Bacon Bits

A city boy don't know nothin' 'bout hogs

Illinois Times

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. ●

SITES

OF

INTEREST

John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago

 

The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois

 

Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives

 

Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum

 

The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.

Chicagology

I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

BOOKS

 OF INTEREST

Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 

Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with important interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state

(Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.

Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CornLatitudes@outlook.com

All material Copyright © by James Krohe Jr. unless otherwise indicated

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