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November 28, 2012

Locavore Lore: Boss hogs

Ambitious home chefs can go snout-to-tail with Blue Dog Bakery’s ‘Red Hogs’

With two snorting 700-pounders chasing him out of the pocket on a cool, clear Sunday, there was a moment there when Bob Hancock resembled a scurrying quarterback. The lean Hancock, who may feel more at home kneading a ball of dough at the Blue Dog Bakery, was easily dwarfed by these blitzing, porcine linesmen. He dropped one bucket of whole grain feed the way a would-be sack victim might ground the pigskin to avoid tackle, then faded back a few more yards before turning over a second bowl.

Feeding time was under way for Ophelia and Pearl, a pair of 3-year-old Red Wattle sows whose 25 offspring will go up for grabs this month as part of Red Hogs’ early winter harvest. As their snouts disappeared into the feed, Hancock turned his sights on Virgil, a 1,000-pound boar and third player in Red Hogs’ breeding trio.

“They’re only aggressive when it’s time to eat,” says this artisan baker and heritage hog farmer, who learned to be nimble after having his hands chomped on more than one occasion.

“Oh, they’re sweethearts,” defends Kit Garrett, Hancock’s wife of 23 years and Red Hog teammate.

Garrett assures me their pigs are just clumsy and gigantic. A calm does come over the hormone-free animals as they crunch breakfast in a bright November sun. Still, you’d be a fool to get between a bucket of feed and the mighty Virgil. Watching Hancock and Garrett climb fences, lug around troughs and manage all the logistics that come with farrowing and raising these marvelous, massive beasts, one can’t help but wonder why they do it.

Hancock reveals that at this point, he is basically running a nonprofit organization, adding later that he’s routinely kept up at night when his hogs reach size and it’s time to move them.

“Trying to tell a pig where to go is a stressful situation,” he says. This is especially so on unpaved roads in wet, winter conditions.

So, what is it that brings them out to Oldham County twice daily, seven days a week? A host of reasons become evident while visiting Wildwood Farms — generous host to the Red Hogs operation — but Hancock names a couple of motives specifically: stewardship of two endangered breeds of hog and a commitment to the farm-to-table model.

A 1999 census by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy turned up just six Red Wattle breeders in the United States. This accounted for 42 breeding hogs, a number low enough to place the Red Wattle on the critically endangered list. Hancock and Garrett are also working with a “critically rare” Mulefoot Hog, which number fewer than 150 worldwide.

Slowfood International says the Mulefoot is prized for its high fat content, yielding some of the best hams you can get your hands on. Because their litters are typically small — three or four if you’re lucky — Hancock is experimenting with a Mulefoot/Red Wattle hybrid that has already produced 21 piglets. It was a cool thing to stand among these friendly and curious beauties, which have split the traits of their parents about evenly. The crossbreeds feature a mix of black and rust-color coats, the eponymous front hoof of the Mulefoot and the signature, seemingly useless, wattles dangling from the jowls of the Red Wattle.

As for the farm-to-table thing, plenty has been stated in these pages regarding ethical eating, food miles and the difference between feedlot, supermarket meat and the boutique farm, heritage variety. Without bogging you down with further eco factoids and unappetizing CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) descriptions, here’s Hancock’s practical appeal for purchasing his more expensive, local pork in a nutshell: His hogs live longer and grow fatter than a factory-farmed pig.

This means a purely pastured animal that can “roam, graze and dig to their heart’s desire,” raised on whole grains, corn, soy and wheat with absolutely no hormones or antibiotics. The Red Hogs’ longer lives and wide open spaces allow the animals’ fat content to develop intramuscularly, producing that sought after “marbled” effect that creates a decidedly more balanced, succulent cut of pork. “I’m trying to do what’s right for the pig,” Hancock says. “We want them to have a nice end.”

A 300-pound Red Wattle yields about 150 pounds of meat and can currently be reserved through the Blue Dog Bakery. Pigs are sold whole, halved or butchered to your specifications. A whole hog is $600, plus a roughly $125 charge for butchering and processing. The meat arrives Cryovacked in four cardboard boxes. Hancock suggests the half-pig option for home use, which does not include the head and tail, but does feature 20 pounds of shoulder, 20 pounds of ham, and various pounds of belly, chops, sausages, tenderloin, jowls and trotters. All that will run you about $365 — or less than $5 per pound by my math. Sounds worth it, provided you have the freezer space and appetites to tackle such a bounty.

Hog & Barrel Dinner at Proof
Don’t have a pot big enough for a pig’s head but still want a piece of the whole hog action? Proof On Main’s Hog & Barrel Dinner on Dec. 6 might be worth sniffing out. As in year’s past, the $125, five-course celebration of whole beast cooking features plates that would make Fergus Henderson blush: pastrami cheek, crispy ears with sauerkraut and celery, fried pork brain sandwiches, stuffed trotters, smoked belly paletas, milk braised shoulder and, oh yeah, bourbon pairings from Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery.

Chef Levon Wallace picks up where Michael Paley left off, as he interprets Mulefoot Hogs from just down the road in Goshen. Wallace will team with visiting chef Linton Hopkins, a James Beard Award winner from Atlanta, as they convert each precious piece of beast into something worth savoring. Call 217-6360 to make a reservation.

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