When you’ve been cooking as long as I have, there’s a tendency to believe you’ve seen it all to the extent that yes, we might still learn something new every day but the big revelations are behind us and what lies ahead to learn are the little things: new techniques, ingredients, maybe the discovery of a new regional cuisine. Thirty years in, it was hard to imagine a day (and an animal) coming and going that would completely shake the foundation of my own relationship with the food I eat and also serve at Big Jones. Some of us chefs studiously avoid such moments, preferring to stay the course of whatever culinary dogma got us where we are today.
Last year, I had the privilege of visiting Spence Farm, who was a new supplier to us at the time. One of the most fascinating parts of that visit was meeting the American Guinea Hog. Not a guinea pig – we’re not talking about your fuzzy little childhood pet – but a hog so named because its lineage is believed to trace to a West African hog named a red guinea that landed upon our shores during the slave trade. This animal evolved with the homesteading of the Appalachian mountain country and parts of the lower Midwest/upper South.
It became an important homesteading hog because of its docile temperament, compact size, and predisposition to pack on lots of fat. The first century and a half of the American Experience was largely agrarian, and in homesteading hogs were raised as much for their fat as their meat – it could not only be used for cooking, but also as a cap on potted (preserved) foods, to make soap, lubricants, or even lamp oil in a pinch.
Our ancestral traditions of hog husbandry on the homestead could be considered a model of green farming – the animals were released into the woods, they’d harvest their own food without requiring inputs or crops to feed them, fatten themselves, and then in the winter when it was cold enough to slaughter safely, families would bring the hogs in, butcher them, and process them into hams, bacon, lard, pickled pork, and sausages. Of supreme importance was lard – on a homestead you didn’t have the option of driving to the nearest grocery store and buying a bottle of processed oil to cook with – you had to make it right there, and hog lard was one of the most efficient means of supplying needed fat through the winter, after which cows would provide dairy following spring calf births.
The 20th century changed American agriculture in many ways, some good and many bad. One of the great misfortunes is the loss of diversity in crops and livestock breeds as in the 1920’s the U.S.D.A. instituted a policy of consolidation that continues to squeeze families out of farming to this day.
Another change happened when nutrition science, in its pathologically reductionist paradigm, decided that animal fats are bad for us so we needed to eat leaner proteins (in addition to vegetable-based oils,) an assertion that dovetailed nicely with increasingly intensive animal farming and en emphasis on certain breeds that would grow quickly and could be slaughtered young, before they’d had a chance to pack on much fat. Enter the Yorkshire pig, and the consolidation of the pork industry in confined feeding operations, another phenomena of 20th and 21st century American agriculture with consequences we haven’t even begun to understand.
The American Guinea Hog found itself in a tough spot, no longer wanted by an evolving American food supply driven by federal government and transnational corporate policy, and is considered critically endangered by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. Enter Spence Farm and our interest in saving these heritage breeds.
I’ve grown increasingly interested in American culinary and agricultural history to learn to cook and eat more sustainably from past generations, who ate as well as we do today without consuming nearly as many resources. I want to learn how we could eat better and consume less, and frankly a lot of old American farming families ate far better than we do today, if you read old receipt books and journals.. Of course the best way to do that is to eat what’s close at hand and in season. Pork and pork fat have a lot to do with that – pork has a much higher calorie conversion ratio than beef – much less feed is required to make a pound of meat or fat – and pork fat, if raised in the right way and eaten in reasonable portions, is very nutritious. Additionally, compact breeds like the American Guinea and Mulefoot (another favorite) can be magnificently successful on pasture or forest-based forage, which can reduce or even eliminate the need for grain-based feed.
