Where Does Great Bacon Come From?

It begins with a gunshot, point blank just behind the ear. The targeted Mulefoot Hog remains blissfully unaware, even until the very end. Once the pig is down, its throat is slit to let the blood. Meanwhile, the other hogs react only briefly to the sound of the gunshot, looking up for just a moment, vaguely curious, and then continuing to feed on delicious fallen fruit. As their former sibling is dragged from the pen with the aid of a wench, life goes on without incident or trauma.

I don’t like to shill too often. However, Slow Food Napa Valley is co-hosting a benefit dinner at the Bale Grist Mill this Saturday evening, in which two Mulefoot Hogs will be prepared and enjoyed in myriad fashions. As a local board member of SFNV (as well as the webmaster), I’ll be there to help out and to snap some pictures of the event. The Mulefoot Hogs are provided by Beer Belly Farms of Calistoga, where I went to see them slaughtered earlier this week. I celebrate swine in all forms, so I’m not bothered by the details — that is, witnessing how pork chops find their way from the pasture to the grill. When it concerns what I eat, I’m an enthusiast, as well as a realist. I no longer believe in the bacon fairy.

Aside from mentioning the Bale Mill Dinner, I’d like to also mention the Mulefoot Hog itself, which is one of four heritage breeds on Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste. In addition to being one of the rarest porcine species on the planet, it’s also an incredibly delicious breed, especially when it’s been feeding on the bounty of Napa Valley’s fallen fruit over these past few weeks. So, for anyone else who might be attending Saturday night’s SFNV event, here’s a chance to get to know your dinner in advance. And here’s a bit more info about Mulefoot Hogs from the Slow Food USA website:

“The Mulefoot Hog is an American breed that descended from the hogs that the Spanish brought to Florida and the Gulf Coast in the 1500s. The most distinctive feature of the Mulefoot hog is the solid hoof, which resembles that of a mule. It was bred to have a solid hoof rather than the typical cloven hoof to eliminate the threat of foot rot, thus making it suitable for wet areas.

In the 1800s there was a huge demand for hogs to help fuel westward expansion. However, the hogs that were wanted needed to be much larger than the Spanish hogs. As a result farmers started crossing the Spanish hogs with larger hogs such as the Berkshire and Poland China.

The Mulefoot hogs have a soft solid black coat with white points occurring occasionally. The hogs have medium flop ears and a fairly gentle disposition. They fatten quite easily and a mature hog weighs in at the 500-600 pound range. Because of the high fat content, this breed is particularly good for high quality ham.

The Mulefoot peaked in popularity about a century ago with breeders found in most Midwestern and some southern states. But as the amount of area for foraging decreased and the practice of feeding hogs in pens increased, the breed fell out of favor since other breeds of hogs grew faster in that type of situation. It came to a point where there was only one remaining breeder, R.M. Holliday of Missouri.

Holliday’s strong and consistent production selection has maintained a generally uniform and characteristic herd. In the fall of 1993 Mark Fields, in cooperation with the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, contacted Mr. Holliday to purchase a few animals and begin a Mulefoot herd. The Mulefoot is the most rare of American swine breeds. Because of its endangered status, historical value, and superior flavor, conservation is essential.”

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At the butchering area, the hog is rinsed of debris.

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The hog is scalded in 150˚F water to help remove its fur coat.

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The tool used for the fur removal is called a bell scraper.

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Blanching the carcass allows the fur to be removed in large clumps.

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A torch singes additional fur for easy removal.

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Finally, a sharp knife removes the last traces of fur.

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The hog’s hooves are also removed. The fur around the eye is too difficult to easily remove, so the area is usually carved away. In this photo, the Mulefoot’s left eye has been addressed, while the right eye still has not.

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Up until now, much of the butchery has been cosmetic. The hog is suspended for the heavy-duty butchering.

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A vertical incision allows access to the hog’s major internal organs, including the intestines, the heart, the liver, and the kidneys.

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For me, this is the point where the hog seemed to become more “food” than “animal” — however, I think it’s important to remember that all meat was once alive and that it should be respected as such. This fact is easy to forget when the animal is already portioned and shrink-wrapped when you first encounter it.

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That’s a wrap: From grazing to butchered in about 30 minutes. This female Mulefoot Hog was selected because she has stopped producing piglets. It may seem like a harsh sentence, but if it’s any consolation, she lived much longer than most males ever would have.

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