From Farm to Fork: All About Pork
Directly before I left for San Francisco, the National Pork Board invited me to join them in Minnesota to tour a pig farm and really learn the ins & outs of pork farming. Though I don’t eat ham, I do eat a lot of pork, and I’ve been curious for a long time what it’s like at a commercial farm. I don’t recall really ever visiting a farm – the school I attended from 1st through 8th grade wasn’t big on field trips – but even those wouldn’t have presented an accurate picture of what it’s like to farm pigs for a living. I excitedly accepted, though my attorneys reviewed the release I had to sign and strongly advised against going.
I flew into Minneapolis on a Tuesday afternoon and went straight to Butcher and the Boar, where we had our welcome dinner. The first thing I discovered, when I tried to order from the very extensive bourbon menu that Butcher and the Boar boasts – seriously, take a look, it’s incredible – was that the National Pork Board is funded partially by the national government (and as such, they could not pay for hard alcohol – I didn’t quite ask for all the details of that). This was a surprise to me.
The next thing I discovered was that one of the chefs there was named Peter Botcher… just one letter away from butcher. Kind of funny. Anyway, the regular menu there is fairly pork-focused, and they make their own sausages! and … the menu sounds fantastic on its own.
But a special menu had been cooked for us to make it just that much more pork-centric. Not a problem by me! I found my place and sat down.
Petite wedges with smoked pecans, bacon, Maytag blue cheese… wild arugula salad with watermelon, goat’s cheese, pickled red onion… both nice, light starts to a pretty decadent and heavy meal.
Barbecue pork skewer with bacon, pork cheek, pickled corn and sweetbreads… shockingly, there were a number of people at my end of the table who wouldn’t eat the sweetbreads. MORE FOR ME – and yes, I did. I love good sweetbreads and these were delicious – no chalkiness whatsoever, just meaty tenderness. YUM. I found the pickled corn a touch too spicy for me, to my sadness, but still tasty.
Those sausages I was talking about: green chili chorizo with soft cooked egg and black bean mole; Berkshire pork & cheddar with broccoli, rye and hard cider sauce. A lot of people raved about the green chili chorizo, which was good, but the Berkshire pork & cheddar one stole my heart. There was plenty of cheddar running through it – if you look carefully at my blurry photo, you can see a little yellow running through it. I often eat cheddar sausages that just don’t have much cheddar in them, and that makes me sad. But this one had enough to burst forth… yum!
Fun fact: I always thought Berkshire pork were from pigs that were raised in the Berkshires… sort of upstate NY-ish. (Geography has never been my strong suit.) However, I discovered that Berkshire is actually a breed of pig. It was super trendy for a while there! (And my prediction is that the next breed of pig to be trendy is Mangalitsa, which I had in a few places already… and it was absolutely delicious!)
Here’s another super blurry photo, this time of my plate. It was hard to get photos of the entire platter as they passed, and I didn’t want to hold people up, but here’s what I ate: corn bread with maple butter, fried green tomatoes, blackened cauliflower, mushrooms, pork rack with sorghum mustard glaze, pork chops with apple cider, sour cherries and pecan relish. It was all fantastic – I don’t order pork chops or loins in restaurants much because I always feel that they overcook it and it comes out dry, which is a crying shame as pork, when it’s juicy and tender, is a thing of wonder and beauty. But it was cooked perfectly here – juicy, the slightest trace of pink in the meat, and just YUM. All the flavors went so well together! I was sad when we realized that one of the dishes had passed us by and I didn’t get to try the country fried pork loin with sausage gravy. You know how I love sausage gravy… In any case, everything was so good, I really want to go back to Minneapolis just to try more food from this place. No, seriously.
Also, I was wondering if they sold their sausages to go, because I really wanted to take some of that Berkshire pork & cheddar sausage home with me. Or to California with me, you know, whatever.
Dessert: wisely, the dessert was smaller portions… after eating all that, I didn’t know if I could squeeze another bite into me. BUT… ginger snap banana pudding topped with torched meringue sounded too fantastic, and even better? IT WAS. It was SO GOOD. The perfect slightly sweet bite to end such a decadent meal. Yes.
