Everyone Used to Raise Hogs
On a Family History of Pig Farming
The following essay appears in the Autumn 2016 issue of The Southern Review.
A hog and a man stood in the back room of a London tavern.
“Take us across,” the hog said. “We’ll give you meat. Much as you want.”
The man looked down at the hog’s outstretched hoof. The hair on it looked like gray wire.
“Just take us across.”
The man reached out and clasped the hoof.
* * * *
William Foreman sailed past Hog Island and sniffed. Was it pigs he smelled?
* * * *
Surry County, Virginia, 1702. Dozens of Foreman hogs stood waiting to be counted in the cold.
Two frying pans hung in the kitchen of the clapboard house nearby. A roasting pan and a heavy iron pot. Twenty pounds of lard sat unmoving in a jar—the pigs’ pale butter, opaque and precious. Two Wills—Browne and Rofe—moved through the house, noting quantities in looping cursive. They pushed open the front door and looked out at the hogs rooting in the grass. A third Will—my ancestor—lay under the soil down the road.
* * * *
A farm down the street from my house in New Hampshire maintains a herd of eight English Large Blacks. The Large Black is what pig people call a “heritage breed.” It was developed in England in the 1500s, and breeders have worked to keep modern Large Blacks similar to their ancestors.
I walked through rows of the farm’s grapevines, down toward the Large Blacks’ pen. As I approached, they lined up along their electric fence to greet me. The pen held two massive sows and six of their offspring. Each pig carried a patina of black dirt on its nose, between its snout and eyes. Their ears were so large they hid their faces. One of the smaller pigs inched too close to the fence. It squealed and spun around.
* * * *
The pigs stayed interested in me for a minute, then spread out across their grassy pen. Back to work.
The Large Blacks spend their time digging and grazing. The routine goes like this: snip a few blades of grass, chew, grunt, find a break in the sod, dig in. Each of the small pigs I watched weighed around 175 pounds. The sows weighed upwards of 500. The pigs were self-propelled plows, digging furrows through the grass with little effort. They stayed mostly together, and as they chewed, breathed, and broke apart plants, it sounded like running water.
Brian Ferguson, the man raising the pigs, walked down and stood with me as I watched them root. They were looking for wild carrots and beets, he said, clover and chicory. It’s good for the soil when they tear it up like this. Aerates it.
Ferguson stepped over the electric fence and reached for the neck of the largest sow. “The jowls . . .” he said. “You can tell how good the bacon’s going to be from the jowls.”
The sow jerked away from him, and he stepped back over to my side of the fence. The little ones are going to slaughter in a month, he said. Have to fatten them up with grain—four pounds a day per pig.
“You see that ham?” Ferguson said, pointing to the hind leg of one of the smaller pigs. “That’d only be a three- or four-pound ham.”
* * * *
Hog Island reaches up from the south side of the James River. Sailing the river toward Jamestown, the English would first see the east side of the island, then the north, then the west. On maps it is a green lung riddled with blue worms. The colonists dumped hogs there in 1608 (the bargain was fulfilled). They practiced free-range farming. The animals thrived on the swampy peninsula, gorging themselves on a root called tuckahoe that, as one historian wrote, “burns the mouth of a human being like fire.” The pigs increased in number twentyfold their first years there. The English visited the island to shoot them. Indians hunted them, too.
Feral pigs spread from Virginia throughout the South, meeting up and mixing with the offspring of Hernando de Soto’s Iberian herd, which first made landfall in Florida. De Soto had explored the Deep South, driving pigs (provisions) before him. Some escaped, and some were stolen. Today five million or so wild pigs roam the country, eating crops, insects, other mammals, eggs—whatever they can. Can you see the yolk dripping from a bristly pig’s whiskers?
In Texas you can shoot them with a machine gun, from a helicopter. As many as you see, any day of the year.
* * * *
In Will Foreman’s time, some men chose to live the unfettered lifestyle of a poacher, hunting and eating other men’s pigs. It was such a problem, the colonial government imposed a severe penalty—twenty times a pig’s worth—on anyone caught poaching. And, poachers were forbidden thenceforth from carrying a gun into the woods.
* * * *
I sat in the cabin of a six-wheeled tractor with Mac Berryman, Surry County’s biggest farmer. Berryman has been farming since 1964, and his skin is red and splotchy. English skin marked by years under Southern sun. We rumbled across a soybean field. The tractor was self-steering and GPS guided.
“Everyone used to raise hogs,” Berryman said. “That’s what you ate.” He pointed across the field to a patch of trees.
