An ambitious chef is setting out to breed the über-pig, according to a post today on the new New York magazine blog Grub Street. Cesare Casella, chef of the madcap-Tuscan restaurant Maremma and experienced steer breeder, is crossing the rare Large Black pig with a Yorkshire-Duroc cross to produce a breed that is at once succulently marbled (thanks to the Large Black blood) and quick-growing (courtesy of the fast-to-fatten Duroc), with a high yield of delicious meat (due to the genes of the x-tra long, ribtastic Yorkshire).
What the Grub Street post doesn’t mention is that crossing these heritage breeds isn’t such a hot idea, because there are very few of each kind in existence these days. Heritage (or heirloom) pigs are pure breeds that have been raised on small-scale farms in the U.S. since being brought over from Europe more than a century ago; in the past 60 or so years they’ve been driven to the edge of extinction by industrial livestock production. Heritage Foods USA, the online sales and marketing arm of Slow Food USA, reports that there are fewer than 200 registered purebred Large Blacks in the States today, which lands the hogs on the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy’s most-endangered list. Today’s crossbred, mass-produced pigs—selected for leanness, high yield, and fast growth, usually at the expense of the animals’ health, and certainly at the expense of deliciousness—are raised and slaughtered at the rate of more than 100 million per year, according to a piece on heritage meats I edited for Plenty magazine last year (November/December 2005). The Bitter Greens Journal also makes a great case that industrial hog farming has ruined North Carolina barbecue.
High yield, fast growth … sound familiar? Casella wants to select for the same qualities, to create a pig that he can whisk from farm to table posthaste—potentially reducing the numbers of an ultrarare breed in the process. All of this is at least a little disconcerting; even more disturbing is this description of the Duroc from the Iowa Purebred Swine Council (which Grub Street links to but does not discuss specifically):
The red breed of hogs known as Duroc is a major contributor to almost every successful hog operation. This breed has long been known for its ability to grow faster on less feed. The Duroc’s ability to display a rapid growth rate, coinciding with efficient conversion of pound of feed to pounds of red meat, is unequaled by any other breed. Through the use of purebred Duroc boars in commercial operations, the producer can maximize the heterosis that is generated by crossbreeding pure genetic lines. Duroc’s skeletal structure, which stands up in all kinds of environments, combined with natural leanness, produce a fast growing, efficient product that is acceptable to the packer and the consumer.
The whole idea of heirloom breeding is to protect these animals from extinction and to create meat that’s much more than just “acceptable” and an “efficient product.” As is happening with organic farming, it seems like industrial principles are creeping into heritage agriculture, too.