“They were, when cornered, the most savage animals of the open range.”—John D. Young, the original vaquero of the brush country, referring to Texas hogs.
If you are one of those Texans who get annoyed at that herd of does in your flower bed or the rutting buck that kamikazes into your Tahoe, consider yourself on notice: Things are about to get worse. Much worse. With a population now exceeding 2.6 million, feral hogs in Texas have hit critical mass. Females can have up to two litters a year, with an average of five to six piglets each, and they are outbreeding deer, humans, and every other large mammal in the state. Like many creatures of the night, they roam in packs, long-toothed and short-tempered, willing to eat nearly anything, including their young. Picture a smellier version of the zombie hordes from George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, running 30 miles an hour and not particularly caring whether they eat your brains or your leg.
If you were to invent the perfect invasive animal, you could not do much better than a hog. Smarter than dogs and as fast as deer, they are also extremely tough. While many of the stories about bulletproof hogs are apocryphal, some of the larger boars do have a gristle plate that will stop a bullet fired from a handgun—my father once shot one with a .357 Magnum, only to watch the animal shake it off and walk away. J. Frank Dobie wrote about frontiersmen flattening rifle balls against those same gristle plates.
Pigs, along with horses and cattle, were introduced to North America by the Spanish, who probably did not realize that this hardy food animal would eventually cause $400 million a year in damage, overrunning our state’s city parks, backyards, and cemeteries. Columbus dropped a few off in the West Indies in 1493; de Soto introduced them to Texas about fifty years later. Though some claim that the introduction of Russian boars in the early twentieth century made the pigs more aggressive, the truth is that they have always had an attitude problem. The Greek mythological figure Adonis was killed by a wild boar; at least three Roman legions used the boar as their symbol. Having been charged several times in the Piney Woods, I can attest that things have not changed much, though I will further attest that most hogs are not bulletproof and, when properly civilized in an oak-fired smoker, are quite delicious.
So why, if these pigs are so tasty, are there still so many of them? How come hunters haven’t wiped them out? In fact, the State of Texas would prefer they did. There is no closed season on feral pigs. They can be hunted any time of the day or night, using silencers, spotlights, night-vision scopes, AR-15’s, or AK-47’s. Thanks to Stephenville representative Sid Miller’s so-called pork chopper bill, they can be hunted from helicopters starting on September 1. It may not sound like a fair fight, and it isn’t. Unless we radically change our tactics, we don’t stand a chance.
While boars might reach 400 pounds, the average size seen in the wild is just under 150. When properly prepared, they are delicious. Leaner than domestic hogs, they have a slightly nutty flavor that makes their meat more interesting than regular pork. This fact alone—they taste good—should have led them to the same fate as the Longhorn, but it has not. Pigs are survivors.
Enter Jesse Griffiths and Tink Pinkard. Jesse grew up in Denton and now runs the Dai Due Supper Club, in Austin, whose all-local meals have won praise in food magazines like Bon Appétit and Food & Wine. An avid hunter and fisherman, Jesse does not look at a feral pig and see a roving machine of destruction. Rather, he imagines several hundred intricately prepared dishes, from braised pork belly to pork chops in spring onion gravy to standing rib roast.
Tink grew up working behind the meat counter of a grocery store in Oberlin, Louisiana, and in his adult years he became interested in big-game hunting. After graduating from Stephen F. Austin State University, he spent ten years as a hunting guide in places ranging from the Rockies to South Texas. He has faced down charging grizzlies and wrestled hundred-pound catfish out of the Brazos (which, thanks to another bill just passed by the Legislature, is also now legal). He trains his own hog dogs, and he has guided people on boar hunts all over the state, including a group of Zimbabweans who wanted to hunt them with spears.
Last year, Tink and Jesse decided to put together a unique class: a field-to-table course that would show students how to hunt and butcher a feral hog, then prepare a dozen dishes. Think Ted Nugent meets Emeril Lagasse. “You’ve got an invasive and destructive species, which also happens to be delicious and plentiful,” Jesse said. It only makes sense to eat them.
Tink’s interest in teaching the class was a little less theoretical. His family ranch, near Rocksprings, was overrun with hogs, and he and his father were killing a hundred a year, mostly with AR-15’s. And yet, after giving away the meat to everyone they knew, they’d been reduced to burying the rest of the animals. “Finally, I told my dad it had to stop,” said Tink. “The killing didn’t bother me—it was the waste. A quarter of the people in Rocksprings are living below the poverty level, and we were burying thousands of pounds of meat with a tractor.”