“There’s a farm right through the woods . . . There was a family named Falken living there.”
The patriarch of the family, the Captain, was shot down by Union men as he crossed the street.
“His soldiers buried him in the woods so the Yankees couldn’t get him. There was a bounty on his head.”
Union men raided smokehouses during the war. They took the taste of Virginia ham home with them.
“Would you eat ham every day?” I asked Berryman.
“I would,” he said.
* * * *
When I was 13 or 14 I shuffled through a pile of computer printouts lying on the linoleum countertop of my parents’ kitchen. The top paper bore the words, “Meaning of the name Foreman,” or something like that. I read through the pile. The name was German, it said. It meant “pig farmer.” From then until the time I was 30, what I learned from those papers represented the sum of what I knew about my family’s history.
I typed “Meaning of the name Foreman” into a search engine recently. An orange and black griffin roared at the top of the first page that came up. The name was English and meant “manager of a large farm,” the site said. At the bottom of the page there was an advertisement for a twenty-five dollar “surname scroll.” There was a sample scroll there for me to preview. It was yellow and gilded with crests and vines. The name “Foreman” was written at the top in Gothic letters.
Next to the scroll was printed: “frame not included.”
* * * *
“They started hunting it, then figured they needed to start curing it, too,” Sam Edwards, a third-generation Surry County ham maker, told me. “Ham was one of the first exports out of the New World.”
Some of Edwards’s earliest memories are of his grandfather standing at the head of the table carving a year-aged ham coated in brown sugar.
“He put it on the plate when the grease was still running out of the sides.”
Indians taught Europeans the technique of smoke curing, or barbacoa. They’d truss salted meat up on poles suspended six feet off the ground, and light a small fire underneath. With enough salt and smoke, a hog leg will last a winter or two.
Edwards imagines the settlers hunting on Hog Island. He calls the men who taught him his trade—his father and grandfather—his ancestors.
I tried his ham, served in thin slices with biscuits and pickles. The meat was dry and salty, pale pink, and layered with fat. It was gamy, stronger than any pork I’d had. The taste was trying to send me some message, like Will Foreman’s free- roaming hogs were bounding through the years.
* * * *
Will Foreman began raising hogs as a young man. They thrived in his swampy corner of Surry County. They earned a reputation for being fine animals. A neighbor was filled with bloodlust and stalked them.
Imagine: Thomas Tias, the neighbor, finds Foreman’s herd wallowing in a black pool. He unslings his heavy iron musket, pours powder down the barrel. Rams a lead ball down behind that. A lit wick dangles from the gun’s hammer. He cocks back the hammer. The pigs are rooting. Tias leans against a tree, struggling to hold the gun steady. Then, a hiss, a crack, and a cloud of black smoke. Pigs scatter. Dogs bark back at Foreman’s farm. Foreman himself looks up from his work cutting tobacco. Was that a gunshot? A pig lies in the water, blood bubbling from its snout. Tias hoots. He unsheathes his knife, kneels beside the animal, squeezes an ear and pulls it taut. The knife cuts easily through the cartilage. Back at his house, he hammers the ear to a heavy rafter.
* * * *
The Little Dooey in Columbus, Mississippi, runs pig through its old black smoker. A shoulder is tough meat, but the cooks at the Dooey give it time. Smoke and heat work to loosen up the flesh over 12 hours. When it hits the plate, it is falling to shreds.
* * * *
I didn’t think about pork until I visited the Dooey in 2002. I was 20, working retail, and drinking a lot of Natural Light on the weekends. I would struggle through a Saturday morning of selling pots and pans, then go with the housewares women to the Dooey. Booze would be seeping through my pores, carrying my vitality with it. The pig soothed all the hurt inside me. Sauce replaced my weakened blood, and meat repaired my organs. I walked out of there feeling strong like an Iberian hog.
* * * *
Before the English got to Surry, Indians set fire to its forests. Fewer trees for deer to hide behind, more fields for grazing. The Indians were free-range farmers, too, in a sense. The cleared land was waiting for hogs to be loosed upon it. Within a couple decades of their introduction, feral pigs were so many they could not be counted.
You’ve got to come out here, the English would write back to their friends in the Old World. There’re so many damn pigs—you’ve got to try the bacon!
* * * *
The longer pigs remain feral, the more they change. They stretch out, all over—leaner bodies, longer legs. Shaggier hair and more pointed snouts. Their tusks get longer, too, and sharper.
