Splotch and Me

Splotch at Flying Pigs Farm late last month.Photo: Timothy Devine

Splotch was born in the first week of April at Flying Pigs Farm in upstate Washington County—a wrinkled two-pounder not much larger than a lobster, in a litter of twelve. He was the proverbial spotted pig. Large, black, Dalmatian-type patches covered his body, with one taking up almost all of his right ear. Spotteds are not a rarity in pigdom, but farmer Michael Yezzi, Flying Pigs’ owner, had never seen the pattern in Splotch’s particular breed: a Large Black–Ossabaw cross (Splotch’s father, Big John, was the former; his mother, Alibi, the latter). Ossabaws are a storied breed. Descendants of Spanish pigs brought to America some 400 years ago, they were discovered on the eponymous island off the coast of Georgia and are essentially feral. A cross between an Ossabaw and just about any domestic pig results in intensely delicious pork— well marbled and with just a touch of wild boar to the flavor. Which is a good thing, since I planned, not far down the road, to eat him.

Splotch spent the first four weeks of his life in a hay-lined barn, complete with a heat lamp and plenty of food for Alibi. Nursing, of course, was Splotch’s primary occupation, followed by sleep and the occasional tussle with his brothers and sisters. Farms typically keep a relatively small number of breeder pigs, which are allowed to live for three or four years before meeting their end as 500-pound “sausage pigs.” Meat pigs, on the other hand, are allowed just six to eight months of life before being slaughtered. Most grow muscle until they reach about 250 pounds, after which their bodies convert to growing fat. In Ossabaws, the switch occurs at about 160 pounds. This gives the farmer the option: slaughter them small or let them grow some fat. Splotch got the latter. He would be allowed to reach almost 200 pounds. That meant he was slated to “hang at 160”—the carcass’s weight once the guts are taken out—and destined to appear on my plate sometime in December.

It was a warm spring, and at seven or so weeks of age, Splotch and his litter were released outdoors. When I saw Splotch in mid-May, he looked like a small, sporty terrier. Flying Pigs Farm was built next to the childhood home of Yezzi’s wife, Jennifer. Michael Yezzi took up pig farming in 2000 after a career as a lawyer, and he runs Flying Pigs conscientiously. The pigs he doesn’t breed himself he procures from local family breeders. He gives his animals feed from local family suppliers and slaughters them humanely in a local family slaughterhouse. The farm’s main customers are like-minded Greenmarketers and chefs from downstate’s better restaurants, plus the occasional home-cook foodie. His Dodge Ram has the words THIS TRUCK RUNS ON VEGETABLE OIL stenciled on the tailgate.

Although an all-grass diet yields more-flavorful meat, it is impossible to raise a pig on grass alone. “It would be like raising a baby on just vegetables,” Yezzi says. “It’s fine for an adult, but not while you’re growing.” A truck regularly dumped a corn-and-soy mix into ton-and-a-half rotary feeders placed in Splotch’s field. Now and then, a case of apples arrived from a nearby orchard. If there was one thing Splotch loved with all his heart, it was apples.

Every three to four weeks, Splotch and a hundred or so of his peers were moved farther up the hillside to turn new soil and eat new grass. When it rained, as it did a lot this summer, the moves came more often: Pig hooves and snouts can turn a fresh meadow into a Woodstock mud bath in one day. All in all, there were five relocations in Splotch’s life. As farm pigs go, he was a fairly well-traveled one.

Chief among Splotch’s amusements, of course, was the wallow. Pigs are not dirty in the human sense: They don’t aesthetically choose filth over purity. They simply lack the capacity to sweat, so they use mud to cool off. Another occasional entertainment involved chasing chickens. The birds, nominally kept in an open-air pen, manage to get everywhere on the farm, sometimes hitching rides on Yezzi’s truck. Inevitably, they make their way to the pigs’ side of the property. Pigs tend to react to a chicken’s presence about the same way a small child does: with staring, followed by spirited stomping toward their subject.

Splotch wasn’t especially social or combative, active or lazy, happy or glum. Like all the other pigs at Flying Pigs Farm, he didn’t want for much, and personality usually comes through in the wanting. When the photographer for this story showed up to take his picture, Splotch peacefully ate every carrot offered to him, then took off in a gallop as soon as the photographer raised his camera. “Pigs tend to sense when you want something from them, and do the opposite,” says Yezzi.

The author eating Splotch's shank.Photo: Danny Kim

By November, Splotch had made it to 190 pounds. His haunches had grown bulky. He had jowls. A roll of telltale fat had begun to appear behind his head.

December 1 came weirdly mild—50 degrees—but windy and gray. The sun never really got up in earnest. At around 7 a.m., two farmhands—one with dreadlocks, the other a bespectacled student type—ushered Splotch and fourteen other pigs into a steel-sided trailer and parked it by the farmhouse.

The slaughterhouse Yezzi uses—Eagle Bridge Custom Meats—processes pigs on Wednesdays, beef on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and “small animals” (lambs, goats, sheep) on Fridays. Normally, Yezzi takes his pigs there on Tuesday night, so that they can stay overnight in pens and calm down from the stress of the trailer ride from the farm. This time, Tuesday rain made Yezzi move the ride to Wednesday morning.

