Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Pork

myviewpoint / Adobe Stock

Pork chops, pork tenderloin, pulled pork - if you're a meat-eater, pork is one of the most versatile meats to cook with! But have you ever thought about hte history and cultivation of pork? Read on to learn more about all things pork - from its seasonality and nutritional content to its impact on the environment (plus a delicious pork shoulder recipe that is sure to become a go-to!).

A Brief History 

Historians believe that modern pigs are descended from wild boars that were domesticated in China about ten thousand years ago. By 1500 BC, they were being raised in Europe where they proliferated. Their hardiness, ability to eat anything, propensity to procreate prolifically, versatility in the kitchen and the ease with which the meat can be preserved made pigs a happy addition the family plot.

Pigs came to America with Columbus. But the establishment of significant domestic hog stocks is mostly attributed to Hernando de Soto who brought thirteen pigs to Tampa Bay, Florida in 1539. Despite a few losses (the escape of some, the few his troops consumed and those he traded to the indigenous Indians), from this original group de Soto established a herd of over seven hundred animals only three years later.

Early settlers commonly kept pigs for their home consumption. When they traveled west across the country, they brought their rugged pigs with them. By the middle of the 1800s, the Midwest was becoming the center of the country's national pig industry. Pigs were raised there and then driven, on the hoof, to be slaughtered at east coast facilities, closer to the consumer. The advent of the refrigerated train car, which debuted in 1887, consolidated the industry by finally allowing the slaughterhouses to move west as well, establishing the Midwest as the "Hog Belt," a vertically integrated system that encompassed the entire process of production, slaughter, packaging and even feed production.

Hog production dipped during the Depression years but then rebounded during World War II when pork became a critical commodity. It was canned as SPAM® and was shipped overseas to feed the troops. Because it wasn't rationed like other foods, homemakers came to rely on it to keep their family's bellies full. Lard, the fat from hogs, was necessary for bomb making, and the hogs of that time were raised for their abundant fat.

Post-World War II America entered a phase of agricultural automation. Meat animals became widgets to be raised quickly and efficiently with little attention paid to the well-being of the animal, farmer or eater.

As the industry has moved toward more efficiency and consolidation at all costs, a counter-culture has emerged of small, independent farmers dedicated to sustainable practices. While such farmers obviously want to remain economically viable, they also place value in the quality of the animals' lives, the impact on the environment and the delicious flavor of the final product. Many of them are protecting biodiversity by raising heritage breed pigs that haven't had their natural instincts and adaptability bred out of them. The Tamworth, Red Wattle and Gloucestershire Old Spots are just a few of the breeds that are being reintroduced on today's farms. They're good pigs that are good at doing pigs' work. 

Factual Nibbles

  • According to the National Pork Producers Council, more than sixty thousand producers raise over one hundred and ten million hogs per year in the US.

  • Iowa produces the most hogs in the union, with at least twenty million animals in production in the state at any one time.

  • The United States is third in world production of pork. China is number one followed by the European Union.

  • Pork is so essential to Chinese culture that the Mandarin character for "family" is a pig under a roof.
     
  • Pork consumption is forbidden by both Muslim and Jewish religions. 

Cultivation

Imagine you are a farmer. You grow mostly vegetables in your carefully rotated fields, but you also keep a few chickens for fresh eggs for the family and some extra to take to market. Learning to farm was a steep ramp up but you've got the hang of it now and have a thriving CSA, make more than a solid showing at the market and eat well at home. Over time, you've been able to expand the acreage in production by clearing a bit more of the meadow. The farm is a lovely parcel situated at the edge of a wood that you can't plant but provides fuel for the fire, a windbreak for the field and sometimes just a nice place to be. 

Now imagine you had a tool on the farm that helped you manage many of these things. It helped you clear new land, digging up the rocks and roots that tangled the plow, laying down a bed of fertilizer in the process. It turned all of the inedible by-products of growing - the corn stalks and unformed cobs, the wilted lettuce and the patch of tomatoes that got hit by frost before you could get them off the vine, even the eggshells from your morning's over-easy - and turned that not into garbage or even compost but into delicious food. And you could send this thing into the forest, which is too thickly wooded to plant, and it would utilize that plot as an income earner as well. And every time you used that tool for any of these things it didn't depreciate, but increased in value. Would you have the product of sophisticated engineering? Impeccable design and innovation? In a way you would. You would have yourself a pig. 

