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January 14, 2006

Hamthropology

Pig_perfect_cover_3 A self-described “hamthropologist,” Peter Kaminsky takes us from Andalusia to ancient Mesopotamia to modern-day North Carolina hog farms as he shares his quest for delectable pork in the book Pig Perfect: Encounters with Remarkable Swine and Some Great Ways to Cook Them (2005, Hyperion).

“Cooking” might not be strictly accurate, as it’s cured pork in all its forms that really fuels Kaminsky’s fire.  Although there are a few recipes, they’re not the point of the book.  I haven’t tried any; they look tasty, but some are not for everyday use, such as the recipe for cocido. It’s an incredibly hearty Spanish stew with an ingredient list almost 2 pages long.  We’ve had it in Madrid and it’s delicious, but it took me hours to eat, all day to digest, and from the looks of it, a mighty long time to prepare.

No, read this for the story of the pig.  Kaminsky delves into history, and produces fascinating economic reasons why pork is forbidden to the Jewish and Muslim faiths.  He discusses the role pigs and their ancestors may have played in shaping our landscape.  He travels to Spain, where the famed jamon iberico rules, and learns about black pigs and pasturing.  Rare in North America, where they’re a “heritage” type, these breeds are also very well suited to being farmed using time-tested methods.  Allowed to forage for a traditional diet of acorns, they are actually healthier to eat because their fat is monounsaturated.  They’re also tastier because pigs take on the flavours of their feed, and the meat is more thoroughly marbled with fat as the pig exercises as it forages.

These methods date from before pigs were mass-produced as “the other white meat.”  Pork is white because the pens in most modern farm systems don’t allow pigs to move, and because they’re slaughtered at just 6 months of age, observes Kaminsky: it can be deeply coloured, with a corresponding increase in flavour, when the pigs have had a chance to exercise.  In contrast, a modern sow might bear and suckle multiple litters of piglets and never ever see them because she can’t turn around in her pen. When you think that pigs are at least as smart as dogs, indignation is natural.  However, Kaminsky never dips into sentimentalism.  He describes the huge factory-like plants in North Carolina where millions of pigs are slaughtered, called CAFOs or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, but his arguments against them are logical and based on a wide variety of interviews.  As Kaminsky convincingly portrays them, they are bad for the environment with their acres of untreated lagoons of chemical-laced sewage; bad for the farmers economically and for the neighbours healthwise; bad for the pigs themselves; and ultimately, bad for the consumer because the final product just doesn’t taste that great.  He mentions that a lot of award-winning barbecue is made with pork from Sam’s Club.  What kind of pork ambrosia would result from those techniques applied to fine meat?

One of this book’s real strengths is Kaminsky’s rapport with people and his ability to capture their unique voices.  He interviews a number of them, all diverse – competitive barbecuers in the American South, anthropologists, Spanish cooks and farmers, an energetic elderly woman living alone on an island filled with Ossabaw pigs (the descendants of the very first pigs brought over by Spanish explorers), food activists, French cheesemakers and gourmands – and their personalities keep an already lively writing style hopping.

The other great asset Kaminsky brings to the table, so to speak, is his undiluted enthusiasm for piggy eating experiences.  He actually ends up facilitating a network of like-minded pig aficionados, and connecting heritage-minded farmers with suppliers of Ossabaws, transporting some of the meat up to New York to meet with the hands of Italian-based ham-makers and the tastebuds of chef Daniel Boulud.  Overall, his book is not only a great read with a mouth-watering topic, but a thought-provoking look at how our food interacts with the world around it, and how it can bring people together.

With this book fresh in my mind, I was excited to see the recent New Yorker article “Hogs Wild” (by Ian Frazier, Dec. 12, 2005).  It focuses on the expanding population of feral pigs in the United States.  A combination of urban development – leaving untouched only the marshy areas that pigs need – and the pig’s undeniable talent for surviving in the wild have resulted in up to 5 million feral pigs rooting about in the US.  And talented they certainly are.  The article is laced with interviews and descriptions that convey a kind of admiration for the wiles of the wild pig, particularly on the part of the scientists who study them.

As Frazier describes them, these hogs are destructive, primarily because they mess so badly with hunting and agriculture: potentially infecting domestic herds with parasites, rooting up fields, destroying equipment, interfering with game stocks. However, they themselves are game stocks of a sort.  One of the reasons for their rapid spread is that hunters will often capture some and then illegally transport and release them in a more convenient spot for later sport.  Then the government turns to the hunters in an effort to control feral populations, a case of rewarding the problem-makers that disturbed me but raises no comment in the article.

Apparently, wild hog hunting is big, and the ultimate goal is to take down a wild pig with just a gun, maybe some steel handcuffs, and a pack of dogs.  Wild pigs are usually about 250 pounds, but rumours put some at much higher (such as the legendary Hogzilla, a 800-pound giant which turned out to be a farm animal on the loose). They are also undeniably fierce.  The dogs are often clad in what amounts to bullet-proof vests, usually with a Confederate flag on them.  Frazier makes much of a statistical correlation between voting Republican and having high feral pig populations – draw your own conclusions.

The article culminates with a description of the Ocmulgee Wild Hog Festival in Abbeville, Georgia.  Wild hog is awfully good eats (the Ossabaw hogs Kaminsky writes about are technically wild), and barbecue features prominently.  The highlight, though, is a hog-baying competition, an exhibition of dog vs. hog in a kind of pigfight.

Frazier describes a little girl at her first such show.  Once realizing what it was all about, she yelled “Run, pig, run!” and started to cry.  After reading this much about the remarkable pig, I can’t help but sympathize.

Here are the websites of some pork suppliers recommended by Peter Kaminsky in his book Pig Perfect:

Caw Caw Creek Pastured Pork
Emile, a farmer featured prominently in the book, raises heirloom pork.  His website gives a good overview of his philosophy, not to mention some good-looking cooking tips.

Niman Ranch
One of the leaders in sustainable meat farming.

Newsom's Aged Kentucky Country Ham
Traditional Kentucky-style country hams. (Rob and I have ordered a ham to be sent to Toronto in the fall when it’s ready.  We’re looking for dinner guests – it’s going to be a big piece of meat!)

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Comments

Kate

Thanks for the great review and those added pork links! Does anyone else want to be a hamthroplogist when they grow up?You are doubly blessed!

You really shouldn't take for granted that an article written by someone obviously prejudiced to events that he disagrees with is being "completely" accurate. I find it odd that those who know so little, have such much to say as factual "evidence". It would be a lot like me spending a few hours on Wall St. and then telling you, in "expert" fashion, how Wall St. functions. I've read the aforementioned article, and it is, granted, a very good article. However, when he gets to the hog hunter portion, he goes from being factual, to being biased, as you showed in his statement about Republicans. You can put a spin on almost any event and have it sound the way it most suits you, a tactic used by so many journalists today. Whatever happened to reporting things as they happen and not as you want others to believe they happen?

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