We passed the summer solstice and while there has been plenty of atmospheric turbulence, in surrounding areas, we haven’t seen rain materialize over us for a good while. The herds are beginning to slim down a bit in preparation for more difficult conditions until we get to the fall. While we are already complaining about humidity, and the weathermen are talking about that “feels like” temperature, the fact of the matter is that humidity in Washington County is lower than we normally experience this time of year. And that is why we see the rains that are pointed toward us run out of steam at Houston, Waco or Austin. Insufficient moisture in the atmosphere, so they run out of fuel. So Clay and I spend some part of our regular conversation hoping for a good, drenching tropical storm coming out of the Gulf. That has been a wish of ours for the last three years and it hasn’t happened yet - but we can always hope and dream.
Pork, on the ground and from our history
Now that our beef supply has gotten back to normal, let’s talk pork, the most commonly consumed meat in America until penning, corn-finishing and the railroad system made beef more plentiful and available across the nation.
There was good reason for pork’s historic dominance on America’s dinner table - anyone with a small piece of ground could raise a pig and supply a family with delicious meat lasting over a winter. My German heritage brother-in-law from Weimer, Lu Christ, fondly recalls being excused from school duties when the first cold snap barreled in. That’s the day when three generations of his family spent the day slaughtering and processing the family pig, rendering not only meat, sausages and pates’ for the table but lard for cooking and for soap.
How was the pork preserved for the winter? Smoking was of course the option most frequently used, but get this - fresh cuts were submerged in rendered fat in a crock on the back porch. Lu remembers this because he was in charge of reaching down into the lard to grab a chunk when his mother called for it. The lard protected the meat from oxygen thus retarding the bacterial growth. I’m sure his recollection is accurate - the French “confit” adopts that same approach.
Pig people have always categorized pigs as either “lard” or “bacon” breeds. The former referred to breeds that had well-marbled meat and a good outer layer of fat, while the latter referred to the opposite: lean, poorly marbled meat. When the now discredited dietary know-nothings of the 50's and 60's proclaimed beef, pork and lamb fat as villains (when it was refined sugar, sugary carbs, corn-finished meats and hydrogenated oils that should have taken the hit), the pork producers began the process of slimming down the pig to a marbled-down white meat, hoping that pork would become more chicken-like and promoting pork, for all practical purposes, as chicken. Good, healthy, and well-marbled pig breeds nearly disappeared from the American food scene. The Yorkshire breed thrived while the tasty breeds began to disappear.
Let’s step back 3 centuries or more when Cromwell was prosecuting the English War. Cromwell was trying to figure out how to feed his army in their winter camp when he discovered what became the Berkshire pig, wild and prospering in the shire of Berk in the rural Midlands. The army survived in splendid fashion eating practically nothing but Berkshire pork. Three hundred years later, I consider Cromwell’s greatest success to be not his generalship skills but his discovery of the Berkshire pig. He brought pairs home to the royal family where they were domesticated and registered. I understand that to this day, Berkshire pork remains the only pork to be served in the House of Windsor.
By the way, Berkshire is a lard pig and that is what you get half the time in your monthly coolers from JVF. The Berk is black with white stockings, snout and tail. Very elegant in his tuxedo-like coloring.
The other half of the JVF pig story is the Duroc, a red pig with big floppy ears. The Duroc was domesticated and registered in America in the early 1800's. It essentially falls between a lard and a bacon pig in its conformity while leaning toward lard. Not quite as well-marbled as the Berk, but still producing a very fine meat. The “Du” finished second only to the Berkshire in nine international blind taste tests which ranked all major breeds for taste. So that’s the rest of the story - you eat from the top two tastiest pork breeds in the world.
What about the poor, bred-to-the-cage Yorkshire, a “bacon” pig and the source of almost all commodity pork in the US? In our early years, we tried the Yorkshire in our free range program. Half of them died while our Berks and Dus did fine. That failure to thrive experiment had a short life at JVF. The Yorkie has spent too many generations in the cages. They couldn’t survive in their natural setting. Sad.
So what would your life be like as a pig at JVF?
You would arrive as a weaner pig, about a month off your mother’s teat. For the next 10 or 12 months, you live a life of freedom in a larger herd of happy pigs along the old creek bed dominated by native pecan and oak trees, two nut trees that produce a highly complex set of fatty acids. Those nuts are on the ground in the fall of the year and in a good year, will provide forage from September through early January. The pig has a highly ambidextrous mouth, cracking and shucking the shell, then chewing and digesting the nut.
In the spring, there are dewberries. In the summer, muscadine and mustang grapes and a smattering of wild plums. They have grasses and sapling roots all year round, and a free choice bin of grains, barley being the most important one for flavoring. Three weeks before they go to market, they are finished, 4 or 5 at a time, in our finishing yard near the barn. There they get special attention both for comfort and special foods. The food consists of fruits (apples, peaches, melons, figs, pears), roasted peanuts and a beer to enhance their evening slumber. Their native vegetables are found in the yard, be that native grasses, winter oats, rye or alfalfa clover. I never knew the pig was so fond of green stuff. They love their salads.
That’s the story of JVF pork. Allowing us some immodesty, nobody does it better. And that is why it tastes so good and is so good for you. Try the others - our occasionally-wandering customers always come back to JVF. Doing it right pays off. Shortcuts won’t get you there.