Mark Newman at the downtown Memphis Farmers Market, where he and his wife Rita were regular vendors.
The year before last, two days before Christmas, I got a call from Mark Newman. “Hey Pamela,” he said. “Meet me in the parking lot of Acre. I’ve got a surprise for you.”
When I pulled up next to his truck, Mark hopped out, reached in a cooler and handed me a bone-in pork loin the size of a small ham. “Merry Christmas,” he said, beaming. “All Rita does is add salt and pepper and put it in the oven.” Then he gave me a big bear hug and continued on his way.
Mark Newman, who died from an apparent heart attack on Wednesday, drove hundreds of miles every week from his farm near Myrtle, Missouri, to restaurants from Kansas City to Atlanta, delivering his much-loved Berkshire pork. I asked him once why he kept up all the driving.
“We have the best pork in America, but this whole thing is about a lot more than food,” he said. “My customers need to know I care about them.”
Certainly, the innumerable people who shared Mark’s friendship never doubted his generous spirit. A farmer, family man and big-hearted lover of life, Mark was a tireless cheerleader for sustainable practices and a mentor to the city’s cadre of successful chefs and young farmers. He also loved to tell a story, pull a prank and order another round of drinks for the table.
Mark’s professional accomplishments were as impressive as his charisma. Raised on a family farm in Missouri, Mark was a consultant for the commercial pork industry before traveling to England, where he observed hogs bred and raised in pasture. It was a breakthrough experience that changed, irrevocably, how he raised pigs.
With his wife and partner Rita Newman, Mark positioned Newman Farm at the forefront of the country’s burgeoning local food movement, farming Berkshire hogs the old-fashioned way on 200 acres in the southern Ozarks. The marbled fat and superior flavor of the heritage breed quickly won favor with celebrity chefs nationwide, including Mario Batali, Nate Appleman and David Chang. Chef Kevin Nashan of Sidney Street Café even served Newman pork at a $25,000-a-plate fundraiser in St. Louis for Barack and Michelle Obama.
“I saw the menu myself,” Mark Newman said at the time, explaining the dish: crispy Newman Farm pork belly with lima bean ragot, squash, tomato confit and maple froth. “I told Kevin, all I want is a menu signed by the president.”
In Memphis, kitchen cooks embraced the farm’s pork belly, two-inch thick pork chops and hickory smoked pepper bacon, sold at local farmers markets year-round. So did local chefs, using Newman pork and Dorper lamb for seasonal menus and for prestigious culinary events such as Cochon 555, a snout-to-tail cook-off held in Memphis and other cities across the country.
“He was not just a leader in Memphis; he was an internationally recognized for his expertise, a consultant all over the world,” said Chef Mac Edwards, whose menu at The Elegant Farmer in East Memphis includes the Newman’s bacon and roasts. “He always gave to charity and supported the chefs and farmers market. He was instrumental to what we do.”
Chef Trevor Anderson at Hog & Hominy agreed, talking Wednesday evening about Mark’s energy and humor and his genuine interest in all kinds of people.
“When he made deliveries to the restaurant, he would call out, ‘Where’s the little guy? He’s the only one who will carry this stuff; the rest of you are too lazy,’” Anderson recalled, laughing. “I’m from Iowa, and Mr. Newman had lived there, so he would talk about Iowa and that made me feel good. He was crazy dedicated, but crazy dedicated in a good way. Only Mark Newman would drive a single pig from Missouri to Atlanta. He was just that kind of guy.”
In addition to his wife Rita, Mark Newman is survived by his children, David Newman, Chris Newman, Susan Newman Foster and Courtney Newman Gunter, along with their spouses and families. Funeral arrangements are pending.