We also took a bit to watch a presentation on the health benefits of pork – seriously, it has such a bad rep but it’s not bad for you! – and discuss some of the misconceptions on pork consumption. Did you know that worldwide, it’s the most consumed meat? I would have guessed chicken or beef, but those are far more American meats apparently. In any case, pork tenderloin? As lean as skinless chicken breast. (2.98 grams of fat per 3 ounce serving vs. 3.03 grams of fat per 3 ounce serving of skinless chicken breast.) And, in my opinion, a whole lot more flavorful (I was literally just eating pork tenderloin today… for those of you who follow me on Twitter/Instagram, you know what I’m talking about). Seriously.
Then we piled into the party bus – complete with psychedelic lights and video of a fireplace on multiple screens! – and went to our respective hotel rooms for the super early start the next day to visit the pig farm. I actually caught a bit of the second presidential debates before calling it a night.
… and here start the photos using my phone exclusively, for a number of reasons.
Bright and early – like 6am early – we met in the hotel lobby and put together our own breakfast. I mean, it was laid out for you (sandwiches, yogurt, etc. – just take what you wanted) – but I had to snap a photo of the cutest bags we were given – these canvas lunch bags with a velcro closure, and this graphic on them depicting the various cuts of pig. I love it! I kept mine, so you may see me toting this around… And I loved how our breakfast sandwiches had runny yolk eggs, instead of scrambled. I was pretty confused when I saw golden liquid oozing out of my sandwich though, and totally was like, “Eh? I thought this had Swiss cheese on it…” before I realized it was delicious runny egg. YUM. Of course, then I tried to not fall asleep on the hour ride to Wakefield Pork Inc… but the party bus was set up in such a way to encourage conversation, so we chatted a bit more about pigs, our expectations and our preconceived notions of what it might be like. Extremely educational.
By the time we pulled up, everyone knew how desperately I wanted to hold a baby pig.
Before we could go into the facility though, it was explained to us about the shower in/shower out procedure and how this is to protect the pigs as much as it is to protect us. Anything we wanted brought in with us – phones, cameras, etc. – needed to be wiped down before it could be brought in. I decided to leave my dSLR with my stuff on the bus on the off chance I fell into a pig pen (I am a HUGE clutz and really wasn’t sure what to expect). My phone takes decent pictures – it has more megapixels than my first digital camera! – so I was fine.
After we went through the clean process of going into the facility, we sat and chatted a bit with the farmers we’d met the night before, and with the staff of the facility. There were no doors closed off to us, and nothing hidden from our view. There were charts on the wall of the staff breakroom detailing how many pigs were born in each room – how many live births, how many stillborns. How many lived through the month, how many didn’t. Everything was incredibly detailed and … well, a bit cold. My thoughts were on PIGLETS.
When we were finally on our way into the gestation rooms, I was a little surprised. All the pregnant (and recently-gave-birth) momma pigs were in these stalls called gestation stalls, with just enough room to stand up and lie down, but not much else. There was more room along either side of her, which I learned was for the piglets’ safety. They learn quickly that if momma’s on the move, you wanna get to one side so she doesn’t accidentally step on you or lie down on you, cuz that hurts (and you might die, actually). I was concerned about when the piglets were first born, before they learn this lesson, but was informed that there’s always someone in the room in the first weeks after birth, and if something happens, the person on duty so to speak is able to rescue the piglets.
I GOT TO HOLD A PIGLET. (And seconds later, he started squealing like I was about to eat him. EESH. So I put him back down.) And my stylin’ outfit is courtesy of Wakefield Pork Inc. – coveralls and boots to protect us from picking up anything and taking it out of the facility.
