Hog in the Limelight

October 2007
Does saving a rare breed mean eating it for dinner? In pork-crazy North Carolina, the Ossabaw pig—with a wild-tinged ancient flavor and fat that’s actually good for you—makes a last stand, and restaurant chefs in the know are scattering pearls before (these) swine.

Is lard the new olive oil? If that lard (pork fat) comes from an Ossabaw, the answer is maybe. Never heard of an Ossabaw? To be honest, neither had I. Then one cold night not so long ago, I ordered the pork belly with purple hull pea vinaigrette at Ben and Karen Barker’s award-winning Magnolia Grill in Durham, North Carolina. Brilliant! But even the gifted Ben Barker wasn’t magician enough to turn today’s dry, tasteless “new white meat” into anything so luxurious, so complexly flavored, so tender it barely needed chewing. What was this extraordinary pork? In a word: Ossabaw.

Strangely, that word would pop up again before week’s end. A friend working at Cane Creek Farm, twelve miles west of Chapel Hill, e-mailed to gush over a new litter of Ossabaws.

“You’ve got to come out,” she urged. “You must see the baby pigs and meet Eliza.” Eliza MacLean, a slim, 40-ish honey blonde, a single mom of young twins, is one of the few American farmers raising the endangered Ossabaws. And she is doing so—organically—on 11 acres of North Carolina’s rumpled red-clay midriff. Hardly the career path you’d expect of a Philadelphia girl who’d graduated from Mount Holyoke.

I drove out to her storybook farm one blue-sky morning. There were pygmy goats eager to nuzzle, fluffy chickens of exotic breed, miniature donkeys. But it was the Ossabaws I’d come to see. And there they were: pointy snouted, with coltish legs kicking up little puffs of red dust.

Before hitting the road, I had done my homework. Ossabaws descend from the Iberico hogs introduced to the Deep South by Spanish colonists four centuries ago. Stranded on Ossabaw, a barrier island off the coast of Savannah, they turned feral over time and were reduced to foraging for acorns and whatever else turned up in field and forest. It was a harsh habitat, but the Ossabaws adapted, developing not only the ability to store fat that could sustain them through lean times but also a tolerance for the island’s intensely brackish water.

These traits piqued the interest of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, whose mission is to save once traditional but now endangered livestock breeds that belong to our agricultural heritage. Already alarmed by the valuable breeds being phased out by agribusiness in favor of more profitable hogs, the ALBC began studying the endangered Ossabaws, in particular their meat and fat profiles. High in oleic acid (the one dominant in olives), Ossabaw fat is so unsaturated it is nearly liquid at room temperature. Is it heart-healthy? Maybe. Researchers at two state universities-Iowa State and North Carolina-have been studying not only the composition of Ossabaw fat but also how the hog’s diet affects it. So far, the fat of field-and-forest foraging hogs has been found to be lower in saturated fat than that of those fed rations of grain, which may explain why the Spanish long ago nicknamed their acorn-fed Ibericos “four-legged olive trees.”

Could Ossabaws, as finely fleshed as the Ibericos and blessed with a similar wildness of flavor, be farm-raised? And if so, how could these qualities be preserved? That’s what the ALBC aims to find out.

Enter Eliza MacLean and Cane Creek Farm. After earning a master’s in environmental toxicology at Duke, she volunteered at ALBC, where she met Charles Talbott, a professor of animal sciences at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro who was intent on preserving the rare Ossabaws. Soon, MacLean was managing the entire A&T swine herd.

“Pigs are funny and smart,” she says. “I find them endlessly fascinating. It takes a creative approach to work with them, and I like the challenge.”

When MacLean bought Cane Creek Farm in 2002, she turned it into a sort of Noah’s Ark by agreeing to raise seven Ossabaws as part of studies Talbott was conducting in cooperation with the University of Missouri, Penn State, and Iowa State. Before long, Alice Waters heard about Cane Creek and came to see for herself. She was so impressed, so admiring of MacLean and her mission, that she asked her to speak at the Slow Food Conference in Turin, Italy.

Barely a year and a half after she’d begun raising Ossabaws, Peter Kaminsky praised MacLean as a pioneer in his New York Times piece “On the Trail of Fine Ham.” Suddenly, celebrated Manhattan chef Daniel Boulud phoned MacLean for a standing order of pork, as did the chefs at New York City’s Il Buco and Savoy. Today, availability permitting, Cane Creek’s artisanal organic pork appears on the menus of such Manhattan restaurants as Gramercy Tavern, Blue Hill, and Blue Smoke and is more or less a staple at a dozen Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill restaurants.

Still, MacLean doesn’t short-shrift her faithful customers at the Carrboro Farmer’s Market and other local outlets. Unfortunately, she doesn’t yet produce enough to fill phone orders. The main problem, MacLean explains, is that Ossabaws are smallish hogs that produce small litters. That’s why she’s begun crossing them with Farmer’s Hybrids. Are “Crossabaws,” as she calls them, the answer? Time will tell.

Meanwhile, MacLean suggests Caw Caw Creek Farm, in South Carolina, as an alternative source for Ossabaw pork.

North Carolina native and longtime Gourmet contributor Jean Anderson has written more than 20 cookbooks on subjects ranging from nutrition to the foods of Portugal. Her latest, A Love Affair with Southern Cooking, is to be published this month. Visit jeanandersoncooks.com for more information.

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