Forget Whole Foods. Go Whole Hog.
The obvious solution to the feral pig “problem” is to put free-range pigs back in the human food chain where they belong, and would be, but for government red tape which benefits the big companies at the expense of the public and wildlife.
NOTE: article was originally published on WSJ.com on June 26th, 2015
It was usually midnight by the time I fed Boris his stale brioche. I walked through the back kitchen door, climbed into the green utility vehicle and loaded it with brown paper bags full of the day’s bread that diners in nearby New York City hadn’t been able to consume. Boris was usually mulling about casually in his pen atop the wooded hill, snorting, sniffing, waiting for the elegant five-star scraps he had come to expect as a sort of high-end mascot, kept in dignified splendor at the restaurant’s dedicated farm. After all, how else was he expected to maintain his 800-pound physique?
When it came time to slaughter Boris, his size presented a problem. First, there was the matter of his testicles. He had to be castrated to ensure that there wouldn’t be any bitter boar-taint from the enormous amount of testosterone that was no doubt pumping through his veins. Then there was the matter of his overall girth. He was too large to be slaughtered swiftly, and so Boris went on a diet and was given far less brioche in his final days.
On a breezy summer afternoon, the kitchen staff sat down with the farming staff for a communal meal, and the farmers told us the story of Boris’s passing. “How did he taste in the end?” was the question all of us cooks so badly wanted to know. “You tell us,” was their reply as we stopped mid-chew and slowly looked down at our half-eaten plates of Bolognese.
Boris was delicious. We braised his ears, julienned them and deep fried them in beer batter until they curled into a wonderfully crisp garnish. We cured his fat into blocks of lardo, froze it and sliced paper-thin sheets that we melted under a broiler over newly plucked spring peas. His loins became lonza; his head became head cheese; his belly became pancetta that we rendered and tossed in bitter dandelion greens, toasted pistachios and candied Meyer lemon. It was a kind of culinary poetry. Boris fulfilled his role in an ancient contract between humans and pigs that had held for 10,000 years, and we fulfilled ours as elegantly and humanely as we could.
Barry Estabrook’s “Pig Tales” ends with a scene in the very restaurant where Boris was cooked—Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, N.Y.—where farmer Michael Yezzi from Flying Pigs Farm is delivering pig No. 890 to a slew of gleeful chefs. Mr. Estabrook has followed pig 890 from birth, taken the drive to a slaughterhouse in upstate New York and now arrived at this famous kitchen, where pig 890 will be turned into an offering on the most artful tasting menu that money can buy.
As Mr. Estabrook rides in the old truck driven by farmer Yezzi, he astutely notes a tension. This pig will be sold by the farmer at a premium (at a farmer’s market, it would cost something on the order of $15 a pound). A small portion of it then will be presented to the diners whose Mercedes fill the parking lot. Mr. Estabrook draws a contrast between humanity’s historical relationship with the pig and the system that is replacing it, in which quality pork is very expensive while factory-farm hog production meets the popular demand for more pork at lower prices.
In another new book, “Lesser Beasts,” Mark Essig illustrates just how vital pigs have been to human flourishing. Pigs have offered poorer people food security, a source of meat that was under their own control. Pigs grow fast and efficiently convert what they eat into protein. They can’t draw a cart or a plow, but they do produce one useful thing: more pigs. In four months, a single pig can birth a litter of 15. And in six more months the sows in that litter become pregnant with their own litters of 15. And so on.
Throughout history, from China to England, pigs have served as a sanitation service, consuming rank garbage and sewage and transforming it into savory meat. Before refrigeration, they were the only meat source that, when combined with salt, got better with time—providing year-round nutrition and filling people’s larders. American colonization couldn’t have happened without pigs. Pigs in the New World, brought over in the early 17th century, helped drive away the native peoples, destroying their crops and clearing land for the English and Dutch, all the while giving settlers a steady supply of protein. The pig was independent, self-sufficient and highly adaptable—requiring far less maintenance than the cow, which needed cleared green pasture. As a result, Americans ate far more pork than beef in the years spanning all the way from colonial times to World War II.
As Mr. Essig shows us, part of the pig’s success stems from the fact that it is very much like us. Pigs, like people, are omnivores—their diet even more versatile than ours. Pigs are hardwired to discover new sources of nutrition. Like humans, they have general-purpose teeth and guts. Their self-sufficiency and adaptability are among their greatest virtues.
