Belly to Belly, It Doesn’t Matter Really

Robyn Metcalfe // Austin, Texas

I began following pork bellies about a year ago. As a former pig farmer, I was drawn to these commodities as economic indicators. Pork bellies provide bacon to a world in which pork is the most popular meat.

During the past few months, my Google alerts about pork bellies turned up more links that would appeal to foodies than economists. Instead of a change of prices, a restaurant announced the addition of pork bellies to its menu. This is indeed a complication for pigs. Not only are they indicators of future economic conditions, but they have become a culinary obsession for those daring to cross the carnivore-fat line.

The appearance of pork bellies on crudités will not lead to a surge in pork commodity prices on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. This year, in fact, the Exchange stopped trading pork bellies at all. Traders distrusted the market, supplies jumped all over the map, and consumers eschewed the frozen bellies for fresh bacon used in ice cream, salads, and omelets. The Chicago “belly pits,” as the trading floors were called, have become empty as pork lovers fill their bellies with softly fried bacon from naturally raised Large Blacks, Berkshires, and Tamworth hogs.

Gloucestershire Old Spots pigs complicate pork even further for me. I raised them for half a dozen years, imported 20 from England, flying them over in the belly of a British Airways cargo plane. The breed had all but disappeared in North America, so our farm was determined to build a herd as protection for the few remaining herds in the U.K.

Gloucestershire Old Spots are big pigs, lopped-eared, black spotted, and admiringly known in 19th century Britain as a lard pig. With such an off-putting name, these pigs have been making a slow comeback in this current resurgence of pork popularity. The creature’s complicated identity, an old-fashioned historic pig with a greasy reputation, makes its future uncertain. Ironically, these pigs are no longer as fatty as their ancestors, since modern pig farmers have been selecting for leanness over the years. Farmers now tout the Goucestershire’s reputation for tasting like apple cider, because the pigs were once known to graze in apple orchards.

Actually, we had to clone one of our pigs in order to conserve one of the breed’s bloodlines, but that’s an even more complicated tale….

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