Meeting Mr. Wilbur Red Wattle
Last Saturday Ally and I drove down to Dallas, OR-- a small town in central Oregon about an hour and a half south of Portland. We got a little lost on the way to the farm, but getting lost in the rolling hills of the Willamette Valley isn't necessarily a bad thing. As we found our way to the gravel driveway leading to the Parkers' 45-acre farm, we were both awestruck and excitedly anticipating the day ahead. As we exited the Volvo, we were first greeted --or should I say confronted-- by two Narragansett toms (male turkeys). If there is one thing that I've picked up on my farm visits, it's that one should never get too close to the toms without an insurance policy. On Jim and Wendy Parker's farm, this comes in the form of a "turkey stick", which Wendy was waving in her hands as she came down from the house to meet us. This stick never touches the turkeys-- it doesn't have to. They aren't the smartest of barnyard creatures, and waving it around in their general direction does the trick. After saving us from the toms, Wendy introduced herself and was soon joined by her husband, Jim. From there we went right to meeting the residents of Heritage Farms Northwest: Narragansett turkeys, Buckeye and White chickens, American Curly horses and some cattle for personal consumption. But we were here for the stars of the farm-- the Red Wattle pigs.
The Red Wattle pig is extremely rare (about 870 registered worldwide) and the Parkers are the only farmers in Oregon that raise them. I keep meaning to write a post about heritage breeds in depth, but for now I'll just explain that heritage breeds are the livestock equivalent to heirloom varieties in produce. They are the breeds that our predecessors raised and ate before the advent of industrial farming. Because these breeds grow more slowly and don't work as baby machines they were not suited for large-scale farming practices. While most mainstream pork comes from the genetically-manufactured White pig, there are about 7 heritage breeds of pork. The genes of some of these, usually Berkshire or Duroc, are often used to help fortify the homogeneous blood-line of the modern pig. Another you may recognize from menus is the Tamworth. The others are far more rare and years from making regular appearances on your table. One look at the meat of one of these heritage breeds shows its natural superiority over boring and bland commercial pork. Each breed is valued for different characteristics. In the case of the Red Wattle it is both their calm demeanor and deliciously lean meat. The difference is appreciated most in the belly of this traditional "bacon pig".
The Parkers first introduced us to "Big Momma" the sow who had just given birth to the last litter of the year. We resisted the temptation to pick up her cute little piglets, as Jim assured us that is the one way to get these normally easy-going pigs to show you the business. We went on to meet the mixed herd of this year's previous litters, including "Wilbur" the boar who will be making bacon later this year for BCN for PDX. Next we met "Red Beard" the boar who so graciously supplied all of the genetic material needed for this year's litters. I gave "Red Beard" a nice rub down as Jim told me that these pigs can get up to 1700 lbs, almost THREE times the size of this guy. Ally and I were then left to wander the farm for a bit. We watched a quarrel between a rooster and a turkey for while and mused over what it could be about, then I closed my eyes to take in the smells and sounds of the farm. The toms puffing air and ruffling feathers, pigs grunting, chickens clucking and the fresh air that smelled of life.
On to the REAL reason we were at Heritage Farms NW... to eat "Einstein"! After explaining the rarity of this breed you may be wondering why we were eating one. As some of the few farmers working to bring this pig back from extinction, the Parkers are careful to only use the best of the best for breeding so as to ensure a strong gene pool. Our friend "Einstein" turned out to have a heart murmur, so he didn't make the cut. So he, uh, made the cut. Jim Parker had fought and cursed the torrential rains of Saturday morning to excavate a nice pit for roasting Mr. Einstein. By evening he had been in the ground about 8 hours, enough time to cook the over 100 pounds of pig that lay under a good 18 inches of dirt, corn husks, grape leaves, burlap, aluminum foil and rocks. Under the stares of about 50 hungry eyes, people took turns digging, and the smells of wood smoke and dirt filled the air. Finally the burlap and chicken wire supporting the pig were visible and four men lifted the hog onto the ground next to the pit. One more heave and the hog lay on the table to much applause. Hardly able to contain ourselves, we began the big reveal, peeling back the layers of foil to take in "Einstein" in all his glory. The aromas were absolutely irresistible!
After a few test cuts, Jim Parker bestowed me with the greatest honor, carving Einstein. As I've been focusing on the writing side of things lately I was more than willing, if a little nervous, to take the helm. As soon as that knife was in my hand, though, I was right in my element. I joined him in cutting, freeing gorgeous, juicy slabs of pork. As I worked I found myself answering questions about various cuts, describing where the chops were going to be and pointing out the tenderloin. I stopped to admire the marbling of the belly, which is of course of special interest to me. I sliced chops while talking with the dairy farmer from down the road who supplies the Parkers with milk for the pigs. An Australian woman who raises laying chickens and cattle for meat and dairy, she spoke of a carpool of Portlanders that take turns driving down to pick up milk from their farm and about the long wait list they have for the eggs of their 17 chickens. She explained that they could do more with more chickens, but refuse to compromise the quality and sustainability of their as-of-yet hand-powered farm. This comment filled with me with so much respect, and reminded me that these are the farmers I wanted to meet. Farmers who realize that making an extra buck at the expense of the animals they raise is unfair.
The full impact of what I was doing didn't really hit me until I finally stopped to take a fork to the pig's jowl, dig into some tender flesh and feed it to Ally. I have found myself having these moments in my post-vegetarianism, where I see how far I have come. Eating meat directly from the body of a pig, as his friends and family root around 50 yards away and talking to the farmers who raised him-- this was one of those moments. I felt so connected to life. When I told friends of my plans for this day, many asked "How can you meet those animals and then eat one?" My answer, "How could I not?". Even Ally thought she would have a difficult time with this day. As my better half, she often listens to me spout off opinions and wax poetic about meat eating, but that doesn't mean she was gung-ho for dinner-on-the-farm. But as I fed her what was possibly the best meat either of us had ever eaten, I saw nothing but joy on her face.
As Jim and I cut we hatched plans of curing bacon for a big Sunday brunch, breaking down big game this Fall and he told me of his recent deal with a hazelnut grower in the valley to have a few of his pigs, including "Wilbur", go clean up acres of filberts. I nearly jumped out of my skin thinking about the marbling and flavor that the already delicious meat would take on. My mind began racing with flavors for this Fall's big cure. By the time we finished cutting, everyone was inside eating. We shook greasy hands over the heap of leftover skin and bones and I can't describe what it was like to be looking into the earnest, hard-working eyes of the farmer who was providing me with this opportunity.
I sat down to the multi-generational table and was overwhelmed by the feeling of just how right this was. Eating feet away from where this food was grown, with the people who put their sweat into making this day happen, I could only hope this experience would become a normal part of this butcher's life. When Ally and I stepped out of the house, the close-to-full moon was shining down on the sleeping farm. We wondered how the animals put themselves to bed as we walked to the car, no longer on watch for the toms. We drove away very slowly, taking it all in. And I just kept repeating, "What a good day".