My own family’s history with the pig and my childhood raised on lard have a lot to do with this, but I want to save and promote lard as a foodstuff. A few years back it struck me as patently absurd that We are razing millions of acres of Indonesian rainforest to grow monocultures of genetically engineered oil palm so that We can then ship it around the world in order to have a “vegetarian” source of saturated fat for culinary purposes, and that this fat is considered more desirable than lard! Lard comes from the farmer across the road, and if that farmer’s a good one, it will come from a healthy animal that lived with its family, had a good life, ate a good diet, and left very nutritious meat and fat for us. It also left the rainforest well enough alone.
Processed vegetable oil is no better – coming from industrial crops raised in fossil fuel-intensive operations and refined to the extent that they are not the least bit nutritious, in fact only empty, very costly calories with a narrow range of dietary fats that can throw your body’s balance of fats out of whack. Pork fat, on the other hand, contains a wide range of dietary fats and your body knows exactly what to do with them – something that can actually lead you to feeling full and satiated, more quickly than if you eat a less balanced dietary fat, which still leaves you hungry for the fats you did not get yet your body needs. This is a major problem with vegetable oil. You can eat a pound of French fries cooked in soybean oil and you’ve eaten a bunch of Omega 6 fats, so your body starts screaming for Omega 3’s and 9’s. Guess what? You’re still hungry! Lard will satisfy your body’s call for dietary fat. Of course if we’re going to utilize lard, we need to save the old lard hogs.
One of the things I love about Spence Farm is their predisposition to not only grow heritage crops, but to identify crops and breeds that are relevant to our history here in Illinois and the Great Lakes, and in need of saving. Honestly I haven’t had a chance to discuss with Marty why, exactly, they picked the Guinea Hog as their pig breed, but I’m so happy they did.
Spence Farm focuses as much on education and cultural preservation as they do growing food – on many a Spring or Summer day you can find local school kids out on the farm marveling at the many beautiful heritage chickens on the farm, petting the docile young guinea hog piglets, or sampling amazing produce right out of the field. Then of course there’s the rare breed Dexter cow, Surprise (that’s her name, more on her another time.)
The farm is working to grow and raise a herd of Guineas to sell into their market but also to distribute stock to other like-minded farmers, an effort we whole-heartedly support. To that end, most of the newborns are raised to adulthood, and only rarely are they offered for sale and slaughter. Why would we want to slaughter and serve a critically endangered heritage breed? The answer is really simple – we have to eat it to save it. My friend Poppy Tooker has a wonderful TV show based out of New Orleans that can explain that concept better than I can in this space. 1) Without a market, no farmer has the economic means to raise these animals and 2) Spence Farm is doing it the right way – they are growing their herd, and frankly that costs money. How to raise money? Well, you sell some hogs.
Several weeks back, Marty called me and asked if I’d be interested in a hog they were bringing in for slaughter. Giddily, I said “of course!” When Marty emailed a few days later to arrange delivery details, he explained that she was a six year-old mother of several litters who had been just great but couldn’t go anymore. Of course my reaction was “What??? You’re sending me an old breeding sow and it’s costing how much??? Won’t the meat be tough and stringy?!?!?!?!?” Calmly and with the patience of a sage, Marty replied that these are just a different breed, try it, let us know what you think, they really want to know my opinion, but I could definitely look forward to more flavor and intramuscular fat, as these old animals have time to develop those characteristics.
I’ve learned to trust Marty for many reasons, primarily because we think very much alike about how food should be grown, processed, and cooked, and his family farm reminds me so much of my grandparents’ old farm. Still, my suspicions were raised and since this pig was going to set me back almost nine hundred dollars, I was on pins and needles. Of course I knew if I wasn’t happy with it, I could return all or some of it and ask Spence Farm to eat the cost, something I’m loathe to do as that’s a tough blow to any relationship when you’re talking big bucks. Marty’s confidence was reassuring.
We’ve worked with Mulefoots (probably my absolute favorite breed) from Honeymilk Farm, Hampshires, Durocs, Berkshires, and Yorkshire crosses from Gunthorp Farm, Mint Creek, Slagel, and LaPryor Farms, and I can say what I found when I butchered this animal was astounding. The fat had the most refined, grainless waxy texture it was mesmerizing just to slice through it. The marbling, as Marty said it would be, was magnificent.
