Last Thursday, I and the Potato Non Grata (the "Potentate of Nada," jokes our Tourettic friend Derf) scored tickets for a Slow Food event at Pizzaiolo in Oakland. It was the highlight of my week for two reasons.
First, the two guests of honor were completely charming. The 8-week-old male and female (that's a "boar" and a "gilt") Red Wattle piglets are two of only 300 Red Wattles left in America. Although they had to stay in their cage, in the back courtyard, I could reach easily through the bars and scratch their mat of coarse hair, like rusty steel wool, and see their mad-professor eyebrows. This was my first time petting a pig, and I enjoyed it so much I elbowed several small children away without a thought.
I held up a hand for one of the piglets to sniff. Now, a pig after a scent is a curious thing. The damp pink snout seems to roam independently of the rest of the face, almost like the business end of an elephant's trunk. (I'm just going by Wild Kingdom here, people.) By the time she was done smelling my hand, I felt as if she probably knew what kind of sandwich I had for lunch two days ago.
The piglets were at the end of a 35-day, 2,000-mile tour that began in Missouri when Patrick Martins of Heritage Food USA picked them up in a van. Heritage's mission is to save old, or "heirloom," breeds of pigs, cows, lambs and poultry from near extinction. Red Wattle pigs are the most severely endangered variety of pork in the U.S. The name comes from its red color and the wattle that hangs under the chin, kinda like a pair of long, hairy nipples. Red Wattles originated in New Caledonia (that's an overseas territory of France), came to New Orleans in the 18th century, and multiplied in the forests of Texas. They were thought to be extinct for a while until a wild herd surfaced in Texas, "which shows that Texas is good for something," Patrick joked. This particular pair of endangered porkers were on their way to their new home at Long Meadow Ranch in Napa, where with luck they will breed and have many more piglets, starting the first outpost of Red Wattles west of the Mississippi.
Patrick, who also launched the USA branch of Slow Food, gave a touching and funny speech about why Red Wattle numbers have dwindled, and why we should care. "They've been pushed to the brink of destruction by industrial agriculture," he said. "To think these little guys didn't have a place in this country was very sad." He explained that while Red Wattle pork is very flavorful, the pigs are not well suited to factory farms: they don't fatten fast, and they're too smart — they get depressed in a factory's confined quarters with no stimulation.
Unfortunately, he added, "we have to eat them to save them."
Which brings me to the other high point: the reception was catered by The Fatted Calf, and readers of this blog will know that I am a slave to the wares of Fatted Calf maestro Taylor Boetticher, in particular his duck-liver mousse. Well, the Potato and I at last got to meet him in person, and I managed to resist leaping into his tattooed arms like a frenzied meat groupie.
(We also met mellow, gifted foodie Derrick Schneider of An Obsession With Food, who actually gets paid to write about food and wine, and I skulked in Alice Waters's wake for a bit but was too in awe to talk to her.)
Back to the pork. Since our introduction to this old-style charcuterie's mind-blowing meats a few months ago, we make weekly pilgrimages to procure as much Fatted Calf bacon, breakfast sausage, chorizo, lamb kebabs marinated in harissa, pork-and-morel crepinettes, fegatelli, finocchona — you get the picture — as we have cash and/or can carry. It's that good. Actually, it's better. I'd eat it all the time if I weren't afraid I'd end up with scurvy and weighing 400 pounds; Taylor said he usually has salad for dinner because he's meated out from tasting sausage. Best of all, it's Ethicurean friendly: Taylor uses local grassfed beef, non-tortured ducks, and heritage pork.
Taylor and his wisecracking wife/partner Toponia were manning a table covered with various fatty delicacies, some of them made from Red Wattle pork (from a farm in the midwest or something), including a rich, nutty, pulled-pork spread and paper-thin slices of a smoked Red Wattle sausage with garlic, white wine, and peppercorns.
I asked Taylor what the difference was between Red Wattle meat and say, the more common but still heritage Berkshire variety. He said Red Wattle pork is lighter in color, and less marbled, that it looks like it's going to be less flavorful, but isn't.
"I think of pork in terms of wine," he said — words that all men should practice uttering at least once. "The Berkshire is more of a Rhone or a Zinfandel. The Red Wattle is more like a rosé made from Cabernet in terms of its depth, color, and flavorful body. It also retains moisture, really, really well."
So, on one side of the courtyard, the cage with the cute little piglets snarfing up baguette pieces and green beans. And on the other side of the courtyard, us "long pigs" swirling free wine and snarfing up pieces of baguette spread with the flesh of the cousins of the piglets. Did I feel a disconnect? You bet.
Why does our culture say it's OK to eat pigs and not dogs, when according to some they are equally matched in loyalty, affection, and intellect? I suspect it has something to do with how tasty and versatile pigs' meat is — Homer Simpson is right, "it's a magical animal" — and how they can be quite a nuisance, even a menace, when feral.
Still. It's been quite an eye-opening few weeks for me, what with hanging out with cows, chickens, and pigs. (Next weekend: dairy goats!) I'm realizing that as much as I like rediscovering meat, and as much as I want to understand what goes into getting that pork tenderloin onto my plate, I am not cut out to raise animals for food. If I did, I would no longer be able to eat them myself. Either that, or I'd have to forgo having pets — I wouldn't be able to see my cats as separate creatures, destined for thousands of dollars in vet bills instead of a dutch oven.
I think I need to spend more time around animals and the people who raise them for meat in order to make peace with the whole process. Ultimately, I believe that we humans are true carnivores, and that while we have a choice whether or not we eat meat, species like cows, chickens, pigs, and goats have survived primarily because of — not in spite of — our eating them.
I also believe it's morally and ethically OK to eat animals that were well treated in life, able to experience fresh air and grass and dirt and to eat what their stomachs and appetites were designed by evolution to eat — animals that feed on renewable energy, not petroleum products and the inedible bits of other animals. But in our quest to dissociate the pork chop from the pig, we've blindfolded ourselves, munching obliviously while eons of pigs and cows and chickens have been whittled down in a few decades to a few dumb, hardy species able to fatten fast and cheaply, then be slaughtered before their suffering kills them and ruins their meat.
Opting out of the whole meat equation as a vegetarian is no longer appealing to me: it seems like sitting on the sidelines both for taste and for political engagement. How many vegetarians want to breed and raise Red Wattle pigs as pets? They grow to 250 pounds, by the way. Nope. I prefer to find out everything I can so I can make the best choice I'm comfortable with, eyes wide open, and I hope you'll do the same. Eat meat or eat only some meats or don't eat meat at all — just figure out your values and choose consciously.
Here's to the Red Wattle piglets. May they thrive in their spacious new home in Napa, so that people less conflicted than I am can eventually slaughter them and Taylor can turn them into pretty much the best bacon you'll ever have in this lifetime.
Th...th...that's all, folks.