Meat and greet: A tale of two piggies

dqpig20582.jpgLast 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.

patrick_20613.jpgThe 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."

taylor_20597.jpgspread_20594.jpgWhich 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.

rwpig_20577.jpgStill. 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.

9 Responsesto “Meat and greet: A tale of two piggies”

  1. Holly says:

    This is excellent. Patrick and I have lately been talking a lot about how tough it is for people to face the animals they eat, in the wake of reading Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, and with all the good food coverage that is coming out of the woodwork lately.

    I read an interview of Pollan somewhere (I think I got to it through this site!) where he told the story of a man who had contacted him—apparently repeatedly—after his piece about buying a feedlot cow first appeared in the Times Magazine. The guy wanted to buy the cow from Pollan to keep it from being slaughtered, and was planning to graze it in front of his somewhere-in-California mansion. He invited Pollan to a steakhouse to discuss it.

    There's a story in yesterday's NYT food section about a restauranteur couple who live on a farm and raise the eggs and herbs they use. They have eighty chickens that they had planned to raise for meat, but now that they've gotten to know them, they said they are not going to slaughter them.

    I agree strongly with Dairy Queen's thoughts above that these animals are here because we've domesticated them, and that opting out of meat is not a politically viable option. If we opt out of that discussion, then the factory farms win.

    We've got chickens—I won't say we raisechickens, because I don't think three counts as any kind of an operation. This is our second batch. We killed two from our first batch of chickens, and we were committed to killing them when we got them. It was not easy. It wasn't as hard as we expected. But the experience changed us, and part of how it did is to make us feel like pets are, well, a little absurd. Especially since in this information/service economy, they have become completely useless economically. They no longer herd farm animals, we screech if they kill mice or birds and deliver them unto us. They pretty much eat and run up veterinary bills. We have one cat left, and it will be the last pet we own. We cannot rationalize that allocation of resources.

    Ironically, however, there is a romantic strain to the growing sustainably-raised meat movement. People are having a great time raising animals, but the livestock is becoming pet-i-fied. There's that whole book out now about that wondrous pig some woman raised, Christopher Hogwood, who lived to a ripe old age, being manicured and over-fed and, undoubtedly, much loved. But we cannot raise all these animals to old age. The folks with the eighty chickens—what are they going to do with eighty chickens when they are no longer laying? Chickens only really lay for a few years. They can live to be ten or twelve. That's a lot of feed. Will they then try to give them away to some poor farmer to deal with? We see this all the time on chicken lists. People in Berkeley would release the poor things into the hills—did they think they would naturalize or something? They will, as manure! Old hens are not really good for much, frankly. As Patrick notes, you really don't want to eat a boneless, skinless breast from an old layer. Trust me on this, we've tried.

    I think that much much more regular contact between people and livestock is one of the things that will help us work through this. I believe we are all pretty starved for contact with other creatures. We get a little shocked by their goodness for lack of a better word. They aren't just slabs of meat in shrink wrap. I think Pollan's urging to take all of our food more seriously is a part of what will come from meeting the animals who provide our meat. When you do eat a pig you've met—or raised, you don't want to realize that you scarfed it at 60 miles an hour and can't quite remember what it tasted like.

  2. DairyQueen says:

    Wow, Holly -- that's the best comment ever. It should be its own post. (For anyone who's reading this, check out Patrick and Holly's inredibly inspiring, awesome "urban homesteading journal," Hen Waller.

    I'm fascinated that raising animals for food has made having pets seem absurd to you. I thought logically that it might, but I would never have guessed it was true. And I agree that we can't raise the 260 million (or whatever the crazy number is) cows, goats, pigs, and chickens in this country to old age. And since we can't, anthropomorphizing just a few of them -- Michael Pollan's steer, the pig Christopher Hogwood -- is just a way of letting yourself off the hook for the rest of the animals who are most decidedly not getting manicures and vet checkups.

    I believe it's possible to look an animal in the face, name it, care for it, kill it, and eat it. Our ancestors did it as a matter of course. However it's a skill 90% of us have lost, and which you seem to be in the process of regaining. I'm not quite ready to transform our tiny yard into a chicken run, but I'm eagerly reading about your travails with the neighbors -- hang in there.

    And I hereby vow to really taste the meat I eat, to honor the sacrifice of not just the animal, but those who killed it so that I wouldn't yet have to.

  3. "People in Berkeley would release the poor things into the hills—did they think they would naturalize or something? They will, as manure!"

    Actually, there's a reasonable number of urban farmers in Berkeley who raise chickens and slaughter them. I have a friend who lives in Berkeley who raises, chickens, turkeys, etc. She killed her first turkey for Thanksgiving (her advice: wait a couple days between slaughtering and eating).

    Berkeley isn't just do-gooder animal lovers; it's as much or maybe more people who want off the grid, who want to return to a rural lifestyle, who want to make urban farms work, who don't trust corporate food.

  4. Holly says:

    Derrick,

    Fair enough. I actually wasn't taking a cheap shot at Berkeley—I happened to live in Oakland at the time and those were the people I knew about. I know of and have been to Berkeley backyard homesteads, where the livestock is treated well, and slaughtered for food. The Bay Area is the place that helped me come to consciousness about a lot of these issues. I don't live there now (thank goodness—sorry, but I was glad to leave!) but I respect what people are doing there.

  5. aardvarknav says:

    Old hens are good for something. They make a much better soup than using a young fryer. Growing up on a farm in the 50s, we used everything. We even used the legs in making the soup. Now you have to hunt just to find an old hen in the grocery stores and about the only place to find chicken legs is in Oriental or Mexican markets. It's all in the cooking - you wouldn't grill a brisket like a steak and expect to get the best results

  6. Tana says:

    I am absolutely delighted to read this post, and to discover your blog. I'm giving my adoring public direct instructions to visit this site right now. (Well, on my next post.)

    Links, sausages: it's all good.

  7. NICK CHEA says:

    You forgot the most important about Red Wattle...the most important thing about them is that they are suppose to produce the most lean pork...so for people who are into whole food and naturally raised meat...red wattle is combo...naturrally raised and lean pork!

    Nick aka Money Doctor

  8. NRO says:

    This article is hypocritical. Why do we have to eat this pig in order to save the breed when the last surviving colony was found in the wild; and it was doing just fine. Going vegetarian/vegan is incredibly easy and tasty so don't confuse your gluttony/laziness/indifference with a compassionate attempt at saving a species that was doing just fine without us.
    If your stomach speaks louder to you than your heart, just as long as you can outsource the dirty work, than maybe you should find a different topic to pontificate about. Like maybe why the holocaust was really OK, or perhaps why the Chinese have it right and Fido does make a delicious soup!

  9. Dan says:

    Dear NRO not to be offensive but please take this into consideration, I was a vegetarian for  4 yrs not becuase of killing animals but for health sake. and yes there is VERY good vegetarian food that we still eat today...
    we raise hogs I am planning on buying red wattle breeding stock, but the "the game" works here in america is if there is no market for the product there is no money to continue raising it which in the long road means no feed for the hogs....
    Thank you ,
    Hope I didnt offend anyone but life is life.. and yes we butcher our own meat in missouri....