REGENT — Some women are Rockettes. Some are Porkettes.
Charlotte Meier never kicked up her heels in a dance line, but she’s proud to say she’s been kicking up pork for decades.
Meier’s been all about pork since the bad old days when it was super fatty and dangerous if undercooked.
Meier’s directed the North Dakota Pork Council for 23 years and she’s watched delicious things happen to that lardy pink animal that used to symbolize greedy politicians.
That “other white meat” didn’t happen by accident.
Meier and her late husband, Sebastian Meier, were part of the change in the pork industry that started nearly 30 years ago.
They operated the first hog confinement operations around the Regent area back when the idea was to feed pigs just about anything to get them fattened up to market weight. The animals would pack on 200 pounds in a finishing barn in weeks, eating like pigs the whole time.
The industry took a huge blow in public perception when those feeding practices were linked to trichinosis, a parasitic disease caused by eating undercooked pork, in consumers.
That was a significant “yuck” factor. Along with the fatty image, Meier said, pork industry leaders knew it was time to start researching better pork practices.
“The genetics started changing. Instead of the round and fat pink animal, the genetics went to longer and leaner. Then we got into nutrition for hogs. Trichinosis was caused by feeding scraps and that didn’t happen if they ate grains, vitamins and minerals,” Meier said.
These days, the words “juicy” and “pork” can actually go together in the same sentence.
“Now you can cook pork to 145 degrees. It used to be you had to cook it to at least 180 degrees and it was so dried out you could barely chew it,” Meier said.
In those early years, the Meiers finished up to 1,500 animals a year, trucking them on semis to the John Morrell plant in Sioux Falls, S.D.
It was hard work and anyone who’s been around a pig operation knows it’s a good day when the wind blows the smell away from the house.
Meier said her husband always reminded her that the pigs smelled like money, though some years they didn’t smell like much money at all, 8 cents a pound at rock bottom.
She got involved as a volunteer in the women’s pork organization, proud to be a Porkette in years when there were more than 700 pork producers in North Dakota.
The women would promote pork and serve samples at their local grocery stores and in booths at the fair. They had a lot of fun together and the work was meaningful because it added value to the hard work they were doing back on the farm.
“It needed to become more valuable, because the input was getting so high in transportation and feed,” she said.
She worked with the dieticians’ association and with school food classes in a program that paid for pork so students could learn how to prepare and serve pork.
Meier has a fan in Jody Hauge of Mandan, a former pork producer and executive director of the council.
Hauge said Meier was an outstanding promoter, volunteer and director, besides getting down and dirty in the barns and pens.
“She walked the walk. It was their life,” Hauge said.
Like all agriculture, the pork industry has changed in North Dakota. Today, there are about 250 pork producers raising some 600,000 farrow pigs that are all shipped elsewhere for finishing.
“It used to be a family business, but now it’s a business business,” Meier said.
The Meiers got out of the business in 2000 and most of the hog operation buildings are gone from the farm in the rural Regent countryside. Sebastian Meier died in March from a rare brain disease.
Meier said even if she was ready to move on from the smell and the work, she stayed with the council because she enjoyed promoting pork. The work is funded through the state’s relatively small share of the national pork check-off contribution of 40 cents per $100 of value.
With an apple and ginger glaze, pork beats beef or fish and maybe ties with chicken on her favorite protein lineup, she says.
“Did you know that pork tenderloin today has less calories than chicken?” she asks like the promoter she is.
She’ll retire at the end of the year and the North Dakota Pork Council will benefit from younger, newer ideas, she said.
Hauge said it will be the end of an era, for sure, when Meier moves on.
“I don’t think it’ll ever be the same,” she said.
Meier does have one pork-related date on her calendar: in March, for the first ever “Beer and Bacon Festival” in Fargo.
“Now, it’s all about bacon. Oh my gosh, look what people are doing with bacon — dipping it in chocolate even. It’s everywhere. People are looking past the fat to the flavor,” she said.
But even in that brave new world, it’s still probably not a good idea to feed chocolate directly to the pigs.