Pigs are also brilliant and selfish. While they can be trained to root up valuable truffles in Italy, they routinely choose to eat them before their owner can intervene. They will play computer games in exchange for M&M’s. Studies have revealed that they even have temperature preferences and when given the option will change the temperature to 73 degrees during the day and 63 degrees at night. Winston Churchill said it best when he declared: “Dogs look up to you, cats look down on you. Give me a pig! He looks you in the eye and treats you as an equal.”
But we humans have little time for a pig’s persona, and the relationship between humans and pigs has been fraught with scorn. Both Judaism and Islam revile the creatures, while today we in the West turn them into bacon as fast as we can fatten them. This might be OK had we not transformed an age-old system of respect and ritual into a modern one in which, thanks to our intensive farming techniques, one of the most adaptable animals has finally met its limitations.
As Mr. Estabrook and Mr. Essig demonstrate, we have gone from woods-to-table, to farm-to-table, to a gestational crate confinement system that can only be described as “semen-to-cellophane”—in which pigs are raised from infancy without being allowed to express their natural porcine instincts. Industrial-scale pig rearing can have dire effects on workers and surrounding communities, inflicting runoff and often a breathtaking stench. The system these authors decry has been documented by other, more muckraking works, such as Ted Genoways’s “The Chain” (2014).
But Mr. Estabrook is also concerned that we are weakening our own immune defenses by eating meat that has been overtreated with antibiotics. Between 1999 and 2009 alone, industrial farms went from feeding 18 million pounds to 30 million pounds of the stuff to animals each year. They get pigs fatter, faster. But, Mr. Estabrook says, “whether we like it or not, all of us are part of a huge international experiment on the effects of subtherapeutic antibiotics.”
Why treat ourselves (and pigs) this way? The immediate answer is our appetite for cheap meat. Mr. Estabrook takes us to visit a Danish pig farmer, and we see a successful system that doesn’t use antibiotics. Denmark, one of the leaders in pork production, has banned their use. If the U.S. were to do the same, according to Mr. Estabrook, the cost of drug-free pork would increase by around four cents per pound on average.
So perhaps the answer is simply that meat has to be more expensive. Both Mr. Estabrook and Mr. Essig suggest as much. But this can’t be the entire solution. For the less well-off, it’s no answer at all, and it does nothing to fix the way we relate to animals in the first place.
Humans have never been further from the sources of our food. Butchering, slaughtering and animal husbandry are no longer part of the rhythm of everyday life. Most people don’t hunt any longer. Mr. Essig observes, rightly, that there was a time when the role of killing an animal and eating its flesh was considered a sacred act—blending the role of butcher and priest. In King Arthur’s time, he notes, killing a wild boar was a ritual act, said to transfer the strength of the boar to the hunter. Mr. Estabrook takes us to a rare independent slaughterhouse and then into the woods with wild-boar hunters, where you get the sense that a symbiotic relationship between human omnivorousness and nature is still possible.
Since leaving the bucolic restaurant where I fed Boris his midnight brioche, I have spent countless hours in the woods learning to hunt wild pigs, looking my food in the eye, and introducing a certain amount of butchery and blood into the rhythms of my life. My freezer is full of more wild-hog meat than one woman can eat in a single year. But the USDA prohibits truly wild game meat from being sold. (For decades, all wild game meat listed on a restaurant menu or sold in a grocery store has been farmed.) This seems a bit archaic when we have five million wild hogs running rampant through our farmland and even our suburbs. In an era where the government is spending $20 million a year to hunt and control the wild-pig population, why is food being left in the field?
But just as asking rural Americans to pay $15 per pound for pork is unrealistic, so is asking the man pulling up to Blue Hill in his Mercedes to butcher his own hog or head into the woods to bring home the bacon. I think about all of the other people I have met who hunt for meat, and I think about all of the other freezers far more full than mine, and I wonder: If we are living in a world of a growing “sharing economy” (Uber, Airbnb), could there be a way for hunters to share, too? We can’t seem to control the current system. But what if we could create a parallel one?
Maybe then we could answer the question: How much is a natural pig worth?
—Ms. Pellegrini is the author of three books and leads hunting adventures for women.