THE RISE OF FREE-RANGE SOUTHERN HERITAGE HOGS
Towering twisted oaks form the maritime forest canopy of coastal Wadmalaw Island. Spanish moss dances in a gentle breeze wafting across the South Carolina marsh. Bald eagles circle overhead. Is this Nirvana? Close, except I’m staring down a hungry, grunting, 400-pound boar. The jet-black Mulefoot, one of America’s oldest and rarest swine breeds, approaches slowly, deliberately. He either seeks a fight or he thinks I’m cute. Both options warrant concern.
“That’s Kevin Bacon,” trumpets J.L. “Tank” Nicholson of Holy City Hogs, a year-old operation dedicated to breeding and rearing hogs in a natural environment. Tank climbs over a large metal fence and heads my way. “Don’t worry. He’s a great pig, very gentle. I’d trust him with my kid…”
Tank reconsiders…“Well, maybe not my kid.”
Just minutes before, Tank goaded me into the forest, encouraging me to stroll this woodland piggy paradise with an enthusiastic directive, “Life’s about adventure. Go have one!” before quipping over his shoulder, “A stick might not be a bad idea.” The long tree branch I am wielding offers little consolation. Tank laughs his big hearty chuckle. “No worries. Kevin Bacon likes the ladies!” And I realize the adventure has just begun.
I embarked on this search for the essence of woodland pork weeks ago by accepting an invitation to Rebellion Farm, where Tank keeps another passel of his hogs on property owned by writer and culinarian Jeff Allen. This peaceful, rural expanse of field, forest, and swampland just twenty minutes from the hustle and bustle of downtown Charleston was once site to the first major slave uprising in the colonies, the fated Stono Rebellion of 1739. Now it harbors a rebellion of a different variety, a small stand against large-scale agribusiness. Allen runs the farm as a sort of incubator program, playing host to budding agrarians like Tank and resident vegetable farmer Jen Wassum and helping them network with chefs.
On this day, Allen and Tank entertain a group of chefs intent on checking out the heritage hogs. Craig Deihl of Cypress sizes up the rump on a Berkshire. Josh Keeler of Two Boroughs Larder strokes the fur of a rare wooly Mangalitsa pig. They discuss fat and ham the way car fanaticsmight compare vintage Corvettes. Tank’s wife feedssome chocolate milk to a 300-pound Mulefoot-Berkshire sow named Mia Ham who practically“coos” with affection. (By the time this article hitsthe newsstands, Tank’s wife will have given birth to their first child, another incentive for Tank to bring home the bacon.)
Two large blondes–grunting Mangalitsa sows–flank me. “You might not want to stand right there,”says Allen. “If they decide to jostle or spar, they could bump you by accident and break your legs.” I jump back, forgetting that these cuties are quarter tons of mobile lard.
We watch piglets scamper as Allen speaks of “seam butchery,” a European technique he has been studying that follows the contours of each muscle, as opposed to the American way of slicing willy nilly through the center of the animal with a bandsaw.
“Hogs used to be bred for flavor,” says Allen, “not for economy. Their individual traits informed a rich culinary repertoire. Now the industrial system dictates that a hog is a hog—‘the other white meat.’ There’s a disconnect between forest and plate, between food and its application in the kitchen, that needs to be resurrected.” Tank is shaping Lowcountry hogs, and these chefs are half the equation.
HOLY CITY HOGS
“You look like Moses with that staff!” Tank observes. “Put it down, you’re making the pigs nervous.” I oblige but hide behind him. Kevin Bacon stands his ground.
Here at Holy City Hogs, roughly 200 pigs have the run of the land, frolicking in a porcine resort equipped with watering holes, intimate hideouts, shady alleys of Leyland cypress, open fields, and forests of oak canopies that shower acorns each fall, part of the finishing diet that makes these pigs so tasty.
These are not the cookie-cutter pink clones of big agribusiness. Among the contented grunts filing past me through the forest are rusty-red Tamworths, long-snouted Ossabaws, red Durocs, black and white Berkshires, miniature Guinea Hogs, Red Wattles, Large Whites, Hampshires, and wooly Mangalitsa—a veritable Noah’s Ark of heritage piggery. Then of course there’s Kevin Bacon the Mulefoot, who has temporarily lost interest in me to go flirt with a wild boar-Tamworth cross named Tammy Faye Bacon (she is quite the looker).
