“Cats look down on us,
dogs look up to us, and
pigs are our equals.”
– Winston Churchill
I am about to become a pig farmer. There will be some who read that sentence – my literary agent in New York, my editor on the Upper West Side, and others, from Peoria to Portland, who find this column on culinary websites or on the newswire – who think, move along, nothing to see here, just another redneck from South Mississippi who raises hogs.
Then there are those who actually know me – my friends, neighbors and loved ones – who think, to quote my daughter in every text message she has ever sent, “ha ha.”
Out-of-towners who only know me professionally, and have never even been to my part of the world, see me as some type of piggish country boy (I realize a 49-year old man is three decades removed from pulling off “boy” status, but it worked in the context of the sentence). Everyone else would laugh and make comparisons to Oliver Douglas from TV’s “Green Acres” – as a man who is WAY out of his element. The latter is the reality.
Nevertheless, I am about to start raising pigs. It’s the next natural step in the progression of the Purple Parrot’s journey into all-things local. We have an organic garden and our own beehives. We purchase milk, cream, butter, quail eggs and quail from local growers within 30 miles. Most of our seafood comes from the Gulf of Mexico 60 miles to the south, and we purchase pastured poultry from the same gentleman who tends our garden.
That brings us to this new pig business.
How it began
Several months ago I read that Alice Waters, the godmother of the garden-to-the-table movement in the United States, flew a member of her culinary team from Berkley, Calif., to Laurel, Miss., to purchase pigs from a rare breed she had tasted somewhere in Ohio.
That must be some pretty good tasting pig, I thought. Better still, I live 30 miles from Laurel. We need to be serving that pork in our restaurant.
I did some research and learned that Ted Smith, owner of Stillmeadow Farm in Laurel, can trace the bloodline of his pigs to England and Sir Winston Churchill’s Chartwell Estate. Now I was really interested. I am a huge fan of all-things Churchill, throw in some swine, and that’s a marriage made in hog heaven.
Granted, our restaurants already have excellent relationships with boutique pork producers such as Henry Fudge, and those at the end of the porcine process such as Allan Benton, purveyor of the finest smoked and cured pork products in the nation. But this would give us complete control of the end result on the plate. So I called Mr. Smith and got on the waiting list for two of his Large Black pigs.
This is not my first pig rodeo, mind you. I raised two of them a decade ago. Actually, my friend, Banks, did all of the work. At the time, the extent of my porcine knowledge amounted to cooking with Andouille sausage, listening to the Pink Floyd album, “Animals,” and watching Arnold, Mr. Ziffle’s pig on “Green Acres.”
We kept the pigs at Banks’ house. They were raised in dog pens and escaped often. No fun for anyone.
There were many things I learned in the process, some expected, others unforeseen. When I learned the pigs had to be castrated, I worried for a week, and considered calling a veterinarian. Eventually, Bruce, a longtime kitchen manager at one of our restaurants, handled the job. He showed up on the day of the piggy bris with a pocketknife, a few rubber bands, and a cup of used axle grease. Feel free to take it from there.
In the end, my wife wouldn’t eat the pork. Her reason: “because I have met the pigs.” Note: She has no problem eating ham from pigs she considers strangers.
Additionally, these new pigs will not be raised in dog pens. The breed, Large Black, are foragers. These pigs will graze in rye grass and oats and forage for other stuff that pigs eat when they are roaming around in a field doing what pigs were made to do.
So what have we learned today, class?
1.) Not everyone who grew up in South Mississippi is a country boy.
2.) Pigs that naturally forage for their own food taste better.
3.) If a guy named Bruce shows up at your house with a pocketknife, rubber bands and axle grease, don’t open the door.
Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author of numerous books.
Robert St. John