The Red Wattle Story: How forces of nature and human economy saved a pig lost in the woods

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Pay a visit to Colby Smith at his farm home in Burlington, and prepare yourself for a livestock community as quirky as it is impressive. From stubborn hens who won’t clear the road to a meandering goat herd intermingling with family dogs and a blind horse, there’s a whole lot to take in before you even start talking business with the man in charge. Despite the many characters running around (both human and animal) the star of the show sits lying in the mud across the fence: deep maroon Red Wattle pigs. If you’ve had the pleasure of consuming their product, you know Red Wattle is among the premier heritage breeds at market. But the story of their unlikely journey to the modern American culinary economy is unlikely, and highlights a pattern in American tastes that may lend you some knowledge next time you go shopping for pig.

I see “heritage” and a higher price tag on meat products of all kinds. What’s the deal?

“Heritage” does not carry a specific industry definition, but generally refers to livestock breeds that would have populated farms of early America, whose bloodlines survived without interference from factory farms. Popular heritage hog breeds include Duroc, Berkshire, Gloucestershire Old Spot, Large Black, Tamworth, and Red Wattle. Today those breeds thrive on farms interested in an alternative to overly lean, factory farm-produced pork.

How interesting could a pig’s story be?

As far as genealogical tales go, that of the Red Wattle involves a strange mix of mystery and perseverance. Just who brought the first ancestors to the continent remains unclear. Various sources credit the French with bringing them to the American South (though it’s unclear whether they brought them from Europe or off the coast of Australia). Others point to Spanish farmers, while one theory even suggests a thief brought them across the Atlantic after snatching them from a Swiss veterinary school.

Whatever their New World origin, packs wandered into woodlands in East Texas and managed a life based on their outdoor strengths now prized by farmers and consumers; they are hardy foragers, and sows produce large litters and plenty of milk. Texas farmer H.C. Wengler discovered a small pack living in the East Texas wilderness, brought them home and bred them with his Duroc, thus creating a hybrid breed we now know as Red Wattle. They’re known for their docility, range in color from red to near black, and can be identified by a protruding cartilage sac on either side of the jaw (the “wattles).

Interesting story, but why should I care?

The final chapter of Red Wattle’s return to cultivation leads to a study in ever-changing American food trends, both consumer-influenced and government-mandated. As Pat LaFrieda details in Meat, the National Pork Board launched a campaign in 1987 pushing pork as “The Other White Meat,” in reaction to growing public concern around the drawbacks of high fat consumption. As the American public gained a new appreciation for pork as a low-fat alternative to poultry, large-scale proprietors extensively began breeding fat out of their product. The result, LaFrieda notes, is the average pork tenderloin purchased at an American supermarket or butcher shop contains less fat than a boneless, skinless chicken breast.

As the pork supply continued to grow leaner, chefs and consumers seeking the advantages of fatty, “old-school” pork breeding turned to the heritage breeds maintained by smaller farms. Thus the Red Wattle, an extremely rare breed (less than a couple hundred born per year, according to most sources), bounced back into survival with its Heritage cousins. As long as American consumers generally buy pork bred to be virtually fat-free, those looking for swine with a healthy dose of flavor-packing fat will keep the Heritage trade alive.

For a taste of American history (that packs a flavor punch), buy Heritage.