Just got back from Cochon 555 Los Angeles, which is by far, my favorite meat event in Southern California. For those of you who don’t know it, this culinary competition is dedicated to celebrating heritage breed pork, and supporting the farmers who raise it.
Every year, five fantastic chefs compete to make mind-blowing, multi-course meals, each using an entire heritage breed pig sourced from a local farm. “Cochon” is now in 13 cities across the country, culminating with a Grand Cochon Finale in Chicago each fall. All funds raised go to keeping heritage pigs around, and educating the public about their value to the world.
This year’s LA competition didn’t disappoint. It included our good friends Jason Mattick and Ivan Marquez (Broken Spanish), Kat Hu and Justin Yi (Hock+Hoof), David Johns (Mason), Ben Diaz (Nixo Lounge), and Brian Redzikowski (Kettner Exchange). For the second year in a row, Kettner Exchange won.
Electric City Butcher has presented the Pork Butchery Demo for the last three years. It’s a special honor when Michael selects which staff members will join us on stage. For an hour, we break down a whole pig in front of 600 cheering spectators. It’s about as close as a butcher will get to being a rock star.
But why all the fuss around heritage breed pork in the first place?
It appears, even domesticated animals can be endangered.
Pigs are one of the few animals—maybe the only—that are raised 100% for food. You can’t make clothes out of them, we don’t drink their milk (well, I would if you bet me $10), and you’re certainly not pulling a wagon behind one. Wilber is raised for the expressed purpose of being eaten. And he is remarkably efficient at that.
By the end of the 19th Century, most American households had a couple of pigs in the yard. These were hardy animals, and well adjusted to their climate. They lived off the land, and ate what they could forage. They were also the family composter, periodically eating the wheat chaff, broken eggs, buttermilk, and table scraps from the kitchen.
But these porkers weren’t only being raised to get that blue ribbon at the county fair. If everything went right, the family pig was slaughtered in the fall, and kept Ma, Pa, and the kids from going hungry until spring came back around.
Every region in America had its breed of pig that could go the distance. Berkshire, Duroc, Gloucester, Large Black, Red Wattle, Tamworth, Yorkshire; if any of these names sound familiar, you’ve probably spent some time in the UK. Most US pork breeds originated there, although the Duroc comes from Africa, and the Red Wattle from New Caledonia, wherever that is!
These breeds became known as heritage pork; breeds that have been in the US since before the Great Depression. They are by far the most delicious, juicy, bold-flavored, rich-textured, and nutritionally superior pork out there. Then why do heritage breeds make up less than five percent of all pigs raised in the US?
Heritage pork simply became a pain in the ham, at least for industrial meat processors.
You see, pastured pigs come in all shapes and sizes. That’s no good when your slaughter line is whizzing along at 1,500 pigs per hour and a billion pounds a year, like the Hormel plant in Austin, Minnesota. Meat processors began incentivizing—and more often penalizing—farmers until they had breed all the unique characteristics out of pork. These mutant piggies also grew faster, thanks to a heap of antibiotics. Across the Midwest, farmers traded their fields and barns for hanger-sized CAFOs, manure lagoons, and GMO corn silos. Uniformity and consistency had trumped flavor and character. Heritage pigs didn’t have a chance.
But Why Should We Turn Things Around?
Heritage pork isn’t just about the taste, although that would be enough for me. Heritage breeds tend to be raised more humanely as well, not to mention they’re better for the environment. Our friends at Rancho Llano Seco raise Duroc/Yorkshire pigs in open air pastures with plenty of room to roam. They don’t get hormones or antibiotics, and they’re fed non-GMO grains grown right there on the ranch.
Heritage breeds are more resilient. It’s dangerous for the entire meat industry to rely only on Frankenstein swine all the same size, with all the same traits. Climate change or disease could wipe out the entire population. Heritage breeds are tough little guys that help diversify a shockingly shallow genetic pool.
Heritage pigs are also good for the restaurant scene. Although pricier than factory pork, heritage meats shrink up to 50 percent less during cooking, which results in better yields, They have better marbling, so their meat doesn’t dry out on the plate. And they have a fantastic story that resonates with diners who want to know more about where their meat comes from.
How Can We Help Heritage Piggies?
#1 Try it: It’s remarkable when our guests have Rancho Llano Seco pork chops for the first time. Their pork taste so differently from that “other white meat” stuff you get at Albertson’s that they really shouldn’t be called the same thing. Eating a heritage pork chop is often all that’s needed to convince people this stuff needs to stick around.
#2 Buy from trusted sources or directly from the farmer: Best way to know what you’re eating is to know your butcheror farmer by name.