals of "The Taste of Elegance," a competition sponsored by the National Pork Producers Council.
The winning dish, from Bob Kinkead at Washington's 21 Federal restaurant, had approximately half a hog in it. There was Smithfield ham, chorizo sausage, bacon, tenderloins, cubed pork butts. There was also a grilled orange slice. Kinkead called it Brazilian-style pork. I called it brown food that made my tongue dance. It won the $1,000 top prize.
It edged out a dish created by Jimmy Sneed, chef at Windows at Urbanna Creek restaurant in Urbanna, Va. Sneed made a silky entree out of pig's loin. He stuffed the loin with crab meat, chicken mousse, ham, and shiitake mushrooms and cream. Sneed picked up $500.
Rudy Speckamp of Rudy's 2900 Restaurant in Finksburg won third place and $250 for his dish featuring a pork loin, marinated in apple cider, honey, mustard, ginger, garlic, shallots, ginger, pepper and cilantro.
The dressed-up pig feed struck me as a classic Washington "function." There was competition. The winner, Kinkead, got $1,000 for winning and the right to represent Maryland and Virginia in the national round of the pork competition to be held in Chicago March 16th. There was a cause. Proceeds from an accompanying silent auction went to the Capital Area Food Bank, as did a truckload of pork.
And there were congressional celebrities, two of them. A powerful one, E Kika de la Garza (D-Texas), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, and a recognizable one, Fred Grandy (R-Iowa), who is best known to many Americans as Gopher Smith, the purser on the television show "The Love Boat."
It was a well-dressed crowd: The men wore dark suits and muted ties, the women tailored skirts and quiet jewelry. The pork was gussied up as well. One tenderloin, prepared by Etienne Jaulin of Potomac's Old Angler's Inn, was covered with kataifi, a dough that gave the pork a frizzy look. Other pieces of pork went woodsy. David Hartung of Carroll's Creek in Annapolis smoked his pork over wood chips made from barrels that once held Jack Daniels whiskey. Lloyd Hartsfield of Bethesda's Cottonwood Cafe grilled his Azteca tenderloins over mesquite. And, in a town known for blue smoke and mirrors, Jeffrey Buben of Washington's Occidental restaurant tried a combination of smoke and Gouda, grilling tenderloins stuffed with the smoked cheese.
As is true of many parties, it was interesting to see what showed up together. Spinach, for instance, appeared with pork, twice. First in the roast shallot ragout that appeared beside a pork loin prepared by Thomas Bowles of the C&O; restaurant in Charlottesville, Va.; and then blended in the pork sausage made by Michael St. Ledger of Loews Annapolis Hotel.
The wine flowed. Several of the chefs used fruity red wines in their sauces. Don Bleau of Richmond's the Butlery Ltd. used beer to dip slices of stuffed ham for his fresh ham rellenos, a porked-up version of chilies rellenos. Grand Marnier flambeed the tenderloin prepared by Dirik Felsburg of Capital Hill's Cafe Berlin, and Michael Mason, chef at Richmond's grand Jefferson Hotel, tossed a finger of peach schnapps in the peach and cranberry tenderloin stuffing.
Since Washington is one of the world's capitals, some of the chefs took the international tack. Curtis Eargle of the National Press Club put coriander and pomegranate seeds in the middle of pork loin, a trick he said he learned from some Russian chefs. And Michael Rork of Baltimore's Harbor Court hotel gave a 3-pound pork loin the German sour beef treatment.
By the end of the evening I was, as they say back in pig country, feeling my feed. My fellow judges seemed to be feeling the strain of duty as well. As we sat down to sample our last pork dish, Henry Haller, former White House chef, was talking about "seeing the light at the end of the tunnel," a phrase that one of his former bosses, LBJ, use to use to predict the long-awaited end to Vietnam War. Another judge, Scott Allmendinger, who is editor of Restaurant Business, an English-speaking magazine, began speaking German. And after the last judging form had been filled out, Louis Mahoney, food editor of the Richmond News Leader and The Times Dispatch, began digging into a salad with a fervor she normally displays only when attacking a slab of barbecued ribs.
As for myself, on the drive back to Baltimore, I began thinking about the joys of vegetarianism.