Meet the Mangalitsa, a furry hog with a tangled past

Cuyahoga Valley National Park is unique in its humanity. The park does not strive to represent hallowed wilderness. People live here. People farm here. But the farming (and living) that goes on in the park is, indeed, closer to nature than most: small-scale and informed by modern ecological thinking. It’s the kind of farming that supplies local markets and menus rather than commodity aggregators, and fuels not just people, but an entire movement of sustainable local food. Heritage breeds of pasture-raised livestock animate that movement, and I’ve come to Cuyahoga Valley to behold a unique example: A hairy pig that resides at Spice Acres farm.

I arrive mid-morning, rolling up a cracker-crumby driveway alongside a white clapboard farmhouse. Utilitarian living: no manicured walkway here; the front door seemed decorative. I head to the back, and meet Spice CEO Ben Bebenroth and his chef Josh Woo.

As a farmer myself, I understand the compulsion for movement that rises with the sun. The day is bright and there’s work to do, so after a brief greeting we move to the barn, check on a new flock of layer hens, chat with farm manager Andrea Heim about the ageing tractor’s latest ailment, then head toward the sty. Farming is not easy, especially pig farming. “We’re losing our ass on the pigs,” Ben says.

Pork is the most consumed meat of any four-legged animal and we eat twice as much pork today than we did 40 years ago. But pigs are more than food, and our relationship with them is complicated. Start with literature. Beowulf’s heroic helmet is adorned with a swine, but the goddess Circe threatens to turn Odysseus into one. A model of resourcefulness in children’s literature, the third little pig builds a brick house against the big bad wolf, while righteous pigs in Animal Farm turn, eventually, oppressive and corrupt. In Lord of the Flies, Piggy — and the vulnerable naiveté of childhood — falls to the brutal tribalism of human nature. Perhaps we’ve hoisted a bit too much of our self identity on the wee little pig?

And yet…

Smell that? Just one slice…

I’ve seen more than one reformed vegetarian break their botanical vows for bacon.

Bacon: That vulnerable underbelly of dietary restriction, unlikely ingredient in all that’s delicious, from chocolate to beer to ice cream. Would you like some Baconnaise on that? The humble pig: so complex, and yet so simply, irresistibly delicious.

As we walk to the sty, I ask Woo his plans for their hogs. He’d just updated Spice’s sausage-making equipment and is planning on putting in a curing room so they can start dry-curing hams and sausages. “The hams will get cooked,” he says, reeling off a tentative menu. “The shoulders will probably go in the barbecue. We’ll make terrines from the heads, stock out of the bones, render all the fat, grind the scrap and make chorizo for our burrito stand.” He’s looking at recipes for stuffed trotters and pork rinds. “We want to have a plan to make sure it’s all getting utilized.” Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder said of the pig, “There is no animal that affords a greater variety to the palate. The flesh of the hog has nearly fifty different flavors.” Ben and Woo want to taste them all. Pork is more than bacon; a hog is more than just an animal.

Reaching the sty, Ben offers up friendly greetings as if he’s just walked into his regular bar. “Hey hey buddy!” he greets the family runt. “Hi dude! Hi.” Some are dark-skinned and bristled — Black Belted hogs — others are paler and pink, Blue Butts. These breeds are “commodity hogs,” the kind more often seen sandwiched between a metal roof and a concrete floor, eating grain on factory farms. Ben’s pigs are playing tug-of-war with a stick.

“Curletta! There she is.”

Curletta emerges from the brush. She is a pig in wolfhound’s clothing, with shaggy, wiry fur mottled salt and pepper. Resistance futile, I quickly hop the fence to join Ben in petting her. She finds us irresistible as well, chewing on my rubber boots several times before turning to Ben’s shoelaces. Ben offers an explanation. “Their mouth is their main appendage. They bite to feel.” He turns to Curletta for confirmation: “Are you feeling? You’re feeling. You’re feeeeeling,” like he’s talking to a toddler or a dog.

