What’s A Red Wattle?
We eat all our home-cooked meals on a beautiful oak table I inherited from my grandfather. It is long and accommodating and such a heavy slab that it defies lifting. It is so solid that I stand on it to change light bulbs in the fixture above it. Movers hate it. We love it. Grandpa bought it in a garage sale and was told it came from the Moline Public Library. It has that sort of look, right down to the carved feet that look like lion’s paws. It’s an heirloom, a treasure, passed down through the family. I remember it in my grandparents’ house where we had Thanksgiving dinners and everyday card games. It was part of the fabric there as it is in my home now.
I served dinner to my farmer friends Jenny and Bob Borchardt last week at “the table”, and Bob was telling me about another heirloom we just about lost. There is a rare breed of hog called the Red Wattle that farmers near him are raising. He’s all excited that he’s been able to buy one, and hopes to do some chef tasting events with it. I did a little internet reading and it turns out in 1999 there were only 42 left in the country (see ALBC). That’s dinosaur numbers. Forty-two. Period.
The Red Wattle is a large breed, growing to over 1200 pounds. They are active foragers, adapt to a wide range of climates and produce a lean, flavorful meat. All things that make them ideally suited to small-scale producers. So why are they almost extinct? Not sure, but I’ve got a good guess.
When you buy a tomato at the grocery store, you are buying a cultivar that has been bred to be tough enough to pick green, travel 1000 miles in a truck and “ripen” along the way. Plus, it looks perfect, like our ideal of a tomato. The thing is, for some reason, we don’t notice anymore that that tomato doesn’t actually taste good. It looks good, but the flavor is lame. I assure you, if you pay attention, it does not taste like a tomato. Now, go to a farmer’s market and look at “heirloom” tomatoes. They are crazy looking, but they taste fantastic! Small, local farmers don’t need to grow tomato varieties that can travel 1000 miles – they can grow tomatoes that taste good and they pick them when they’re ripe. You get them the next day. Isn’t that wonderful?
This business of large producers growing tons of tomatoes has led to fewer types of tomatoes being grown. The tomato variety that is durable wins out. Others, the heirlooms, are left behind. This large-scale model is I’m sure what dealt a blow to the Red Wattle hogs with their wacky wattle hanging at their neck. For whatever reason, they did not fit the mold for factory farming. If no one eats them, then, well, no one breeds them. So in a strange way, if you want to save a domesticated animal species like the Red Wattle, you have to eat them. You have to create demand in the marketplace so that small farmers fill it. You have to realize that there are differing “flavor profiles” in the different varieties of hogs, as well as ecological advantages to having variety.
So get yourself a slab of heirloom bacon, slice up an heirloom tomato (this summer, when they’re in season!) and make yourself an heirloom BLT for lunch at your heirloom table! And save the Red Wattle!