By Elizabeth Winslow
Photography by Jody Horton
My mother grew up on a small farm in Louisiana, and has vivid memories of hog-butchering time. Each year, when the weather turned cold, neighbors would gather to help my grandfather slaughter and butcher the hogs that would feed his family through the winter. For three solid days they worked—butchering table to smokehouse—telling stories and laughing; feasting at a communal table.
Frugality dictated that nothing was wasted (“we used everything but the squeal,” my mother always says), and neighborly support guaranteed that my grandfather would return the favor on surrounding farms in the weeks to come.
I grew up on the same land, yet the butchering tradition had long since passed. No longer farming the land, my family procured meat from the grocery store—already neatly cut into chops or ground into sausages and presented under fluorescent lights on Styrofoam trays. Even after 20 years as a professional cook, I had no idea how one starts with a pig and ends with sausage until I met farmers Kay and Jim Richardson and chef Jesse Griffiths. Together they helped me rediscover what was lost between my mother’s childhood and mine.
“Oh, look at the little escape artists!” Kay says with a laugh as she and Jim show me around their Rockdale farm. Happy piglets have wriggled through the wire fencing surrounding the several hundred acres they call home and are now scattered underfoot. “I don’t worry too much about it,” Jim says. “They never get too far from Mama.”
Looking out over the Richardsons’ expansive fields, we see hundreds of pigs rooting, nursing and roaming free; farther in the distance, cattle peacefully graze. Small A-frame structures made from recycled tin dot the landscape.
“Our animals are never caged,” Jim says. “I built those A-frames to give them a place to get out of the weather.”
Allowing the animals to roam free is more than a simple matter of convenience. For Jim, it’s what’s right.
“My neighbors and A&M buddies probably think I’m a kook, but I think compassionate care of animals requires that they get to roam free, form their social groups and do what their genetics tell them to do,” he says. “Pigs are very sensitive animals, and if they’re crowded or stressed they turn on each other, attack one another and chew each other’s tails off. But these pigs are happy. See how they walk up to you?” Indeed, the pigs trot over to say hello and receive a scratch behind the ears.
A year and a half ago, when the Richardsons decided to shift their farm operation from raising vegetables to animals, Jim looked to the local ag-extension service to expand his knowledge base. He hoped to return to the old style of sustainable agricultural production, but couldn’t find anyone who still supported such antiquated and outdated notions.
“Methods used by my grandparents have been lost or supplanted since the 1950s,” Jim says. “Europe is way ahead of us in terms of sustainability because over there, they never really lost the old ways.”
The Richardsons looked for guidance from sources outside traditional agricultural circles. Jim visited Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm in Virginia where he learned to “stack enterprises,” or raise a variety of cash crops, feed crops and animals. He also began to understand the benefits of keeping multiple generations on the farm.
Putting what Jim learned into practice, the Richardsons currently cultivate 200 acres of oats, alfalfa, rye and corn, which feed about 200 broiler chickens, 160 laying hens, 36 head of cattle and 200–300 pigs at any given time.
At the core of the Richardsons’ agricultural philosophy is “no-plow” tillage. To protect and build the topsoil, they turn the post-harvest crop stubble back into the soil for compost. The animals roam freely, grazing and fertilizing the fields with manure. The rooting of the pigs keeps the soil turned and aerated, the hoof prints of the cattle collect water and the chickens control pests.
“Every animal has a function and a job on the farm,” Jim says.
This isn’t some lofty ‘carbon footprint’ ideology, it’s a reminder that eating is an act of community—a collaboration between earth, farmer, animal, cook and eater. —Jesse Griffiths
A growing number of local chefs have come to admire the Richardsons’ commitment to sustainability, and appreciate the quality foods produced through these time-honored, but almost-forgotten, methods. Chef Jesse Griffiths, of Austin’s popular supper club Dai Due, prizes the Richardsons’ pigs for their taste.
“Their method of pasturing the animals and letting them get more mature creates intense flavor with lots of intramuscular fat,” says Griffiths. “It tastes like pork used to taste before we bred all the flavor and fat out of it.”
As evidence, Griffiths’s Whole Hog cooking classes and Boucherie (butcher shop) Dinner held each November have attracted a large following.
“I think what Jesse is doing is really changing the way people cook,” says Jim. “I can’t tell you how many people come see me at the farmers market after a class or dinner and say they’ve ordered a meat grinder or a sausage stuffer. Of course, we love that.”
“[Butchering hogs] isn’t something that people normally do in their homes, at least not anymore,” says Jesse. “I wanted to bring a seasonal tradition to people and show them how to make things they thought were beyond their skill levels.”
Griffiths’s six- to seven-hour class begins with half of a hog that participants first break down into large “primal” cuts: shoulder, belly and back leg. The pig’s head goes into a stockpot for headcheese, the loin is removed for brining, and all of the scrap, shoulder and leg are diced for making sausage and pâtés. The class then moves on to making rillettes (pork slowly braised in its own fat), sausages and rendered lard.
At the end of the class, Griffiths makes a point to note the shockingly small garbage sack that has collected the few unusable bits and pieces. The entire process has yielded less than a pound of waste.
“This isn’t some lofty ‘carbon footprint’ ideology,” says Griffiths. “It’s a reminder that eating is an act of community—a collaboration between earth, farmer, animal, cook and eater.”
“Every night we have four generations sitting around our supper table,” Jim says, the pride in his voice evidence that there is much more going on here than simply a business venture.
Dai Due Supper Club
Richardson Farms, Jim and Kay Richardson
2850 County Rd.412, Rockdale