It's one thing to play with your food. Quite another when it actually wants to play back.
For five weeks, I'm becoming an ersatz pig farmer. Which is to say that I've purchased a Hampshire piglet who will live out his remaining days at Gleason Ranch in Bodega. In late September, he will be slaughtered and eaten. Though the ranch's owners, Nancy Prebilich and Cindy Holland, will do the brunt of the care-taking, I've paid for the pig's upkeep, I'll help with the slaughter and be a part of the butchering. Our family will also help with farm chores over several weekends and plan to build a new outdoor run for the piglets.
It's my own experiment as a meat eater in getting as up-close and personal with my food as I possibly can. As squirmy and uncomfortable as the whole process promises to be, I'm all in. Here's why.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that Americans eat, on average, about 51 pounds of pork per person per year. Though our porcine consumption is still considerably lower than beef (around 60 pounds) or chicken (82 pounds), that's still a whole lot of sausage, bacon, pork chops and chicharrones.
To feed our demand, about 112 million pigs are slaughtered for food each year, according to the USDA. But how many of us have ever actually seen a pig up close, not to mention actually harvested (a nice name for slaughtering) one? Typically we're more familiar with the end result — ham sandwiches and hot dogs — than we are with the animals that actually produce the meat. We proclaim our bacon fetishes on t-shirts and relish pulled-pork and ribs without a second thought to the fact that our dinner once was a living, breathing creature. It's easy to remove yourself from the neatly processed slabs of meat in packages that show nary a trace of blood, hair or, well, life.
In fact, many children don't even know what kind of animal bacon comes from.
"I raised my daughter a vegetarian until she could tell me where the type of meat she wanted came from. Her first meat was bacon when she was 5; she knew she was eating pig," said Kerry Hurley of Santa Rosa, who responded to the recent announcement of my edible intentions.
With that kind of disconnect, it's also easy to take our food for granted. Like most of us, I throw away copious amounts of grocery store food that's gone bad in my fridge without much guilt other than the financial impact. In fact, Americans toss more than 25 percent of the food we buy — about a pound a day for each of us, according to government studies. But the lettuce, tomatoes, strawberries and herbs I've grown in my own backyard? My family knows better than to waste a scrap; we are emotionally invested in it from seed to table.
And that connection is what I'm looking for with my pig.
The first step is actually coming face to face with my pig. Halfway to Bodega Bay, miles from much of anything but dairy farms and rolling hills, Nancy Prebilich runs a family-owned ranch that's been in operation for more than 100 years. You may know her from her chickens, which chefs throughout Sonoma covet. But today, we're heading out to the pig barn, which is more like a concrete bunker with a roof.