The domesticated pig plays an invaluable role on an integrated farm. It is a living trash compactor, able to consume nearly anything that needs disposal - even the rotten stuff - which provides a reliable source of sanitation on the property. Unlike composting, which requires time and attention to break down waste into useable fertilizer, particularly for items such as meat scraps that aren't as easily compostable, pigs wolf down farming by-products in a flash and turn them into, well, bacon. 

Pigs live to root, an instinct that is used to tremendous advantage on the farm. When a new field needs to be broken, just let the pig have at it and it will snuffle up and eat every root and fiber that gets in the way of digging in no time. And that patch of trees that will never be crop worthy? Put pigs in it and you've turned background scenery into bankable property where you raise your swine for market or meat. 

That is the sustainable model of raising pigs, as part of the ecosystem of the farm. It makes all kinds of sense - economic, practical and common sense - to raise pigs in this way. However, only a fraction of animals enjoy this lifestyle. The majority of pigs are raised in farms that are called CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations); tragically over-populated facilities that prioritize speed and efficiency over the health and wellbeing of the animals, eaters and communities. 

Seasonality

Traditionally, hogs are butchered in the cooler months of the fall and early winter so that the meat can be hung for twenty-four hours after slaughter to allow it to drain and chill without freezing. The array of curing methods, described below, enabled the meat to be enjoyed throughout the year without refrigeration. 

In industrial CAFOs, hogs are produced and slaughtered all year-round but there is still a bit more activity in the last quarter of the year. Some operations may still have some seasonal breeding in place that accounts for the increased volume. Consumer demand also influences this slight increase as eaters feature hams on their holiday tables and cook more roasts in the winter than any other season.

Environmental Impact 

Hog farming in itself does not necessarily have a negative impact on the environment. A pig raised as part of a farm's ecosystem plays a valuable role in that interconnected system, absorbing waste and providing fertilizer which can be used to increase the fertility of the farm. 

However, on industrial lots where pigs are raised in monoculture, many environmental problems arise. Too many pigs on a farm and the pig is no longer a tool that supports the productivity of the operation; it tips the operation out of alignment. And when that happens, you can smell it a mile away. 

Concentrated pig operations are notorious for the negative impact they have in their communities. This isn't because raising pigs is bad, it's because the facilities are improperly designed. They concentrate an unholy number of animals into spaces so small that the birthing sows cannot even turn around. The conditions of these facilities require the animals to be administered a constant prescription of antibiotics just to survive them, a practice which has led to the evolution of antibiotic resistant superbugs both on and off the farm. 

The copious amount of waste produced by these overcrowded facilities is often held in pits or lagoons that fog the air with ammonia and often leak or break with ruinous impact on local waterways. 

Characteristics

Pork quality varies widely depending on how it was raised. Here are some tips for enjoying meat from well-kept animals. 

Talk to your farmer: The single best way to ensure that the pigs are well-raised is to know the person that is raising them. Animal husbandry is complex and worthy of a chat. If you shop at your local farmers' market, you can get the conversation going there or perhaps look the farm up on the internet and see what they're about. 

Trust a third party: A great butcher or independent grocery owner can be your personal guide to great eating. They have the eye and the experience to find quality food providers and often generations of knowledge to share with you. Unlike big box stores that are beholden to corporate contracts, independent shop owners are nimble enough to order directly from producers. If they don't currently carry the kind of pork you want to see, talk to them about it. Many are willing to special order for you. 

Look for the label: There are three certification programs that can point you in the right direction. "Animal Welfare Approved," "Certified Humane" and "Global Animal Partnership" all have stringent protocols in place to guarantee that animals have been raised under sustainable animal husbandry standards that guarantee comfortable living conditions, a diet that is species appropriate and the ability of the animals to exhibit their natural behaviors. The ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals)has compiled a detailed guide to the programs that offers side-by-side comparisons of their features. 

