The pig dates back 40 million years to fossils which indicate that wild porcine animals roamed forests and swamps in Europe and Asia. Remains of the earliest known North American peccary, Perchoerus, are from late Eocene sediments dating from 37 million years ago in North America. But it's the domesticated pig that holds our interest. Pigs were domesticated in China around 4900BC (although some experts claim 7000 to 6000BC in Western Asia) and were being raised in Europe by 1500BC. The Romans improved pig breeding and spread pork production throughout their empire. Two main types were developed: one breed was large, with floppy ears, and produced copious amounts of lard, while the other was of a smaller frame, with erect ears, used primarily for meat.
Jewish religious law banned the eating of pork before 1000BC, based on a belief that pigs were unclean since they ate waste, and there was the fear of disease (no doubt associated with contracting trichinosis from eating improperly cooked pork or the belief that pork meat didn't last long before "going off"); don't forget that nomadic cultures are not as suited to pigs as they are to cattle, sheep, or camels. Early Christians also shunned pork, but by around AD50 those restrictions were relaxed. Muhammad also banned the consumption of pork, resulting in a severe decline in the pig population of the Middle East and Western Asia. Europe, being principally Christian, embraced the pig: Swine ate anything, reproduced prodigiously, and their meat was easily preserved. By the 1500's in Europe, the Celtic people in the north were breeding large-bodied, well-muscled pigs, while in Southern Europe, the Iberians had developed smaller-framed, lard-type pigs. All of the pigs of this time period were dark-colored.
At Queen Isabella's insistence, Christopher Columbus took eight pigs on his voyage to Cuba in 1493. They were tough and could survive the voyage with minimal care, they supplied an emergency food source if needed, and those that escaped provided meat for hunting on return trips. But Hernando de Soto was the true "father of the American pork industry." He brought America's first 13 pigs to Tampa Bay, Fla., in 1539. As the herds grew, explorers used the pigs not only for eating as fresh meat but for salt pork and preserved pork. American Indians were reportedly so fond of the taste of pork that attacks to acquire it resulted in some of the worst assaults on the expedition. By the time de Soto died three years later, his original herd of 13 pigs had grown to 700 – a very conservative estimate. This number doesn't include the pigs eaten by his troops, those that escaped and became wild pigs (the ancestors of today's feral pigs), and those given to the American Indians to keep the peace. The pork industry in America had begun.
As an interesting tidbit, the feared buccaneers of the Caribbean derived their name from the Arawak Indian word buccan, referring to a wooden frame used for smoking meats. The French changed this to boucan and called the French hunters who used these frames to cook and preserve feral cattle and the offspring of Columbus' pigs on the island of Hispaniola boucanier. English colonists anglicized the word to buccaneers.
Pig production spread rapidly through the new colonies. Cortés introduced hogs to New Mexico in 1600 while Sir Walter Raleigh brought sows to Jamestown colony in 1607. Semi-wild pigs ravaged New York colonists' grain fields to the extent that every pig of 14 inches or more in height that was owned by a colonist was required to have a ring in its nose to make it easier to control. On Manhattan Island, a long solid wall to exclude rampaging pigs was constructed on the northern edge of the colony; it created the name for the area now known as Wall Street. By 1660 the pig population of Pennsylvania Colony numbered in the thousands. By the end of the 1600s, the typical farmer owned four or five pigs, supplying salt pork, ham, and bacon for his table; any surplus was sold as "barreled pork" (pork meat preserved in salted brine, contained in wooden barrels). Finishing pigs before slaughter on American Indian corn became popular in Pennsylvania, setting the new standard for fattening before the late fall pork harvest.
At the end of the 1700s, pioneers started heading west, taking their utilitarian pigs with them. Wooden crates filled with young pigs often hung from the axles of prairie schooner wagons. As western herds increased, processing and packing facilities began to spring up in major cities. Pigs were first commercially slaughtered in Cincinnati, which became known as "Porkopolis"; by the mid 1800s Cincinnati led the nation in pig processing. Getting the pigs to market in the 1850s was no small task. Drovers herded their pigs along trails, with the aid of drivers who handled up to 100 pigs each. It is estimated that between 40,000 and 70,000 pigs were driven from Ohio to eastern markets in any given year. A herd could travel 5-8 miles a day and covered total distances up to 700 miles.
In 1887 Swift & Co. introduced the refrigerated railroad car, chilled by a solution of ice and salt (mechanical refrigeration wouldn't appear until 1947). It created a revolution in pig farming: Slaughterhouses could be centralized near production centers since processed pork meat could be shipped instead of live hogs. Large terminal markets developed in Chicago; Kansas City, Mo; St. Joseph, Mo.; and Sioux City, Iowa. Centralized packing plants were located adjacent to the stockyards. The natural progression was for the pork industry to relocate to the Upper Midwest, where the majority of the grain was raised; Corn Belt morphed into Hog Belt. Today Iowa is still the top pork producer in the States.
The trend was for developing herds that produced higher numbers of offspring and pigs that were leaner (resulting in better feed efficiency). Husbandry methods emphasized control of diseases caused by huge factory pig-raising techniques, introducing the use of prophylactic antibiotics. Pork had become "the Other White Meat", and although production was more efficient and cost-effective, the taste was steadily being bred away.
Now the trend is toward a return to the older, fattier, tastier heritage breeds such as the Berkshire, the Red Wattle, the Tamworth, the Large Black, the Mule Foot, the Old Spot, and the Ossabaw (a direct descendant of the original Iberico black-footed hogs imported by the Spaniards to Savannah, Ga., some 400 years ago). Their meat has superior taste and texture, with marbling that retains the moisture of the meat. There is also a greatly increased demand for small farm, pasture-raised, organically grown pigs, and rejection of methods such as water-injection for finished pork. A happier pig is a tastier pig!
Mick Vann © originally published in the Austin Chronicle