Back in May I wrote about a couple of back-to-the-landers in Wisconsin who’d purchased four American mulefoot hogs. That’s a hairy, black heritage breed known to produce good hams and lots of fat and possessed of an unusual mutation—dainty, uncloven hooves. For decades the mulefoots faced oblivion, and by the 70s an elderly Missouri farmer had the sole remaining purebred herd. But over the last seven years or so their cause has been taken up by a couple of breeders in Michigan and South Dakota and organizations such as the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy and Slow Food USA. The mulefoot’s making a comeback.
Linda Derrickson and Mark Kessenich, the farmers I wrote about, didn’t just buy their pigs because they wanted a healthy, delicious source of fat in their diets. They believe in the principle of “eater-based conservation,” which holds that the best way to ensure the survival of rare and endangered livestock is to build consumer demand for them. “You have to eat them to save them,” as Erika Lesser, executive director of Slow Food USA, puts it.
Not long after the piece went to press their two females, Crystal and Cherry, gave birth to eight piglets. The Reader bought one, and we arranged for Derrickson and Kessenich to care for it until it got big enough to eat—about a year or so. The plan is to enlist the services of a chef to prepare a snout-to-tail meal, for which we’ll sell tickets, the profits going to charity. Maybe we’ll cure a ham or some bacon too.
Since then I’ve been charting the progress of our pig and its siblings on the Reader‘s food and drink blog, The Food Chain. They live on grass and as a rule eat better than I do, munching on organic grains, kitchen scraps, garden surplus, and whatever they dig up in the dirt. For a while they were getting a regular supply of grass-fed goat’s milk. At six months, they’re huge. But their lives haven’t been all sunshine and mud baths. In August, Derrickson and Kessenich decided they couldn’t give the mulefoots the attention they required—they were already raising cattle, sheep, goats, and chickens. They sold their piglets to a sculptor and welding instructor named Valerie Weihman-Rock and her husband, Mike, an engineer and metalworker. The couple agreed to raise the Reader‘s pig too.
The Rocks live on 150 gently hilly acres in Argyle, Wisconsin—cheese country. A few weeks ago I checked in on our gilt (the term for a female swine that has yet to give birth), whom we’ve named Dee Dee, after the late Ramone. The mulefoots have been living in a large fenced-off pasture between the Rocks’ house and barn. The pen includes part of what’s left of the Rocks’ summer garden, and when I arrived all eight pigs were snoozing peacefully in the sunshine amid dried, broken cornstalks. When I stepped over the fence they began to stir.
Mulefoots are generally intelligent, friendly, curious, and docile. They get up and greet you when you approach, pressing their wet noses against proffered hands or taking a good sniff of your pant leg. Weihman-Rock says that after a couple of the pigs came in contact with the electric fence the entire herd learned not to touch it.
As I sat on the ground taking pictures, the runt, a gilt named Dayspring Domatillo, took hold of my bootlace. She didn’t let go of it until it was untied.
Dee Dee’s a bit different. She doesn’t greet strangers, and doesn’t seem to like having her ears scratched the way the others do. She’s a large, contented-looking animal with a splotch of pink on her snout and short white socks above each hoof. These slight deviations from the breed standard make her a bad candidate for the propagation of her kind. Dee Dee was born to be food.
That’s not to say that people who raise these beautiful, intelligent creatures for meat have ice in their veins. Just ask Weihman-Rock. Born in Rockford, she’d always dreamed of living on a farm. Four and a half years ago she hooked up with Mike. “He says I married him for his dirt,” she jokes. Not long after she joined him in Argyle, they bought a couple dozen heritage-breed chicks and installed them under heat lamps in the basement. “That way I could see if I could raise an animal and then harvest it and eat it,” she says. When she killed her first, she slit its throat and hung it up to bleed out. It took her two hours to pluck the feathers. Even today she doesn’t like to cook an animal on the same day she slaughters it, preferring to put some time between violence and nourishment.
Harvesting the pigs will be another big step for her (and a completely new one for me). When she and Mike took possession of the herd she spent a night out in their paddock. “I care tremendously about them,” she says, but “you wouldn’t have animals if you weren’t using them for something.” A colleague of hers, an instructor in the culinary program at Madison Area Technical College, where she teaches, has offered to bring his students out and conduct a butchering class on one of the pigs.
In the meantime, Dee Dee’s parents, Cong and Crystal, along with the other adults, Churchill and Cherry, are still in the care of Derrickson and Kessenich. They’re scheduled to be harvested at a small custom processor in early December. I’ll be there too.v
For more on food and drink, see our blog The Food Chain at chicagoreader.com.