Tank yelps out a sing-song mealtime “Suuuuuuu-WEE!” Pigs emerge from distant hamlets. Now I understand why some chefs have nicknamed Tank “The Hogfather.”
Floppy-eared piglets scamper merrily, mature sows trod slowly, ambling through the forest toward the awaiting slop of cereals: a mixture of oats and wheat soaked in milk. An occasional splash of chocolate milk or honey sweetens the deal. I grab a jug of buttermilk, screw off the cap, and hold it up to Kevin Bacon’s eager lips as he chugs it down with ravenous abandon, the milk streaming down his jaw. I could swear he is smiling.
I ask Tank about his daily routine. He jokes, “I feed animals all morning, break for lunch, feed animals some more, maybe find some time to grab a beer, then go home and feed my wife,” he pauses, “then wake up and do it all again. It’s like Groundhog Day.”
WASTE NOT, WANT NOT
Approximately 60 to 70 percent of the cost of raising hogs is sourcing food. It turns out pigs make great recyclers. A man’s waste is a hog’s pleasure. Tank sources milk from a local dairy unable to sell off bottles that are approaching their designated expiration dates. By picking up 400 gallons three times per week then recycling that plastic, he’s keeping 10,000 pounds of waste from being dumped into a landfill.
Local distributor Limehouse Produce sometimes gives Tank a call to dispose of old vegetables. Two local bakers supply stale boules and baguettes, and local distillers are more than happy to donate spent mash, fed to the pigs in moderation (mash lacks lysine, an essential amino acid, and must be combined with lysine-rich milk to help a pig grow). Tank readily shares his secrets with other colleagues he has met through the Facebook group he started called “Southern Pig Farmers,” with more than 290 members and growing. Tank relishes the meat at the end of the tunnel. “I feed them molasses at the end which makes them taste…” He kisses the tips of his fingers with an audible smack. He is searching for local sources of sugar cane as a special treat for his hogs.
“Happy pigs taste better,” explains Tank, which may sound like holistic flummery, except it’s true. Scores of studies have shown that pigs allowed to express “pigginess” (socialize, root, wallow, forage, roam, and eat a varied diet) result in richly marbled meat, sweeter fat, and a deeper flavor profile ideal for fine charcuterie.
Unlike the saturated hard fat of factory pigs fattened and finished on corn and soybeans, Holy City Hogs’ prized Mangalitsas possess a silky, sweet, pure white fat similar to the famed Iberico hogs of Spain. Feasting on acorns and swamp chestnuts in the last weeks of life produces the Lowcountry equivalent.
“I wouldn’t sell a Mangalitsa to any chef who doesn’t know what he’s getting,” says Tank, explaining that the Hungarian breed consists of anywhere from 55−79 percent fat, the highest ratio on record. “That would be like handing a thirteen-year-old boy the keys to a Ferrari.”
When Thomas Keller obtained a Mangalitsa hog in 2007 for his charcuterie program at famed restaurant The French Laundry, culinary pundits worldwide took notice and local chefs like Sean Brock and Craig Deihl began sniffing out heritage breeds for their own whole-hog agendas—hogs unique for their fat and musculature, with taste directly informed by diet and quality of life. Chef interest created opportunity for pig farmers to return to an older way, one that values the relationships between the farmer and the chef, saving these rare breeds from the brink of extinction along the way.
Now Southern heritage pig farmers from Texas to Virginia are taking the leap of faith. Heritage hogs grow more slowly and typically have smaller litters than commodity hogs, so it could be a full year before a farmer gets a return on his investment. Restaurateurs such as Nick Pihakis of southern BBQ eatery Jim ‘N Nicks is recruiting a heritage hog network in northern Alabama and lower Tennessee by guaranteeing new farmers that he will buy their product. The State of Alabama committed $650,000 to open a heritage hog processing plant. Now phones are ringing off the hook with chefs clamoring for heritage meat.
On Black Oak Holler Farm in West Virginia, Chuck Talbott’s hogs roam freely through the lush forested hills of Appalachia, an area teeming with acorns, hickory nuts, and soon, perhaps, reintroduced chestnuts. Tank and Talbott speak often.
Meanwhile websites such as The Salt Cured Pig are developing interactive maps connecting heritage-breed farmers to like-minded butchers and charcuterie makers across the country. There is plenty to oink about.