A few minutes after this photo was taken, someone came into that room and excitedly told us that there was a pig giving birth right that second. Ummm, what?! I opted not to take photos of the actual happening – partially because I am squeamish, partially because I was afraid of dropping my slippery phone into her pen, partially because I was just in shock – but I can describe it for you…
We went into another room that looked just like the one we were just in, and walked to one side where a ginormous piggy lay on her side. She didn’t appear to be in pain – she was just lying there on her side, nonchalant as all get-out, and there were about 7 or 8 very tiny, damp-looking piglets walking around her already. While we stood there, peering at her, while a staff member who looked bored (honestly, she was super young, had ear plugs in, and gave off the impression of being an intern doing this just for doing something’s sake as opposed to being genuinely interested) used a towel to rub down a few piglets and put them in a bucket underneath the heat lamp to keep them warm… PLOOP. I swear to you, I thought it was her butt, a little piglet just popped right out. Literally. Mommy Pig didn’t even flinch! I must’ve squealed so loudly, everyone else just laughed… because I was the only woman in my group who hadn’t previously given birth to my own kids, as far as I could tell. I was literally floored that Momma Pig didn’t think anything of what just happened. THE MIRACLE OF LIFE, people. Seriously! And bored-intern picked that one up, rubbed it down, and continued. While we watched, another 5-8 piglets were born, and I think she was still going when we left. I mean, AMAZING.
But before we did turn to go, Momma Pig decided to get up – either was unsettled by 5-6 people staring at her, or she was hungry – and she rolled over onto one of the piglets, who began screaming. Within 2 seconds, someone standing on that side had reached down, yanked the piglet out from under Momma Pig, and put him in the safe zone, where he stood, dazed for a few minutes, and then began walking around again. I don’t think he’ll make that mistake again!
It was amazing. I was impressed by how quickly it all happened – I felt like if it were up to me, I’d still be struggling trying to get Momma Pig to get up.
We moved into another gestation room, and the piglets were noticeably larger though only perhaps a month older. Some of these guys were super feisty – climbing all over the mom and just jumping everywhere. I asked if the pigs ever escape, and yes, it happens, but usually they escape and then sit outside the stall from which they came… because that’s where the food is and they want back in. Imagine though? You go into the room in the morning and there’s a little pig just sitting on the floor, looking all mad because he missed feeding time.
Speaking of which – apparently pigs only “let down” their milk for 30 seconds or so, so the piggies have to all run and drink as fast as they can while it’s being let down. I thought it was a weird system, but mother nature designed it, so I’m guessing it’s worked for a very long time… And it’s explained much better by Wikipedia than I just did, so read that if you want a better comprehension. My point is just that it’s very different from what I’ve learned about other animals nursing (mostly, humans, as I have enough friends with kids to have heard a thing or two).
After seeing the bigger piglets – and declining holding one of those feisty f… – they were jumping all over the place, I’m sure I’d have dropped one! – we were taken into the room that houses the non-pregnant sows who are awaiting impregnation. (Did you know? There’s a season for impregnation too. I don’t just mean when the sows are fertile, I mean there’s a season that physiologically, the sows are more likely to get pregnant and give birth to healthy piggies. It has to do with nature signaling to their bodies when will be a good time to give birth, when there’s an abundance of food to eat and provide for the babies. There have been studies to try to “trick” the pigs into not knowing what season it is, but their bodies are just that in tune with mother nature…)
At first glance, my mind went straight to, “Why are they showing me this? This is AWFUL.” The sows were lined up in even tinier stalls than the gestation ones; there was literally only room for the pigs to stand up and lie down. They couldn’t turn around, they couldn’t socialize with any pigs but the one they were next to – what if they don’t like each other?! ugh there are so many people I would be pissed off if I had to stand next to them for the rest of my life – they were just there. It really confused me because… honestly? If I’d taken a photo of it, it would be a really good photo to convince you why the pigs shouldn’t be kept like that.
However, I talked to the farmer who brought us in there. It’s his family farm – been in the family for quite a while – and I expressed my concerns. He explained a number of things… first, that studies have been done where the pens are left open and the sows are allowed to back out of the stalls and freely wander. 80% of the sows go back to their stalls and don’t choose to be in an open area. They lie together, against each other in a way, and that seems to be their preference. In their stalls, they always have access to water, and they have their own feed bowls, so they don’t have to fight each other for feed or anything, they have their own portions.