Curletta is not a commodity hog, she’s a mangalitsa. “It’s a Hungarian lard hog,” Ben says. “Mangalitsas were the primary source of cooking oil in Europe prior to World War II. They put on a big fat cap on top of the loin, and a lot of lard in general, so there’s a lot of really good fat in there for mixing into charcuterie. It’s a little bit darker of a meat too, so you get a little more flavor to it.”

At one time, of course, all domesticated pigs were what we now call heritage breeds. Wild pigs were domesticated twice, once in China and separately around the Black Sea. Domesticated pigs lived disparate lives in Europe, reflecting our conflicted views of pigs. Within the walls of a medieval city, pigs were kept in pens close to home and were fed — or, at any rate, ate — whatever was on hand. Like humans, pigs are omnivores, though decidedly less picky. The diet of an urban pig included table scraps and by-products of breweries, bakeries, fishmongers and other food-processers, but it also included less savory items associated with urban squalor.

On the other hand, wild boars roamed Europe long before the arrival of domesticated pigs. And a wild boar — hundreds of pounds of nature-hardened muscle behind formidable tusks — would have been a heroic challenge for European hunters. Wealthy Europeans kept domesticated pigs as free-roaming herds across their expansive landholdings, fattening on nuts, roots, and grubs in oak-chestnut woodlands. These free-range domesticated pigs interbred frequently with wild boar populations. Inevitably, the pig-keeper steered the herd’s genetics back to farm-friendly traits. But the wildness inherited by these pigs would have been evident, allowing for many locally-adapted breeds to be developed across Europe. Breeds like the mangalitsa.

Hungarian pig-keepers liked the mangalitsa both for its ability to convert corn into lard but also because the breed was low-input: it could be kept outdoors, thanks in part to those lovely insulating curls, grazing mainly on plants. But as people’s tastes changed toward leaner meat and hog enterprises became high-input, with pigs being kept indoors and fed grain, the mangalitsa fell from favor.

Luckily the mangalitsa had an established role in Hungarian cuisine and culture. Enough small farmers held on to their mangalitsas so that the breed could eventually be exported and bred across Europe and, beginning in 2007, the United States. Not all pig breeds have been so lucky. A 2007 UN report on agricultural biodiversity found that of 739 breeds of pig analyzed, 140 breeds are extinct, 101 of these from Europe and the Caucasus. Globally, another 133 pig breeds are endangered, 48 of those critically

Spice can join a growing interest in perpetuating heritage breeds like the mangalitsa. But there are obstacles: It’s neither simple nor inexpensive to be a modern pig-keeper. Spice has limited pasture, with much of its acreage devoted to vegetable production, and getting a mangalitsa herd will require its own set of expenses. Subsequent to the $1,000 price tag of a heritage mangalitsa sow, it can cost $300 for a single dose of semen, the results of which are far from guaranteed. But figuring the angles might be worth it. Mangalitsas have more “menu presence,” Ben says — a good story, a unique offering that can command a premium price. Plus, they’re cute; passers-by slow when they see Spice’s pigs.

And that means one more obstacle that will have to be navigated if Spice Acres is to be a producer of premium heritage pork.

“I just don’t want to kill them. I don’t like it”

Undoubtedly, Ben is not the first pig-keeper with a conscience, but he may have to wrestle with the realities of pork production as if he was. “If we could slaughter all the animals on the farm, I would do it. But taking them to a slaughterhouse — loading them in here and freaking them out for an hour and a half on the highway — I’m not into it.”

Our view of the pig has changed and continues to change. From dirty animal or formidable beast, as pig-keeping became industrialized we came to treat hogs as inanimate objects — or rather, inconveniently-animate objects. Making the pig a marketplace commodity meant ignoring the obvious: Pigs are smart. They’re curious, they form relationships, they play. They have lives that matter to them — and also, now, to us. As we honor the animal itself by turning it back out to pasture, the objectifying regulations that require slaughter at a facility now seem antiquated and cruel.

This problem of Ben’s is good for Curletta and her descendants, and also for us. By wrestling our love of pork with a respect for the animal, we’ll likely find in ourselves a bit more humanity for the humble pig.