PORK TO PLATE
I saddle a stool at the marble counter fronting the open kitchen of Edmund’s Oast, an haute cuisine brewpub and Charleston’s newest concept restaurant. It’s evident from the cloven-hooved meats displayed in the overhead curing case that Chef Andy Henderson is serious about pork. The charcuterie tray is extensive and delicious.
I bite into a miso- rubbed pork chop that proves succulent and flavorful. “One of Tank’s hogs?” I ask the chef. “That’s from Gra’ Moore’s operation up in Florence, Carolina Heritage Farms.”
I met Moore last year over lunch, after which he sent me home with fresh eggs and a slab of pork belly from the cooler in his truck. Fumbling for my phone, I snap a picture of the dish and Facebook it to Moore with effusive compliments. He responds immediately: “Thank you! Come on up and see me.” I marvel at this modern world of social media linking me instantly to the very farmer who raised the product on my plate.
The next day, on the two-hour drive north to meet Moore, I pass flat expanses of fallow cotton fields and groves of tall pine. My car slows behind a rusty, faded-blue Oldsmobile sagging heavily to the left as it jostles over railroad tracks. An unmarked gravel road takes me past cornfields to Moore’s hideout.
Moore leases eight secluded acres (buffered by a hundred acres of swamp and forest) from a local attorney, but he is working with the Pee Dee Land Trust to acquire more land. Like Tank Nicholson, Moore has established mutually beneficial relationships with feed sources: white cornmeal leftovers from Geechie Boy Mill on Edisto Island and whey from a goat dairy. He supplements with Austrian winter peas, rye, and heirloom corn he grows himself. Local farmers provide him with their surplus of peanuts or produce.
We pick up large hickory nuts from the forest floor and toss them to his Herefords, Red Wattles, Guinea Hogs, Spotted Poland Chinas, and Ossabaws.
“You can tell Ossabaws are not an improved breed with bigger hams and a flatter back,” says Moore, pointing to a hog that looks like a cross between a hyena, an ewok, and a Gremlin, with hairy ears, a compact body, and an enormously long snout. “The Ossabaw is what they call a land-race breed: literally shaped by the land. They’re wild, they’re vocal, they love to fight each other, and they prefer the deeper recesses of the woods.” Spaniards dropped these hogs off on the Georgia Sea Islands 400 years ago. Sharing ancestry with the famed Iberico, they are prized for their rich fat. I recall seeing “Ossabaw butter” on Husk’s menu last fall.
I stop to fawn over some day-old piglets, so young their umbilical cords are still partially attached. They frolic and nuzzle as their mother patiently allows them to nurse. The mama sow grunts rhythmically.
“We call that ‘singing,’” explains Moore. “Watch and you’ll see other sows join her.” A nearby sow plops down and begins “singing,” calling her own piglets to mealtime. Then another. “They tend to nurse in unison. Sows will herd, sleep together, and help raise each other’s pigs.”
This deeply contrasts the crated confinement systems of commercial swine operations, or CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations). In the state of North Carolina, pigs outnumber humans. On land where farmers once released hogs into the wild to fatten up on the nutty woodsy flavors of the forest floor, we’ve turned to airconditioned barns with concrete or grated floors, gorging animals on medicated corn and soybeans trucked in by the eighteen-wheeler-full. We crank out commodity hogs by pounds and numbers, offer up pork belly futures on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, pose waste hazards to the environment and local residents, then ship these very hogs by the tens of thousands halfway around the world. The essence of woodland pork requires embracing an intimate ecosystem, one that doesn’t overly stress the land or the pigs, one that celebrates genetic diversity, humane treatment, and community. Perhaps more importantly, it respects the life that the animals will give.
Back at Edmund’s Oast, Chef Henderson has just finished breaking down a 240-pound black purebred Ossabaw. It’s destined for an event at Charleston’s Wine + Food Festival. “The last month of its life,” Henderson tells me, “all this pig did was drink one keg of Evil Twin Imperial Biscotti Break beer [a strong Imperial Stout style] and eat acorns.” He pauses, smiling. “And watch Comedy Central and HBO and get massages,” he laughs. “The meat was so red, it looked like beef, with amazing intramuscular fat. You can’t get that from any commercial pig.” “With a heritage hog, it’s so easy to make the meat taste good, it’s kind of like cheating,” Henderson continues. “The natural flavor of the pig is amazing. You can really taste what they ate and how they lived. We don’t need to add a bunch of things to make it taste good. We use salt to pull the water out and concentrate the flavor and cure it, and that’s it. We let the pig and the farmer do the rest.”