By Tim Bean
“Let me make a suggestion,” Chris Orange said. “The first thing you want to do is explain that you’re not writing about the ethics of pig farming, just its history. That’s a discussion you don’t want to step in.”
I agreed with Chris, although I didn’t agree with his insisting we lean on the cedar rails of the hog pen and stare at the sleeping swine. Even at nine in the morning, it was already topping 90 degrees. But as a historian and a manager of living history at Buckley Homestead County Park, he’s always one for theatrics.
“So here’s a couple pigs,” I said. Three big pigs, each big enough to fill a Buick’s backseat, nestled into an inch of drying mud. Their ears flicked and when flies landed on them, muscles twitched to shoo them away. Their tiny pig eyes never opened.
The pig pen was as neat as a pig pen could get. Clean water dish as big as a kiddie pool, feeding trough, and a freshly built and stained pig pen to shelter them, all surrounded by a rustic cedar fence.
And, of course, the heavy smell of pig poo.
“Hogs,” Chris said.
“What’s the difference?”
“Eh, about 80 pounds. When people talk about pigs, pigs remain pigs until they’re big enough to eat, about 100 to 120 pounds. Then they’re called hogs. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but no farmer would call these pigs,” Chris said.
He nodded his head, tightly wrapped in a Rambo bandana, back at Buckley’s main barn. “When this farm was really cooking, in the 1910s, a farmer would have looked at these hogs and probably put them down. To us, they look fine. To them, they would have looked emaciated.”
“I don’t see why,” I asked.
Chris walked to the fence running alongside the pig pen and picked up a framed picture, easily two-feet square. He had it ready to go. Told you he liked theatrics.
“It’s not an original, it’s a print. It was sitting in the antique shop Rose Buckley used to run. I reframed it,” Chris said. “It’s a painting of an award-winning hog from the mid-1800s by a guy named John Miles. It gets the point across.”
I nodded, trying to come up with a cultured comment on the technique or artistry of the painter. “That’s one fat pig,” I said. I think the heat was getting to me.
Chris said. “Yep. That was how pigs were bred back then. They wanted them to be fat like that. Fat on the back, fat on the sides. The fat was nearly as important as the meat. Any guess why?”
This I knew from the years I spent cutting meat at a local butcher shop. “The ate more side pork,” I said. Side pork was a blanket term for meat off the sides, belly, and back of a pig. Its higher fat content produced more flavor, and companies typically salt-cured it, producing bacon. Although bacon is still as popular today, it contains far less fat. I explained this all to Chris smiling with a little self-satisfaction.
“Nope,” he said. He let that humiliating nope sit in the air while he uncurled a garden hose and doused the hog pen and its occupants with some cool water. They didn’t open their eyes, but luxuriously twisted and squirmed under the cool water. Then Chris tipped over their water dish, rinsed out the gunk at the bottom then refilled it fresh water.
Then he spoke. “Lard,” he said. “Pork fat broken down by heat and turned into oily cakes of fat that keep for months and supply quick energy and flavor. A century ago, people spread lard on their toast and used it to make pie crusts. It was cheaper than butter and didn’t require all the labor.”
“It tastes great,” Chris continued. “And doesn’t smoke when heated. Machinists once used it as a lubricant and cooling agent. Brewers used it to keep cats of beer from foaming. There were a thousand uses for lard and all you had to do was breed big ol’ fat hogs to get it.”
He pointed at the pig painting. “See how its fat is piled over its shoulders, back, and belly. That’s all for lard. There’s plenty of meat under all that fat, of course, but farmers wanted the fat almost as much as the meat. Both were valuable.”
I tried taking a picture of the picture, but the bright sunlight and reflective glass made it difficult. Chris made a suggestion. “Here’s what you do. You know Charlotte’s Web, right?”
“Some pig and the milk bath, yeah I remember it,” I said. I loved the book as a kid, just like most kids, long before I became aware of Wilbur’s near-death and “processing.” Yikes.
“Do this. Take one of Garth Williams’ original drawings and then compare it to Wilbur from the CGI movie from a few years ago. Or even that cartoon in the 70s. That alone shows how pigs have changed from lard-producers to meat-producers.”
“Got it. What made lard unpopular?” I asked. “People will ask.”
“Vegetable oil changed everything,” Chris said. “Lard is making a comeback, a little, with foodies, but it will never be what it was.”
While I typed some notes in my phone, the three hogs twisted and squirmed in the mud, squeezing out muffled oinks of pleasure. Chris watched them, tugging at the cedar fence to make sure it was solid.
“They cared for hogs differently back then too. They ate anything and everything humans threw out. They even had pig toilets, where they fed the pigs on human…well, fecal matter,” Chris said.
“That’s pretty nasty. And it can’t be hygienic,” I said. I thought for a moment. “I’m not showing a picture of it.”
“I wouldn’t,” Chris agreed.
“Any final thoughts?” I asked. “This heat is killing me and I want a cherry slushie.”
“Sure. What I think is most interesting is wondering what hogs originally looked like. They’ve been domesticated for 10,000 years, but I wonder what did pigs look like 5,000 years ago or 1,000 years ago. We can’t know,” Chris said. “We can mess a genetic guess, but breeding physical traits doesn’t change DNA or bones, in the case of hogs anyway. From the Iron Age to a few hundred years ago, there’s a huge gap of knowledge regarding pigs. Considering pork is the most common meat in the world—over a third of all meat eaten—you’d think we’d know more about. We don’t.”
He adjusted his bandana. “Why don’t you end it with me staring silently into the distance, as though I was staring into a past blah blah blah. Make me sound like a superhero. Also ask them to like Buckley’s Facebook page. That makes me look good.”
Christ stared past the pig pen and barn and surrounding fields, far into the blue horizon. His straining eyes seemed to stare into a past that he wanted so badly to see but would forever remain invisible. He then donned a brilliant pink cape and rocketed into the sky.
Oh, and don’t forget to like Buckley Homestead County Park’s Facebook page.