Happy Pig Day and a Brief History of American Pork

4 years ago

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” and those times, if we’re talking about the origins of our modern day pigs, were before--and for a relatively brief period immediately following--the turn of the 20th century.

Though we like to romanticize the middle of the century in our quest for cleaner, simpler, homier food; by 1920 specialization and automation were already well under way in rural America. The 1950s, that pearl-bedazzled, apron-studded era of our foodie dreams, was marked by a more rapid industrialization of the food system than, perhaps, any that had come before it. By 1956 the agriculture industry was already training its hog farmers to produce ever leaner hogs to satisfy the increasingly scrutinizing tastes of American housewives.

Image: Bridget, a Tamworth sow, courtesy of Diana Prichard

Housewives who suddenly found themselves with refrigeration, convenience packaged foods, disposable time, extra income, and well... oleo, had appearances to keep up. The science and popular social mores of the day told them that eschewing the simpler, more dual-purposed food stuffs of the past was one way to do that and so they shopped for leaner meats. Pork suddenly had to compete with chicken, beef, even turkey. “The Other White Meat” was conceived.

Pigs have always been divided into two main categories, lard hogs and bacon hogs. Before this time that division simply meant a little less. Even the bacon hogs of yore, those breeds that were denoted by their lean muscle growth and early rates of maturity, produced notable amounts of lard. Lard hogs, meanwhile, simply produced more of it, and by extension a little less meat, at a little slower rate.

Now, though the commercial lines of hogs used on most farms still meet the standards of what we call a bacon hog--no one can argue with the fact that they’re lean growth machines--their emergence has almost created an entirely different, third classification of swine. If these are bacon pigs, and they certainly do turn out a hefty portion of bacon per carcass, the bacon pigs we knew before their emergence can hardly compare. Breeds such as the Tamworth, Hereford, and Berkshire, still alive and well on niche hog farms across the country, are a fattier bacon hog; the bacon hogs that preceded the bacon hogs of today, and their lard hog counterparts--breeds such as the Mangalitsa, American Guinea Hog, and Gloucestershire Old Spot--remain even fattier.

It’s that second classification that, despite the clean bill of health lard has been given by more modern science, struggles to maintain a presence in our fast-paced, low-fat world. And with each hog producing enough lard to last a family two or three years--even one that uses it without qualms--it’s no wonder.

We’ve forgotten how to use meat that doesn’t look exactly like all the other meat in the butcher’s case. We’re thrown off guard by pork chops that aren’t the same size and shape as all the other pork chops. And render lard? The 45 minutes most of us can eke out between errands, extracurriculars, and whatever semblance of a social life we’ve been able to piece together isn’t even close to enough. Using a different type of pork from a different type of pig doesn’t have to be daunting though. The execution is hardly different, and most small hog farms offer the lard already rendered if you’re so inclined to give it a try. (Hint: It makes the best pastries on the planet.)

So, today, as you celebrate National Pig Day, consider throwing a pork chop of a different kind on the barbecue. One with a little marbling, a thicker ribbon of fat around the outside, a little more pork flavor than you may be used to; those are the pork chops of yesteryear and your taste buds won’t begrudge you for them one bit. Just turn the heat down a little. Remember, it’s the fat that starts the grill afire.

Looking for pork from heritage pigs? Try Local Harvest.

Diana Prichard is a hog farmer, a keeper of those different type of hogs. She raises Tamworth, Gloucestershire Old Spot, Large Black, and Hereford hogs and their crosses on her farm in Michigan and is a freelance writer and author of the blog Righteous Bacon.

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