That was interesting enough. We also saw the boars that do all the impregnating (the sows are artificially inseminated, but are um, given a boar to look at while they have this done, as it increases the likelihood they will become pregnant…), and they’re all given names… and Farmer Lincoln even petted some of them. I was too scared. Those boars look like they can tear an arm up if they wanted to… not that they looked particularly mean or unhappy, more that I’m a wuss.
We left that area and headed to a room where the older sows are kept before being sent to a processing facility. These sows were kept in open pens, still with open access to water though only one water nozzle per pen, and one feed bucket where they do have to jockey for position when feeding time comes.
Let me tell you: the smell in the entire pig farm was bad. That’s just how it is with animals in large quantity. But the smell in this room was AWFUL. I had to childishly cover my mouth and nose because I simply couldn’t breathe without gagging. And the pigs themselves looked horrible too – they were all scratched up and had clearly been fighting. It was explained to us that because they don’t have the security of their own space, they all fight for first position at the food trough, and sometimes even for water, just because they don’t feel secure that they will get enough or get what they want.
It stood in stark contrast to the pigs in the previous room; though they’d had little room to move around, they were all content enough to stand or lie calmly, while in this room, they all paced nervously and seemed anxious.
After that, we showered-out, and went on our way to have lunch and discuss what we’d learned, what we’d seen, and any questions or concerns we might have had.
Yes, I ate ham. Well, sort of. The top left of the plate is pig wings – I thought these were super interesting and tasty! looks like a buffalo wing, but it was a two-bone piece of the pig that we were given an assortment of sauces to try. I really enjoyed how tender that meat was, and wonder where I can get more pig wings…
Last but not least, a pig fabrication demo. Fabrication does NOT mean the same thing in the food industry as it does in just about every other industry, by the way. No sirree…
Then I got in a car and headed to the airport to continue on my way to California.
Thoughts: Butcher & the Boar is awesome, go check it out if you’re ever in that area.
Final thoughts on the entire trip: it was incredibly enlightening and eye-opening to see an actual pig farm and how they treat their pigs, the process that they go through, and talking to the farmers themselves. Some of you may say that I sound like I’ve “drunk the Kool Aid” so to speak… I don’t think that’s the case. This helped me see it from both sides – from the farmer’s side, since I’ve seen a lot of stories on the other side, the side where people (especially PETA) demonizes farmers and how animals are treated on commercial farms. While I am not an animal expert, I can tell you that I saw firsthand how much these farmers cared about their pigs – not just as bottom line profits, but as animals, what’s healthy and right and best for them. (I didn’t even get into all the detailed records they keep of each pig’s health and needs… and more!) I firmly believe that these farmers sincerely believe they are doing what’s best and what’s right for their pigs… whether or not keeping them in snug quarters actually is what’s best, I couldn’t tell you as I’m not a pig. The pigs do get treated excellently, and they don’t seem all that unhappy.
And I’m positive that happy pigs taste better than unhappy pigs… and better tasting pigs means happy customers, which means repeat customers, which means… it’s better for the bottom line to have happy pigs.
I encourage you all to go out and eat some pork today! I’ve been playing around and cooking more and different cuts of pork at home, so I’ll have some pork recipes in the coming weeks as well. (Including my latest and greatest, blueberry sage glazed pork tenderloin… seriously, this is so good, I want to make it every day for the next few weeks, except tomorrow is Thanksgiving – yes I’m writing this ahead of time – and I know I’ll have some tasty tasty leftovers for at least a week.)
Happy eating, everyone! Anything I shared above that you’d like clarified or were surprised to learn, do share in comments.
Please note that this entire trip was courtesy of the National Pork Board: my flights to and from Minnesota, my hotel, all meals during the trip, and ground transportation to and from the airports. I was under no obligation to post about the trip or my experience, nor did I receive any monetary compensation to do so. All opinions expressed herein are my own. Nutritional date about pork tenderloin fat content vs. skinless chicken breast fat content is direct from the USDA.