A city boy don't know nothin' 'bout hogs
December 10, 1981
Illinois is hog country, and one of the civic-minded journalist’s responsibilities was explaining the hog to city folks.
It’s amazing the things I didn’t know about hogs. According to Orville Sweet—you know Orville, he runs the National Pork-Producers Council up in Des Moines—I’m not alone in my ignorance. Orville told me that there are still people in this country who sit down to a breakfast of ham or bacon and don’t even know they’re eating hog. Where do they think bacon comes from—soy beans? Well, okay, bacon does come from soybeans these days—“Bacon Bits” is one of those imitation meats made from vegetables, and mature hogs are fattened in part with soybean meal—but you know what I mean.
Anyway, I decided to read up on hogs, since an Illinois boy who doesn’t know about hogs is like a Republican who doesn’t know about country clubs. I found out that in 1979 Illinois farmers raised nearly seven million hogs worth more than $400 million. That makes hogs an even bigger business in this state than media consulting. The county with the biggest share of that total is Pike, with 312,000, which explains why there is a statue in Pittsfield (which locals call their “Pig-casso”) proclaiming it the Pork Capital of the World.
Not many hogs rise above the herd and make their marks as individuals. Still, it happens, even to hogs. I recall with sadness the champion barrow which was bought as the main dish at a fund-raising barbeque to save Springfield’s Leland Hotel. The poor brute taught the flu and died and missed the party. In fact, fame tends to have much the same effects on hogs that it has on rock stars. I’m thinking particularly of Big Jim, the. Yorkshire boar which was presented to the People’s Republic of China by an Illinois farm mission in 1978. Big Jim died less than a year later of toxoplasmosis. (The PRC sent its official regrets.) Before he went, though, Big Jim sired twelve litters of pigs, averaging 9.2 pigs each. A litter from your average boar is seven pigs, which leads me to suspect that he might have been done in by jealous rivals.
It’s lonely at the top.
Most people feel superior to hogs. But hogs are perhaps the smartest of all the domesticated animals. You’ll never catch a hog working his butt off for thirty years to pay a bank $257,000 for a $50,000 house, for example. Huckleberry Finn once found himself at a church which had no one in it “except maybe a hog or two for there warn’t any lock on the door, and hogs likes a puncheon floor in summertime because it’s cool. If you notice, most folks don’t go to church only when they’ve got to; but a hog is different.”
John Block, you will recall, is the Illinois agriculture director called to Washington to serve as Richard Lyng’s front man at the USDA. Block once tried to compare the intelligence of the hog to that of humans and got into a lot of trouble, mainly because he put his money on the wrong animal. Like most farmers, Block—himself a hog farmer from Knox County—believes that the government has no business telling people what they ought to eat unless it tells them to eat what farmers produce. During his confirmation hearings, Block criticized USDA’s nutrition guidelines, and, noting that hogs will eat a balanced diet if given a chance, said, “People are as smart as hogs.” Block, obviously hasn’t stood in a supermarket checkout lane lately and looked at what people put in their carts. No hog would eat some of that junk. Wouldn’t be as fat either.
Unlike Mr. Block, my contacts with the porcine world have been limited. Still, meager as they have been, they have convinced me that it’s not the life for me. As a boy I once accompanied my grandfather as he went the rounds of his pig pens, castrating the young boars with a pen knife, as is customary. I still have vivid memories of how a real stuck pig—by which I mean a pig stuck in a really bad place—sounds.
Hogs are also subject to stress, just like people. During shipment to the slaughterhouse, in fact, they can get so worked up that their flesh turns watery. I hate to travel myself, and I can appreciate what it must be like to be crammed into overheated trailers with little water and rest room facilities that are primitive at best. It all must be a lot like riding on the college trains that the Illinois Central used to run between Chicago and Urbana at semester breaks.
Hog people like to brag that modern processing techniques make it possible to use every part of the hog but his squeal. That is not quite true. They haven’t yet figured out what to do with the stink. The hog by himself is not a particularly dirty animal. But hogs are like teenagers, insofar as one or two of them make pleasant company but in large groups they become obnoxious. An average hog will produce something like 9,600 pounds of manure a year, an output which even legislative study commissions can’t match. People who have visited confinement operations housing as many as 15,00 hogs report that the stench is so overwhelming that it left them feeling faint and headachy.
One might think that it is only the wholly unnatural confinement of large numbers of animals in small spaces which creates this unfortunate result. (Look at schools.) But the hog has more than one bad habit. True, he eats garbage, or used to. The city of Springfield used to use hogs as street cleaners in the mid-l800s, with mixed results. The streets were largely unpaved, and hogs roamed at will, wallowing there and under wooden plank sidewalks. Paul Angle. the estimable chronicler of the capital’s early years, writes that letting hogs run loose was defended as a way for the poor to raise their own meat, which was cheaper than food stamps. Unlike food stamps, however, hogs were often found dead within the city limits and “a dead hog was never known to have an owner.”
Anyway, Americans are eating a lot more hog these days. Sweet says that per capita consumption has gone up in twenty years from fifty-five to seventy-seven pounds per year. Of course, some people like hog more than others. William Cobbett, the Englishman who died in 1835, wrote, “It is remarked in America that [Methodist parsons] are attracted by the squeaking of the pigs [at butchering time] as the fox is by the cackling of the hen.” I was surprised to read this. I always thought that it was the Southern Baptists who had a hankerin’ for hog. The South is a net importer of hog, which led to an expansion of the hog industry in the South which halted only when the cost of shipping corn became prohibitive. This is our big chance. We in the Midwest should form our own OPEC—an Organization of Pork Exporting Counties—and use our leverage to force Georgia to extradite Ted Turner so he could stand trial in the North for crimes against the public taste.
Perhaps not; Congress is considering a law that would ban the use of food as a diplomatic weapon. In any event, I’ve learned lots, lots more than I can talk about here. What a “green belly” is. Why corn-hog ratios don’t work anymore. What “docking” means. Why some people regard the hog, and not the dog, as man’s best friend. And why your modern hog is 50 percent leaner than his great-great-great-great-grandmother. Alas, this is an essay, not a seminar, and like certain of our political figures—Adlai Stevenson comes to mind—you will have to take me at my word that I know more than I am telling. In the meantime I leave you with this thought from Joel Chandler Harris: Watch out w’en youer gittin’ all you want: Fattenin’ hogs ain’t in luck. ●