Pork Belly at (the) Federal

Our gluttonous streak continued last week, as the fried chicken extravaganza was followed by a pork belly blowout at the Federal.*

Federal remains our favorite Durham restaurant, and has become the site of a weekly post-Weight Watchers pilgrimage, where Fred can order his beloved pork sandwich with cheese and jalapeno peppers and I can sample the Federal’s many fascinating specials.

One special that’s eluded me since I arrived in Durham has been the pork belly (a cut of meat from the pig taken from the underside–essentially uncured bacon). It was on the menu on our very first visit, during a heady six-month period last winter when every foodie in America (including me) could seem to think of nothing else besides little piggy undersides. That night, so many of us had descended on the Federal that there was none left for me, and I had to content myself with the carnitas.

Those carnitas began our love affair with the Federal, but in our weekly visits over the past year pork belly did not make another appearance until last Monday.

I was thrilled and worried. The reasons for the thrill should be obvious. The worry, though, grew out of my struggles through what is coyly known as “maintenance” in Weight Watchers–the tortuous battle to keep off those pounds your body so desperately wants back, the battle you will wage for the rest of your life if your idea of a good time is to eat pork belly while reading a book, preferably with a cat on your lap.

That day, the Weight Watchers scale had revealed a 1.2 pound gain. So I made a compromise: I would order the pork belly, but I would eat only half of it and save the rest for lunch.

You know what happened. I was utterly unprepared for how greasily good that pork belly would be. It had been roasted with a slightly sweet, jerk-style rub and was served with chopped sweet potatoes roasted with onions. The meat itself was achingly tender, each of the four slices containing a quarter-inch layer of creamy fat. I don’t know if the sweet potatoes and onions had been cooked alongside the pork, but it tasted that way.

After eating two slices and half the potatoes, I should have stopped. I should have asked for a box right there. But, I rationalized, how well would this dish heat up? The meat would overcook. The potatoes would lose their succulence. The glorious perfection of the moment would be lost. Carpe diem, I said to myself, and dug right back in.

*It’s probably a good time to note the longstanding cultural debate over how to refer to this article-defying restaurant. A few months ago, a friend told me that since it’s called “Federal,” I should say “Federal” and not “the Federal.” I thought this was nuts–surely a bizarre whim concocted in the picky brain of an overly scrupulous English major.

So I asked Laura, our favorite server, to give me some guidance.* She prefered “the Federal.” Brimming with triumph, I conveyed the news to my friend, who calmly responded that Durham residents who were around when (the) Federal first opened, and was known as Federal, find it hard to change. Naturally, the very next day, a friend at church said, “We should go to Federal sometime!” I wish just once I could be right about something.

*Of course, only the picky brain of an overly scrupulous English major would even think to formulate these questions. Or write about them.

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