North Carolina is home to more hogs than people, and pork is one of the state's top agricultural exports. Pastured pork is a form of resistance against an industrial behemoth, one rife with poor practices and environmental disasters. To combat this, a small but growing number of people are raising hogs with consideration for the animals' welfare as well as their flavor.
Brad Weiss chairs the anthropology department at the College of William & Mary. In 2008, he began researching the unique demands of pasture-raised pork. His new book, Real Pigs: Shifting Values in the Field of Local Pork, is a deep dive into what it means to raise pigs while being conscious of their wellbeing, the environment, and a growing local economy in the South.
The strands of Weiss's research converged on the Cane Creek Farm booth at the Carrboro Farmers' Market. He peddled pastured pork there as an employee and later met his interview subjects: farmers, butchers, chefs, and food activists. While much of his book is suited for a wonky academic, it also incorporates interviews that feature the expressive voices of the people who bring pastured pork to our plates.
We spoke with Weiss in advance of his local book tour, which begins Saturday at Midway Community Kitchen in Chapel Hill.
INDY: What inspired you to explore this idea of "real pigs" in North Carolina?
BRAD WEISS: Pigs are iconic and central to the transformation that slow food wants to generate. In other words, slow and local food is taking [into account] more of the ecology and welfare of the animals. I found Eliza [MacLean of Cane Creek Farm] at the Carrboro Farmers' Market doing pastured pork, which I hadn't heard of. As an anthropologist, I work on consumption, defined as a broad form of activity that helps you understand history. I knew there was something about pork that would allow me to make those various connections in a community across a broad landscape. There was an interesting tension in that people really, really liked pigs as animals, but really enjoyed pork as meat. That struck me as important, and not necessarily straightforward.
What surprised you most while doing this research?
There are places that you think are emphasizing how important local food is, but they aren't using it at all. Given how many retail outlets and consumers are aware, it's surprising how hard it is to find local meat. That's not because a big retail store is a bad actor, but it reflects how precarious these relationships are. Scale remains very much of a problem. It's hard for even the biggest pasture-raised pork producers because there will just be some weeks where you can't deliver as much.
Your book features Firsthand Foods and NC Choices. How do companies and organizations like this support meat growers?
What they are doing is absolutely necessary, which is moving to a model that says, go meet your farmer and buy whatever he's got in his freezer. If you're talking about feeding communities, towns, the county—as opposed to feeding clientele that can go to farmers markets and grocery stores—you're talking about changing the system. It's only going to be successful if it moves beyond individual farmers selling their phenomenal product. It's about how to get food into institutions. How are you going to get a line of country sausage into a large grocery outlet so people will try it?
With this idea, how do you think the local food movement can grow?
I am really interested in foodshed movements—people who are thinking less about local food and more about whole regions. One thing that slightly galls me is the notion that everything has to be so local that you might as well be there picking out your pig for slaughter. I don't think that is helpful.
Too many people think it's the solution and that their personal choices are going to bring about a systemic transformation. That's not how social change works, to think, "If we just get enough people to the Carrboro Farmers' Market, we'll change the food system." It works fantastically well to serve who it works for. The market makes enormous efforts to bring it to people who wouldn't normally have the access, but that's minuscule. As long as direct marketing remains the model for the distribution of healthy food, there are going to be loads [of people] excluded from that process, one that isn't necessarily meeting people where they actually live. Farmers are constantly looking for ways to tweak their production process to meet what consumers want.
So it all becomes commodified.
All food production in the United States is commodified. It's not all grown on a scale where the idea is to maximize the efficiency of the process of production and create measurable units, like flats of bacon. But at the same time, you can't produce anything outside of that structure. Our economy is based on that. The most artisanal, punk prosciutto you can eat is a commodity you can buy at $13 a pound, and you can't skip over that.
In the second chapter, you write that farmer-poet-activist Wendell Berry's "essentialized 'connections between eating and the land' are problematic terms." You're discussing that within an academic framework, but it seems that you're also speaking on a more social level.
My only criticism of Wendell Berry is that he's a little reductionist. It's a very American ideal because Americans want to feel rooted and connected to place. In terms of migration, the percentage of people who come from two to three generations of Triangle residents is very small, and it's diminishing. It sounds appealing to people who don't come from the land.
Who is your audience for this book?
At some level, I would hope, and I'm sure that this is true, there are people who have been to the farmers' market and are intellectually curious and will learn about how any market works. And I am trying to make a contribution to the anthropological literature on food, place, and value. Food has been thought of as a thing unto itself. I'm trying to say that it relates to a whole wider range of issues that doesn't just relate to recipes, agricultural practice, or animal welfare, but also to class.
Why did you use stories and interviews to highlight this research?
Because of my commitment to oral history and folkloric tradition. And I wanted people to talk about stuff in their own words. When you read all of the profiles together, you see how these people are talking to each other. There's this community and what I call cultural formation, a shared sense of concern motivating everyone. For example, everyone mentions that "connection." That tells me that that term is doing a whole lot of work for people. I'm really not trying to get them to answer a question, but [to give them] a platform to tell me their story.
What did you learn about the sense of place in the Triangle?
I lived there, and I wanted to feel more a part of the place. The community really does cultivate, celebrate, and promote civic life. The farmers' market, farmers, and customers are a part of that. It's a place that is not taken for granted. It's really thought about and felt, and is one of the most civically engaged places that I have ever lived. I think that insight is hugely important to the local food scene.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Hog Wild for Slow Food"