When you buy a bottle of wine what factors do you consider? I’ll bet one is what grapes it’s made from. We expect that a Cabernet Sauvignon will taste different from a Pinot Noir or a Chardonnay.
How about when you buy a pork chop? Do you consider the breed of the pig? No? You’re not alone. You probably think, “Pork is pork, right?” Well, maybe.
The vast majority of the pork that you buy at the grocery today is in the “pork is pork” category. There are only a few commercial breeds of pigs used by most farmers today. That’s a big change from a century ago. While we used to breed animals to be disease resistant, or good tempered, or hardy, or delicious, the current trend is toward one very particular trait: the ability to convert feed into meat as quickly as possible.
The chicken came first.
In 1925 it took fifteen weeks to grow a chicken that weighed 2.2 pounds. By 1990 you could grow the same chicken in about four weeks. The biggest cost to raising a chicken is the feed so the quicker you can raise a chicken the less feed you have to give it and the less expensive it is to raise. With the new, faster growing chickens, the slow growing chickens that had pecked around farms were economically obsolete. Within a few decades, dozens of centuries-old heritage breed chickens were almost extinct. They were replaced by a few new breeds. Chicken meat became cheap and suddenly the dream of a chicken in every pot became a reality. Well, maybe a McNugget in every bucket.
But there were a lot of tradeoffs. These chickens lost their disease immunity. Wo they started getting daily antibiotics in their feed. They grew too big too quickly for their skeletons to keep up causing them to have trouble moving around without fracturing bones. So they were jam packed into tiny cages that barely allowed them to move. And while the meat was plentiful, it was bland.
The Other White Meat was next.
After seeing the financial success they had with developing new chickens meat executives turned their attention to pork. Today, commercial pigs grow faster and bigger than ever. Also, like chickens, the vast majority of modern pigs bear little resemblance to the breeds that were rooting around on farms 75 years ago.
Back then, pigs were raised both for their meat and for their fat. Did you know lard was the number one cooking fat in America until World War II? Then, during the war, lard was so important as a grease used in making explosives that advertising campaigns implored housewives to switch to using “more healthful” vegetable fats like margarine so that the lard could all be used in the war effort. Long before the Mediterranean Diet craze put the nail in lard’s coffin it was on its way out. The idea that animal fats were bad caught on. Farmers started breeding pigs to be leaner. The meat industry noticed that lean muscle developed much more quickly than more flavorful fat and that sped the changes along. Within a few decades pork became so lean and that it ended up being advertised as a stand-in for chicken.
The heritage breed pig scene today.
The good news is that there are a handful of farmers out there who are still raising heritage breed pigs—the same breeds that could have been raised by their grandparents. Here are a few that you may find on the market today, including Zingerman’s. They do taste different!
Berkshire: one of the most common heritage pigs today, Berkshire pork is tender and incredibly flavorful—you might call it especially “porky.” It’s a popular choice with chefs.
Duroc: first developed in New England around 1800, Duroc pork is earthy, nutty, bold, yet clean and juicy.
Ibérico Pata Negra: these are the famous pigs that root in the forests of southern Spain and eat the acorns to become Ibérico de Bellota. The meat is usually cured. When fresh it’s unbelievably rich and savory, almost like a cross between beef and pork.
Red Wattle: originally from New Orleans, Red Wattle pork has incredibly complex, herbaceous, subtly sweet flavor. Its prized fat melts in your mouth.
Tamworth: first developed in Ireland, and known for being one of the best breeds for bacon. The pork has sweet, nutty notes.