Perk up your plate
by Jefferson Munroe
Unlike its European counterparts, nose to tail cookery in America sees the head as a single unit. Headcheese, face bacon, braised pork jowels, but there are few, if any, ear-centric dishes. Now, if you’ve eaten a hotdog without Kosher stamped on it you’ve probably had an ear—or three. Ears are prized for their binding abilities, which hotdogs need in spades. We’ve ferretted out a few ear dishes of note that you’ll savor over, but much of the time if you’re going to buy local pig’s ears, you’ll probably find the rest of the body attached in the form of a pig. To help guide you to the most delectable ears (and pork) you can find, a few Island farmers have given insight into their favorite flavor of swine and what kind of ears their pigs sport.
Dreamed of by Japanese chefs, Berkshire pigs have perky, conservative ears. Such reserved ears allow the Berkshires full access to all things edible. Rebecca Gilbert of Native Earth Teaching Farm recalls, “We heard they tasted the best and went for them. At our annual pig roast everyone agreed there was a discernible difference.” Rebecca keeps tabs on her pigs by watching her hog’s head. “Those ears really show how they are feeling; if they find something interesting they flop them around,” she says. But the Berkshire is more than a tasty pig. “At the fair last year Thunder was a rock star in the parade and ate plenty of cotton candy!” The Berkshire breed is a lean, longish pig that isn’t weighed down by its chub around the edges. It is a fit and trim hog.
English Large Black
These appropriately named pigs are big, big, big. Huge ears, huge bodies, huge flavor— but with a sweet, mothering demeanor. However, sweet doesn’t mean your Large Black sow is a pushover, according to The Farm Institute’s Julie Olson. “The sows are supposed to be gentle, but often that just means slow and stubborn,” says Julie. With those huge ears flopping over their eyes, it’s understandable that they don’t move along, but Julie’s pretty sure they just move at their own pace: “Sometimes when I’m moving them I’ll tie up their ears, hoping that will let them see better, but it doesn’t make any difference.” A pasture breed, Julie finds that with a varied diet these pigs have bright red meat, marbling and potentially over fattened. “But,” Julie adds, “because we’ve got them on pasture we get a great balance.”
Gloucester Old Spot
Old Spots, with their svelte ears, button nose, and stylish light coat find themselves most at home in orchards and woodlots. “They are gentle and don’t root, but they sure have a keen sense of smell,” says Richard Andre of Cleveland Farm. “I try to sneak up on them occasionally, but if I’m upwind they can smell me around a corner!” Those spots are more than a hairstyle, according to Richard, “The spots show up on their hides, which was undesirable when the commercialization of hogs was happening and orchards were disappearing. The Gloucester Old Spots nearly vanished a few years ago.” Not to fear, as the resurgence of family farms and local meat has spread these floppy eared hogs far and wide.
Pink and white, the Yorkshire has fan clubs across America—almost every hog shop in town has a few Yorkshires in the mix, and with good reason. According to Randy BenDavid of Native Earth Teaching Farm, “They are great mothers, with big litters and an ability to treat their piglets right.” Randy claims that the upright ears make them more responsive, less flighty. “They can hear like a dog, so you can’t sneak up on them. I’ve seen floppy eared pigs prop their ears up to hear better.” Fat is flavor, and these pigs are tasty.
Named for its uncloven hooves, the Mulefoot is one of the oldest and rarest breeds of hogs in America. Pointy, catlike ears mark the Mulefoot, which has a wild look about it, with a longer snout and a lighter frame. Zephir Plume of The GOOD Farm claims a feline ancestry of her Mulefoot boar: “Hendrick is like a little cat, if a bit whiny.” A holdover from the days when pigs produced fat for the table, the Mulefoot is considered a lard-producing pig and fattens accordingly, although Zephir hasn’t seen it so far, “Our boar is hairy but hasn’t been overly fatty, but I’m hoping to change that soon enough—I love lard!”