The pigs picked for slaughter that day were the last of the year to come off the hill—the largest ones of the batch, plus one smaller one for a client who had requested an Old Spot. The trailer stood outside, hitched to Yezzi’s truck, while the farmer’s family finished breakfast. Jen had fried some bacon to go with the eggs this morning, a surprisingly rare treat in the household. “There’s not much bacon on one pig, and it sells for $15 a pound,” she said. “So I look at it and I think, This could be another $15 toward day care.

Charlie, the couple’s 4-year-old son, ran out and peeked inside the trailer. “Don’t touch the lock, or all the pigs will run out,” said one of the farmhands. At 7:30 or so, Jane, their 7-year-old daughter, got picked up by the school bus. Splotch spent most of his time in the trailer with his snout in another pig’s side. “At least they’re not cold and wet,” said Yezzi, climbing into the truck’s cab.

At the slaughterhouse, Yezzi maneuvered the trailer in reverse until the tailgate slid into the front of the wooden pen used to collect the animals.

“How many, twelve?” asked a bearded man in a yellow apron, opening the gate.

“Fifteen,” Yezzi said.

The pigs went from the trailer into the pen as if trained for the act—no confusion, no oinking, no backpedaling. Splotch was in the middle of the group. His mud-caked haunches flashed one last time from behind the plastic fringe curtain hung over the pen’s door, and that was it. Within seconds, Splotch and the others were gone. “They didn’t seem agitated at all,” Yezzi said with quiet satisfaction.

Slaughterhouse rules prohibit visitors from witnessing the killing process, but what happened next was basically this: Splotch and the others were led, one at a time, into a kind of narrow chute. The width had been adjusted from the “beef” to “pig” setting, giving the pigs just enough room to move forward but not to turn around. At the end of the chute, a man with a three-foot electric wand touched the wand’s prongs—positive and negative—to the fat roll on the back of each pig’s neck. The animal fell to the floor. Another worker then wrapped a chain around its hind legs, hoisted him up, and cut his throat. It was then that the pig was dead. The blood was drained into a stainless-steel pan. Next, the animal was placed in a “scalder,” a barrel filled with 150-degree water, to loosen its bristles; automated rubber paddles were used to scrub the bristles off. When the pig was hoisted back up, the workers pull off its hooves. The organs were carefully removed so as not to break the gut or burst the gall bladder (possible sources of contamination). The cavity was rinsed. A USDA inspector reviewed the carcass, and it was transferred to the fridge. By the time Yezzi had pulled the trailer away from the pen and put the tailgate up, Splotch had been slaughtered and processed.

For easier transport and sale, pigs are split in half, becoming “sides.” Most kitchens order a whole side and break it down in-house (unlike beef, pork is relatively easy to butcher). One side of Splotch would go to Telepan on the Upper West Side; the other was headed to Savoy, a Soho restaurant that helped pioneer the farm-to-table movement.

Last Tuesday at 8 p.m., accompanied by two guests, I sat down at a table at Savoy. When Splotch had arrived at the restaurant the previous Friday morning, chef Ryan Tate had praised the meat’s excellent marbling: “You get a nice sear on the outside and all that buttery fat.” The restaurant’s butcher, Jaime, had removed Splotch’s head and broken down his carcass into shoulder, ribs, and leg. The skin was peeled off, boiled, and cut into strips for chicharrones, or pork cracklings. The shoulder was boned, with thick white ropes of fat pulled off and reserved for housemade mortadella and chorizo. The rib cage yielded nine good-size chops. The ham, which Tate dehydrates for nine months until it reaches prosciutto-like texture, wouldn’t be ready until next August. Once fully cured, a ham lasts about three weeks at Savoy, meaning the last material bits of Splotch will likely be eaten on the corner of Crosby and Prince Streets sometime in September 2011. Splotch’s culinary afterlife will be several months longer than his life.

For our dinner, Tate had prepared a six-course pig tasting menu. The first two dishes to arrive were the chicharrones (crispy, weightless curlicues dusted with chile) and the mortadella (stuffed with pistachios)—animal processed into pure abstraction. Only on the third course, the crispy tail and feet, did anything resembling actual meat appear, but somehow a mental barrier remained between the contents of my plate and the memory of the animal from which they came. Then the shank arrived, the size of a small child’s head, flanked by beans and Brussels sprouts. It looked recognizably like a body part, and the skin … well, the thing about crispy cooked pig skin is that it can look like a third-degree burn. As I cut off a chunk of it, with its slippery underside of half-rendered, translucent fat, my ambivalence about eating Splotch manifested. I had a momentary gag reflex. But then it was over, almost as soon as it began, and I finished my shank and moved on to the final course, a medium-rare—as rare as I’ve eaten—pork chop.

My companions that evening occupied distinct, if similar, points on the food-politics spectrum. One had spent her childhood summers in a town where slaughtering a pig is a common predinner ritual, which made her blasé about eating animals. The other, a food professional and self-proclaimed fresser, was simply too in love with pig in all its forms to be bothered by its provenance. I’m well aware that there are those who have moral objections to the idea of killing animals in order to eat them, and I respect that view. I also know, as does even the most avowed carnivore, that any once-sentient creature’s life deserves more than a one-word summation. And yet, I can only report what I found to be true in my one and only experience in genuine farm-to-table eating. Forgive me for saying so, but Splotch was delicious.

Splotch and Me