* * * *
I stood in front of the monolithic smokehouse on the grounds of Bacon’s Castle, the oldest building in Surry County. The smokehouse dates back to antebellum days. Fully stocked, the house holds four tons of pork.
I looked up and down the building. It was covered in chipped white paint, and its old clapboards were rotting away where they neared the grass. As if the earth were slowly digesting the building. Its thick timber doors were latched closed with black iron, but I envisioned the interior: legs and legs and legs of ancient pigs, hanging from rafters by coarse rope. The legs were black and covered with mold, but the meat inside was red and glistening.
* * * *
In 1912 a spiritual descendant of Thomas Tias imported 13 Russian boars to his game reserve in North Carolina. The boars immediately escaped the split-rail pen he drove them into. Within a few years, their number had multiplied many times over. He hunted them with dogs, but the boars persisted. The boars added their DNA to the wild English and Spanish pigs brought over centuries before. The boars lent the feral pig a thick, wiry coat that scientists call a “wild/grizzled pelage.” The boars’ cold-weather hardiness allowed feral pigs to thrive in parts of the United States that had been inhospitable before. Many of the feral pigs found in the United States today are boar/pig hybrids.
* * * *
When I was a kid growing up in Mississippi, we asked my granddad if he wanted to go to Alabama and watch a NASCAR race.
“Why,” he said, “I’d rather watch a pig cross my yard than do that.”
* * * *
The chef Fergus Henderson has been praised for reintroducing the world to traditional English cooking. In 2004 Henderson published a cookbook with recipes from the old days. In the book, Henderson goes all in on pig, asking everything from the animal—everything—and promising to honor it in return.
One of the book’s recipes is called “Warm Pig’s Head.”
“The flesh from a pig’s head is flavoursome and tender,” Henderson wrote. “The snout has the lip-sticking quality of not being quite flesh nor quite fat.”
Boil the head, he wrote. Strip the meat from the cheeks. Peel and slice the tongue.
Fry the ears.
After Henderson recommitted to pig, restaurants in New York began serving tails and hooves, cheeks and ears.
* * * *
Southerners decry the spread of wild pigs. Pigs destroy crops, kill livestock, and threaten native species, they say. I don’t doubt that, but I also know the redneck loves a pig hunt.
I visited a ranch in northern Texas a few years ago. The land out there rolls like the waves in a wild/grizzled pelage. A lawyer and landowner took me to see his personal abattoir. It was a simple building with a concrete floor. There was a drain in the middle of the floor, and above that an apparatus used for suspending large game.
He led me over to his walk-in freezer and opened the door. Inside lay the bodies of several wild pigs. They hadn’t been skinned or butchered, just shot and stuck in the freezer. Their coats were thick, black, and wiry.
They shoot as many as they can, the lawyer told me. But the pigs don’t ever seem to diminish in number.
* * * *
The frying pan hanging in Will Foreman’s house simmered slices of long-aged ham. Foreman blood runs strong, but the pan has disintegrated.
* * * *
My brother Wes works on the farm down the street where the Large Blacks are raised. One afternoon, they got loose. A lady burst into the farm’s gift shop. There were pigs running in the road, she said.
Wes and Ferguson ran down through the grapevines to the Large Blacks’ pen. Six were hanging around, but two were in another field, eating grass. The electric fence had shorted out.
Ferguson grabbed a bucket of chicken feed from the greenhouse and began shaking it. The two wayward pigs ran toward him, and he led them back to the pen.
As they tried to fix the fence, one of the sows kept nosing under it, walking out toward fresher fields. Wes and Ferguson took turns shoving the sow.
“It barely moved at all,” Wes said.
They finally got the sow back in the pen and the electric fence working again. “That electric fence is always on,” Wes said. “But they just keep testing it.”
* * * *
My ancestor died with 50 pigs roaming his farm. They were different ages, denoted by purpose in his estate inventory: shoat, sow, barrow, and hogg. His larder was stocked with 80 pounds of meat—food enough to support his wife and son and him for a long time. I’m thankful for his pigs. I might not be here if not for them.
My two-year-old son is excited to see the Large Blacks when I take him to the farm in the spring. “Hi, pigs!” he screams. They meet him at the fence, then turn away when they realize he doesn’t have any food. One day I’ll have to explain to him why the big pigs disappear over winter, replaced by piglets in the spring.
I used to cringe at the thought that my ancestors were pig farmers. But now, I don’t mind. A pig is a survivor. I might even tell my son to be strong like a pig, and tell him to think on the animal a moment, and give thanks, before he cuts into his bacon.