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Pig in the City

A foodie saint is tainted by fast food's evil empire

The foodies, F. Scott Fitzgerald may have written, but didn't, "are different. They are not like you and me." In the American foodie universe, New York and San Francisco replace Rome and Jerusalem as religious meccas. Apostolic succession began when Le Pavillon's Henri Soule laid his hand on the shoulder of Pierre Franey. Julia Child is the Saint Jerome of this church, and Alice Waters is perhaps its Bernadette of Lourdes. Wolfgang Puck is a sort of Borgia Pope. Bill Niman fulfills Saint Francis of Assisi's role.

And Lucifer? For foodies, the evil one is not a fallen angel or some lanky, turbaned chap in the Hindu Kush, as our pious president would currently have it. No, the evil one hides behind a clown's painted face and is called Ronald. Let him who hath understanding count the number of this beast, for it is billions and billions.

The McDonald's hamburger chain comes in for serious criticism from more than just foodies. In fact, last year's epic blast against the entire fast food industry, Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, did not even touch on how the food tasted. Instead, the book talked about McDonald's relentless opposition to organized labor, to increasing the minimum wage, to improving the working conditions at the meat-packing plants and to any attempts by the USDA to assert public control over the meat industry. Schlosser also explored public health issues such as coliform bacteria in the meat and agricultural practices that could spread bovine spongiform encephalopathy to the United States.

Years before Schlosser's jeremiad, in 1983 to be exact, Orville Schell wrote a book titled Modern Meat: Antibiotics, Hormones and the Pharmaceutical Farm. There, he outlined the case against modern American agricultural practices that had wiped out family farms in favor of enormous factories for poultry and swine. Schell put his money where his mouth was, so to speak, and went into the business of raising antibiotic- and hormone-free cattle in a sustainable manner with a rancher named Bill Niman. Niman's 1,000-acre ranch was on a headland of Marin County, California, across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. The cattle could roam across the hills, watching sunsets over the Pacific Ocean and breathing in the same cool air that makes the wines of the Sonoma and Napa valleys the best in the United States. There are probably people who wouldn't mind being turned into joints and roasts if they could occupy such a piece of real estate for a few years.

Niman-Schell Ranch beef, called Niman Ranch beef since Schell withdrew from the partnership in 1999, caught on first with Alice Waters, where the taste won over customers at her venerable foodie temple, Chez Panisse. Dozens of Northern California restaurants currently serve Niman beef, pork and lamb. In New York City, Niman customers include the Gotham Bar & Grill, Daniel and Vong. In Houston, only three full-service restaurants buy Niman meats: Tony's, Aries and Boulevard Bistrot. But now the three Houston branches of the small (about 100 outlets) Chipotle Mexican Grill burrito chain will be serving carnitas featuring Niman pork.

Niman, in town to promote Chipotle and his pork, speaks in the voice of an animal lover -- not a paint-flinging PETA freak, but a rancher who cares about his stock. "Every time an animal is born, a calf, a lamb, it's still a miracle for me," Niman observes. "I remember my first litter of piglets. It was in 1969…Pigs are intelligent. They're pretty cool when they're allowed to roam free." The Niman Ranch sounds like a place where Babe would want to end up. All that TLC costs money, of course. When the Chipotle chain switched to the Niman pork, an order of the carnitas tacos went up in price from $4.65 to $5.50, a big jump in the count-every-penny world of fast food. But for whatever reason, all agree that Niman's happy hogs taste better than the factory farm product -- and way, way better than, say, the pork in a McRib sandwich, the most god-awful product McDonald's ever attempted to foist on a blameless public.

Niman pork and Chipotle would seem to go hand in hand. Chipotle invited food writers not only to try their new carnitas but also to learn more about sustainable agriculture. And Steve Ells, the Colorado chef who founded the restaurant, made two great foodie pilgrimages as a young man: first to New York, to the Culinary Institute of America, and then to San Francisco to work under Jeremiah Towers at Stars. But in 1998, when Ells decided to expand his company, he went looking for a minority partner. He found it, in McDonald's.

Niman doesn't seem bothered by the McDonald's connection. "They also help by contracting to buy all of our trim," he says.

And what does McDonald's get for investing in Chipotle, apart from a potentially profitable new business venture? Niman waves his hand toward the counter and says, "I think they like the association" -- that is, the halo effect of being involved with a fast food operation stressing freshness, flavor and environmentally friendly agricultural practices.

Ann Daniels, Chipotle's director of purchasing, says that the McDonald's stake in the privately held corporation's stock is now "a majority interest." What the giant corporation's plans are for its pure and wholesome little chain is something only the clown's senior minions know.

And that, dear foodies, is how Saint Francis came to work for the devil. Let us pray.

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