There were two major discoveries I made with this pig, both of them with serious culinary consequences, but perhaps more importantly, they raised important philosophical questions with which I will likely wrestle for years.
Most hogs, when you lay them out before you, post-slaughter, smell at least a bit like a dead animal’s insides- there’s a bit of ammonial acridness from the guts, funky bloody organ aromas, and generally just a smell most laypersons might consider unpleasant but to which we butchers quickly grow accustomed. This animal, however, had the most elegant and light perfume, like a lush pasture in Spring after a morning rain. And yes, I did just describe a dead animal carcass thus. This begs the question, why? You might think that an older animal, especially one that had bred many litters, would have time to develop more “funk” as well as marbling and flavor. The Guinea Hog, however, was easily the cleanest pig I have ever smelled, and I’ve smelled many. It surely is a testimonial to Spence Farm’s husbandry practices, but also calls into question some of the assumptions we make about food animals and aging.
Equally important, and perhaps more so philosophically, was the meat. It was great. The silkiness of the fat was matched by the meat, and contrary to my fears, those years of piglet-bearing and rearing didn’t leave a trace of hormonal funk or bitterness. That light, sweet perfume of a pasture in spring permeated every part of the animal, truly a magnificent specimen.
The only muscle that was less magnificent, at least as far as our regular uses go, was the loin. It was well-marbled but chewier (not tough mind you, just had a bite) than a modern market hog. The flavor still magnificent, however, I cured and smoked it and it is hanging in a hog bung to age for some months before becoming charcuterie. When the modern, medium-rare treatment doesn’t work, revert to the traditional and I’m really looking forward to the results. The thighs are smoked and hanging as country hams to be used come winter, and the collars were cured and smoked to be cooked with beans. We got twenty pounds of lard off of a 140# carcass, which was as astounding as the quality of the lard – so creamy and rich, almost hinting of vanilla beans in its sweetness.
The hams and smoked loin are research projects and won’t be for sale at Big Jones because they are not HACCP, but done by traditional means, much like my great grandparents did on their farm. I’ll share what I learned when we bring those meats in.
I guess the thoughts I’m unable to escape relate to the pig, her life, and what she was able to do with it – roam a pasture, have sex, be a mom, roam a pasture, have sex, be a mom… and when her time came, she made great eating. Most of us don’t realize (or know or care) that market hogs are typically slaughtered at or even before sexual maturity. The same goes for chickens. What does that mean for us?
Frankly, it puts the lie to so many of our Truths and assumptions when it comes to raising animals for food. You and I may place a high premium on humane treatment and take a degree of satisfaction in the fact that the animals had a happy life. Farmers and processors and others that deal with such matters accept as fact that animals are tastiest when they are “young and tender” but realistically that notion probably has more to do with modern feed-based production systems that don’t want to see sexually mature animals eating grain and not putting on additional weight fast enough to justify using the feedstock. In traditional husbandry, it’s also about maintaining the herd, in which many of the animals also get to experience family life, seduction, sex, and the joys and heartbreaks of being a parent.
How humane is a system which uses moms to breed breed breed with a few lucky boars getting to be the dads, and then turns all of their offspring into dry, lean, flavorless meat before they’ve even had a chance to experience sex, childbirth, and farrowing? I guess it is all relative, and pasture or forest-based hog farmers definitely get at least the environment right, but right here I had an American Guinea Hog that showed unequivocally that you can let animals live, love, and experience a full life without sacrificing quality – in fact, you can enhance it. So why does America adhere to the factory farm, and why do those of us who demand more humanely raised meat adhere to one of the major tenets of that paradigm, taking animals young and immature for food? We’re supposed to be the ones that care, are conscious of these matters. Frankly I’d never given it much thought. Now, I can’t get over it.