One of the greatest joys of being in the food world is the spectacularly high quality of individuals we encounter on a regular basis. We all know real life archetypes of the earnest agrarian, the passionate chef, the charismatic proprietor. Within each of these prototypical associations, there are many unicorns, rare artists and personalities too big to be imagined. In the early fall, in Oxford, Mississippi, I met one of these unicorns, a personality and a spirit unlike any I'd ever encountered. His name is Mitch McCamey and he is the chef/partner of Neon Pig, a cafe and butcher shop in Tupelo and Oxford, Mississippi.
"The cheese is from the south, the butter is from the south, all of the oil is from the south." Mitch is howling at a random collection of mostly (southern) food writers. He's a colorful guy. His hair is peroxide blonde, but mostly kept under wraps with a baseball hat, which over the course of the weekend, I see him sporting both forward and backwards. He is boyish and may be easy to overlook in a town of mostly college-students, though he doesn't look that young. It's hard to know what to make of him, but what is impossible to miss is his boisterous Mississippi drawl. And as he begins to talk to us about his relationship to the family-owned farms of the south, we'd clearly struck a nerve.
"I like to say we're gang affiliated with our farmers." It's not clear whether this reference has been fully absorbed by everyone in attendance, but they continue to listen politely. "We're not just kind of in, we're aaall the way in."
The occasion was the annual symposium from the exalted southerngastrointellectual hive, Southern Foodways Alliance. After that morning's presentations, he'd wrangled about a dozen of us together to check out Neon Pig. I knew why I was there, but the rest of the group - all of whom arrived before Mitch - carried expressions that seemed to question how they'd ended up there.
Just when it appeared they may be nearing the precipice of collective patience, Mitch bounces in and launches into his 'gang affiliated' talk. But that was out back, near the smoker. Before we even made it there, he became distracted - and subsequently we became distracted - by the fried chicken bacon. Yes, fried chicken bacon. It's brined in chicken stock, cured, wrapped in a dark roux and smoked. The final result is very much like fried chicken, and though I was intrigued, it was unnerving. Was this place a gimmick? Mitch cornered me after my corn presentation, impassionately talking about his butcher shop and commitment to small, local farms. Since we were so strongly aligned on this, he had no problem convincing me to join him back at Neon Pig. But the chicken bacon isn't what I'd expected to see.
Then we learned about their award-winning burgers, made from unusable trimmings mixed with the (legendarily smoky) Benton's bacon. The mix included sirloin, ribeye, New York strips, whatever. We also learn about their tacos, also made with meat scraps. Soon, the place is starting to make sense. They're breaking down tons meat, and they're doing it every day.
"How many cows do you buy each year?", I ask. "120", Mitch says. I'm floored. 120! It occurs to me, this little butcher shop, which can't be more than 1,000 square feet, in this unassuming plaza in Oxford, MS, is one of the most revolutionary shops in America. Some restaurants do a little butchering, some butchers do a little cooking, but the combination of the two at Neon Pig means that they have the capacity to buy more whole cattle than either operation otherwise would.
Mitch continues talking. We head from the butcher counter/grocery (which also has a large black chalkboard overhanging the heavily-worked griddle that churns out these burgers, and tacos) towards the walk-in refrigerator, where a brilliantly-colored, crimson and ivory hindquarters hang. Just outside of the walk-in, we see the smoker. It's totally in accordance with what Mitch called, "micromacro", a tiny space, and a tiny smoker doing massive work to re-shape the local food system in Mississippi. We've gone quiet, the magnitude of his unassuming contributions are beginning to settle on us. Mitch fills the space by talking about where the cows are raised.
"We use two guys. One of them is from where I'm from just south of Tupelo in the city of Polka. He's been doing it since he was in the fourth grade, in 1964." He continues, on an irreverent, but earnest (and accurate) tirade about how growing. "People want to talk about farm to table but you're never going to get there if you start with tomatoes. If you start with the cow can get there."
He continues the point, lamenting a problem plaguing the rest of our nation. "70 percent of my farmers are over the age of 70. And local food hasn't really gotten here yet. So we're going to blink an eye and they're going to be gone and then I'm gonna be struggling. I'm not going to let that happen."
In this moment, I realize I love Mitch. I realize that, as food lovers, as cultural preservationists, as southerners, we're very lucky for him and his work at Neon Pig - a name he says came from a favorite childhood pig, a Red Mangalitsa breed. The store begins to fill with smoke. The staff, all smiling and hospitable, are clearly used to him bringing in strangers from off of the street to tour the place. At least of a dozen of the burgers Thrillist called, the best in America sizzle loudly on the griddle.
As we're all now appropriately indoctrinated with the gospel according to Mitch, we stuff our faces with the juicy mashed patties on a soft, ciabatta. Just then, Trish, a partner and accountant walks over to ask how it's going. Between bites of burger and local craft beer, I tell her that things are slightly better than perfect, then congratulate her on their remarkable achievement of purchasing over 120 cows annually. She says thank you, but without hesitation, notes that we are in the second location, and that that figure does not include their original location in Tupelo.
Out of nowhere, Mitch yells, "She would know! She keeps the books!"
$300,000 annually on local cattle. It's a figure that I haven't stopped thinking about since my initial visit to the little/major butcher shop. And every time I think about how impressive that is, I can't help but hear Mitch's bellowing, "We're aaaallll the way in!" Yes, indeed.