The loud whirr of an industrial band saw fills the clinical white warehouse space off Woodward Heights in Ferndale as Mike Romine heaves a seventy-pound lamb carcass on the saw table. With practiced speed and dexterity, Romine adjusts the angle of the animal and looks towards the reciprocating blade, cleaving the loin and tossing the resulting cut into a veritable mountain of meat accumulating on the worktable. Behind him, a small group of employees sorts and packages cuts of pork.
“It’s funny,” he says, looking up. “A delivery person was here the other day, and I’m going hard on this pig when the driver ran out the door. Watching me cut up that pig was traumatic for her.” Mike shakes his head, visibly disappointed. “People are really disconnected.”
It’s that disconnection that is the driving force behind Farm Field Table, a butcher shop founded by Romine with his twin brother Matt Romine. The shop sells locally sourced meats, some from the Romine’s own heritage hog farm near Imlay City. In addition to selling retail onsite, Farm Field Table supplies high-end local restaurants across metro Detroit such as Selden Standard, The Emory, Takoi, and the Apparatus Room, in addition to the Romines’ restaurant, Hiram’s Tavern in Imlay City (formerly the Mulefoot Gastropub).
According to Romine, it’s all about knowing where your food comes from.
“We don’t buy from any farms that we don’t physically go see,” he emphasizes. “We know where the animals sleep. We know everything about them.”
To Romine, food isn’t merely a commodity, something to be consumed and just as quickly forgotten. He sees a connection to our food as something to be savored, contemplated, and above all, respected. He suspects the delivery driver, like so many of us, is used to their meat arriving wrapped in a bag, disembodied from the animal, pushed behind a glass display case and wholly divorced from its oinking, bleating, breathing origin.
Romine takes off his gloves, scratches a week’s worth of stubble, readjusts his black ball cap and gestures at the butchering floor and with a wave of his hand.
“All this is about understanding intentional food systems,” he says.
According to Romine, our disconnection from our food stems from our history as a nation that prides itself on innovation.
“We came out of the Great Depression, and we had this need for food preservation,” Romine says, “and at that time the can was a new concept, it was inexpensive, and people learned to eat like that: frozen and in cans. People are not farmers anymore.”
Connecting farm to table
The Romines’ commitment to their product is clear when you look upon the variety and freshness of the dry aged lamb, beef and pork products displayed with pride at Farm Field Table.
That commitment is equally evident on the back acreage of the Romine farm near Imlay City. Chickens run in the yard and hide between rusty implements scattered throughout the property. Behind a few metal fences that have seen brighter days, beautiful fat sows gorge themselves around circular metal troughs.
Joe Romine, father of Matt and Mike, chuckles as he steps over the knee-high enclosure. Joe Romine looks every inch his sons’ father, sharing their dark hair and eyes, as well as a contagious enthusiasm for his work. He praises a big male Mulefoot, dark brown with coarse hair, who roughly nudges a smaller male away from a prime feeding spot and digs in.
“Look at it,” the elder Romine says admiringly, “the thing is a walrus!” He takes out a tin of Grizzly dip and begins to pack it. “Five to six inches of back fat! Thing is a porker!”
When Joe Romine walks into the enclosure, the pigs trot right up to him, expectant as dogs. These pigs are nothing like typical commercially raised pigs, pink with a short tail that twists into a helix. These are heritage breeds. Closer to a boar, the Mangalitsa, a Hungarian breed, is lighter colored and covered with a thick, luxurious coat of white curly hair. The darker colored Mulefoot breed has less hair, so its nearly half-foot of back fat jiggles and sways as it trots around the 20-acre farm. The breeds don’t get much over 600 pounds and get too fatty for conventional commercial use.
This is the point, though. When you eat a cut of the dry aged pork from the Romine farm, the experience is unlike what most people associate with eating pork, according to Romine. Outside of bacon, large-scale commercial pork is pretty lean, a sickly grayish-white devoid of any appreciable flavor profiles. However, if you find yourself eating a cut of pork from a heritage breed, particularly one raised on Joe Romine’s farm, you could be forgiven for not recognizing the meat as coming from swine. The meat is a bit darker than most people are used to and dense with flavor. A given cut will be rippling with luxurious deposits of fat.
Do not be afraid, advises Mike Romine, adding “Don’t you dare trim it. Indulge; it will be one of the finest bites of your life.”
Building a sustainable food system
It’s an experience the Romines are hoping to expand throughout the region.
In Imlay City, Mulefoot Gastropub brand is being replaced by a more affordable and accessible iteration, Hiram’s Tavern. The goal is to encourage more of a local following; a majority of the clientele were driving an hour or more for a destination experience that averaged $50 per person. Hiram’s Tavern will cater to a more local, regular clientele without, Romine emphasizes, sacrificing quality.
But he’s hoping to introduce the higher-end Mulefoot Gastropub concept in the southern Oakland County area soon.
Mike acknowledges the difficulty in the undertaking he and his family have taken on. It isn’t the easiest or the most cost-efficient route, paying all their farmers fair prices for their goods, dry aging their meat in-house, running their own butchering facilities, raising their own pigs, charging a little more so that they might pay their employees enough to live on.
But they aren’t doing it this way because it’s easy.
“The culture that we bring here,” says Romine, “is a great example of sustainability in our world.”
Because, really, this isn’t just about the food, as good as it is.
As the straight shot of Van Dyke eases you back from Joe Romine’s pig farm in the thumb and back into Detroit, the transition is gradual. The farms, with fields spread out like a checked picnic blanket, begin to give way to the urban sprawl of the exurbs. Soon, neighborhoods become denser, and restaurants carrying cuts purveyed by Farm Field Table begin to appear. But to find where the food came from, all you have to do is go little north. It’s not too far.