On raising fat pigs

Meat eating just got real.

My beloved pig had been dispatched, drug and hoisted onto the gambrel when a couple of city folk started scoring and slicing their way to her backside. As they peeled back the hair and skin, I was mortified.

All I could see was fat. Cloudy, gelatinous fat.  About two or twelve inches of it.



I was so embarrassed.

It’s been almost a week since badass urban homesteaders (a better title than city folk?) Rachel and Alex Baillieul of Hounds in the Kitchen fame came over to collect their hog and butcher her onsite.

Tayse-Baillieul & Co. were very patient with us as first-time hosts of a butchering party, and I’ll write more about the logistics of that experience later, or maybe I won’t because I’ll forget. I’m so wrapped up in the first, the most pressing lesson of the event:

My whole life has been a lie.

While the rest of the world was celebrating books like Charcuterie, eating nose-to-tail and crowning the pig king, I must have been doing something else. Probably sloshing water out to the barns or hanging out with show pig breeders in Newark or something, because all I have been told about pigs is that you do not want backfat.

Pigs have been bred to be lean and boxy and meaty. The pork industry has even developed special ultrasonic devices and probes to measure a pig’s insulation, and to keep backfat at bay. I think they want it between a quarter and a half of an inch, and they have been breeding for this for decades. I don’t know why. Something about the 80s, and people wanting leaner meat. I’m not sure of the details. I think the whole thing might have been a huge mistake. Anyway, fat. There it was, coating our entire pig in shame.

Bad, bad, bad. Bad, pig raiser!

I thought they would be disappointed and ask for a refund, but as we were slicing up the fattiest pig in the history of pigs, Rachel and Alex both seemed a bit giddy about it.

Apparently, our home butcher friends already are immersed in a world where fat is not only welcomed, it is a medium. It provides the glue for one of hundreds of recipes, and can be incorporated into cured meats, pies crusts, soup stocks, or even cured for half a year, sliced razor-thin and eaten on a basil leaf.

Such culinary experiences, as I read in one of those Michael Ruhlman books, can lead even the most devout atheist to toy with the notion that, hey, maybe God DOES exist. What can I say? We’re all tempted in different ways.

I knew that my pigs looked different. But until you are there and actually cutting one open, however, it doesn’t really hit you HOW different these heritage breeds are. It’s like they are not even the same animal.

To help the novice understand, here is a picture of a Berkshire pig from the swine genetics offered down the street in Newark:

Shipley Swine’s top-selling Berkshire boar, “Black Thunder”

Just look at that guy! He’s a box! I love him! Like, in the way you’d love being in the Short North during the Arnold Fest. He is a cultural phenomenon.

Now here is a the same breed of pig, a Berkshire, that will father Black Betty’s next round of piglets in a month or so. Somewhere along the line, his genetic line took a different turn than Black Thunder. Or maybe it just stayed the course.


Look at that guy! He’s hilarious! Look at those curves! I have no idea whether those are a good thing or not!

I picked him for his “Old-Worldly” charm, meaning, of course, that I pick boars that would make the best tattoo or North Market logo, not knowing anything about pig breed standards and conformity. But now I understand that pork is not just pork is just not pork.

I have been so busy on the front end – learning to live with and not prematurely kill these beasts, that I’m just now paying attention to their end product, and how our management practices can influence the outcome. And about how we can rub some salt on these fatty red cuts, hang them in our own home to dry for a couple weeks, and be left with something that tastes better than a pork chop. Or even bacon.

It’s less of an “a-ha” moment and more of a “duh.” But the possibilities are exciting enough to keep me up at nights.

Ya see, the pork industry really has no need for the types of pigs we’re raising. We are the only idiots who will keep their genetics going, so we need to pay careful attention. Most pigs are raised indoors with temperature regulation, and no real need for insulation. But pigs raised outdoors need an extra layer of fat to stay warm. You wouldn’t want to go outside in a winter coat that was ¼ inch thick. Science.

So our pigs would be fired from conventional systems. They have not enjoyed decades of breeding for protein leanness that would compete with a chicken. And they’re going to grow and finish completely different. But these rebel, hipster pigs should not be thrown to the curb, or scoffed at by local butchers. These pigs are going to bring people to Jesus, in a culinary sense.

What I’m trying to say is that my purpose in life has been unclear until now. I think we are evangelists, raising red meat pigs to steer atheists toward the Lord God Almighty via layers upon layers of backfat. Bacon Church. Or, if that doesn’t work, we can take things that people are a-skeert of: severed pig heads, salt and fat and create a tasty, if somewhat structurally unsound, bridge for the gap between pig and pig eater.

And maybe other people will be inspired to do crazy things like order a whole fresh side of pork belly and cure their own bacon and pancetta. You know, maybe on the weekends or holidays. I know you people have jobs and stuff. Boring.

And maybe folks can be empowered to raise fat pigs on pasture. And not be so embarrassed about it.

We’re going to need a different slogan, though. In our case, “The Other White Meat,” is somewhat misleading claim.

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  • Rantingaboutrectangles

    Awesome! Thank you for confirming what I instinctively thought – that pork should be red, and mottled with fat. That’s how I love it best!

  • http://adventuresinthegoodland.blogspot.com/ Ohiofarmg

    we love fat pigz! whooot! one of the best things about the old timey breeds – besides the bacon – is that the marbling is stunning. you dont get that with those “lean” pigz. yay back fat! :-D