According to the National Organic Standard (NOS), pork that is labelled organic must come from animals that were fed an all-organic diet and were never administered antibiotics or growth hormones. Consumer demands around animal welfare issues have spurred change within the industry. It is hoped that the NOS will be expanded in the near future to require better living conditions for organic farm animals. 

Nutrition 

Jo Robinson has written extensively about the health benefits of enjoying the meat, milk and eggs of animals that are raised on pasture. Such benefits include increased levels of Omega-3 fatty acids (the same prized fat found in salmon, walnuts and flax seed), cancer fighting CLA (Conjugated Linoleic Acid) and vitamin E.

What to Do with It and Cooking

Pork is the most versatile meat. It pairs with a wide range of flavors from smoky barbecue to tangy citrus, sweet stone fruits to spicy chilies. It can be roasted, braised, sautéed, ground and cured into a scrumptious array of dried sausages and hams. All aspects of the animal are enjoyed - the meat, offal and even the ears are considered a treat.

Storage

Freshly cut pork keeps in the refrigerator for three to five days or can be frozen, tightly wrapped, for up to three months. 

Preserving

Many cultures have traditions of preserving pork. Italian, Spanish, French and many different Asian cultures are just some. Drying/salt curing, smoking, and wet-curing are three methods of preservation that can be used alone or in combination. 

Ham: Italian prosciutto, Spanish Jamon Serrano and Jamon Iberico are the hind legs that have been coated with salt and sometimes spices and air dried for months to years. What is often referred to as "country ham" here in the United States is also dried in this manner but is then also sometimes smoked for an additional layer of flavor. Wet-cured hams are submerged in liquid brine and refrigerated for several days to a couple of weeks to develop their flavor. 

Cured Belly: Bacon, pancetta and cured Chinese bacon come from the belly of the animal and can be cured in a number of ways. The bacon we typically eat, also called "streaky bacon" in the UK, is cold smoked. Pancetta is the same cut but is cured with herbs and spices and not smoked. Chinese bacon is treated with a rub of soy sauce and spices and then usually air-dried before being smoked. 

Sausages: Sausages give the butcher a chance to use up all the delicious scraps and bits that are too small for the pan but have wonderful flavor. They are mixed with spices and served fresh or dried and sometimes then smoked as well. 

Lardo: This Italian specialty is cured backfat. 

Confit or Potted: This pork is made just like duck confit: The meat is simmered in copious amounts of its own fat and then cooled, completely submerged in the renderings.

Recipe

Roast Pork Shoulder

Serves 12-16

My favorite way to prepare pork is easy and economical and the best way to fill up a hungry crowd. No muss, no fuss. Just pop it in the oven, enjoy your day then enjoy your dinner. You use the shoulder, which is also called the butt, a large, luscious cut. When finished, the pork can be served with all manner of side dishes. I love it with potato gratin, polenta or some homey mac and cheese. It is very tender and can be shredded and used for sandwiches or tacos. 

Ingredients:

1 bone-in pork shoulder from a sustainably-raised pig, about 10 pounds

1 cup of freshly squeezed citrus juice (lemon, lime or orange)

½ cup neutral flavored oil, such as organic canola

2 tablespoons of woody herbs such as oregano, rosemary or thyme

1 tablespoon salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1 head of garlic, separated into cloves and lightly crushed

Method:

Place the shoulder in a non-reactive pan, such as a large glass casserole dish or baking pan. Whisk together the juice, oil, herbs and salt and pepper. Add the garlic to the roast and pour the marinade over the top. Flip the shoulder over once to coat it entirely with marinade. Cover and refrigerate at least twelve and up to twenty-four hours, turning once. 

Place the roast in a large baking pan and pour the marinade over it. Allow it to rest at room temperature for one hour. Preheat the oven to 300. Cover tightly with foil. Roast for 7-8 hours, until the meat is fork-tender. Remove the foil. Turn the oven up to 400 and return the meat to the oven. Roast for another 30-40 minutes until browned. Slice and serve, drizzled with pan juices.