Which brings me to Hog School, a weekend course held in March at Madroño Ranch, which sits on more than 1,500 acres in the steep country outside Medina. About four years ago, the owners, Heather and Martin Kohout, began to breed a herd of buffalo, and the ranch today, with its lush grass, distant views, and buffalo wandering around, gives you the feeling of being on the set of Dances With Wolves. Madroño is blessed with large amounts of fresh water and is, as a result, overrun with hogs. Although the Kohouts do not lease their land for hunting, they were happy to host Hog School, which they believed fit into their overall plan for land stewardship.
The eight students, each of whom paid $1,350 to register, began to show up on a Friday afternoon, a broad mix of Texans and Midwesterners that included chefs, oil field service techs, professors, chemists, and lawyers. A few had never hunted before, but most were experienced outdoorsmen who wanted to both take a hog home and get an in-depth lesson on properly preparing it. The truth is that most hunters today know less than they will admit about preparing game for the table. They might be quick about getting their animals field-dressed, maybe cutting out the loins or backstrap, but the rest goes off to the processor, where it is magically turned into a few boxes of sausage, which do tend to accumulate. Last winter, while digging around in my freezer, I tried to remove my wedding cake to make room for a few more pounds of venison sausage. Unfortunately my wife caught me, and the venison was given away.
On Friday morning, before the students arrived, I had gone out to one of the blinds with the photographer, Jody Horton, to take pictures of hogs. After five hours spent shivering, we didn’t see a single one. Finally Tink picked us up, and we had a big breakfast of Jesse’s wild boar chorizo and eggs. After lunch, which included rabbit dumplings and local salad greens prepared by Dai Due’s Morgan Angelone, we all headed back to the blinds. There were a few shots in the surrounding hills around sunset, indicating that the students were connecting on pigs, but Jody and I saw nothing except squirrels, blue jays, and woodpeckers. Plenty of hog sign but, at least during the daylight, no hogs.
This, of course, is a problem that has plagued hog hunters in recent years. “Hogs are a lot different than they were in the seventies and eighties,” said Billy Higginbotham, of the Texas AgriLife Extension Service. “They have become a lot more nocturnal.”
Clayton Wolf, of Texas Parks and Wildlife, concurs. “Compared with deer, hogs have become harder to pattern, more erratic, and more responsive to hunting pressure,” he said. In other words, they figure out quickly that they are being hunted. There are more hogs now than there were back then, but as soon as you start shooting at them, they disappear and return only late at night, when they know humans are not around.
Another problem is that there are fewer hunters, on a percentage basis, than there used to be. Our state population has increased 48 percent since 1990, but the number of hunters in Texas has held steady at about one million. In relative terms, this represents a sharp decline, and it means that our hog problem cannot be solved by hunting alone. Of the dozen or so studies done on sport hunting’s effect on southern hog populations, hunters tend to remove, on average, about 25 percent of the pigs in a given area. According to Higginbotham, with the number of pigs in Texas today, “we need to remove about sixty or seventy percent annually just to hold the population stable.”
In addition to recreational hunting, there are a number of other effective options, all of which, with apologies to PETA, kill the hogs. In areas that are relatively open, aerial gunning, which involves a shooter with a semiautomatic rifle firing from a helicopter, can kill thirty to forty pigs per hour of flight time. Each hour costs the state or landowner about $800, but when you consider that a single feral hog is capable of doing about $200 in damage each year, that becomes a pretty good investment.
From an aesthetic point of view, however, it is unpleasant. Watching any of the videos available on YouTube, you quickly realize that the combination of a fast-moving hog and a fast-moving helicopter results in a lot of gut-shot animals. Hunters might cringe to see it, but for many landowners, this is a small price to pay for the removal of a noxious species. And whatever one thinks about aerial gunning, it’s a much more targeted approach (punning aside) and much better for the environment than using poison, which, like it or not, will be the next big public policy debate in hog control.
The most common method of removing hogs is still trapping, which allows for the meat to be eaten. In fact, if the trap is properly designed so that the animals can be loaded into a trailer, they can be removed alive and sold to one of the 86 buying stations around the state. The buying stations then take the hogs to processors, where they are inspected and slaughtered and sold as “wild boar” to restaurants in Texas and as far away as Europe and Asia. About 80,000 hogs per year are sold to Texas slaughterhouses this way. It is not enough to control the population—hunters likely kill far more—but it is a start, and according to Higginbotham, as more landowners continue to learn about the buying stations (and properly design their traps), we may see more Texas feral hogs ending up as wild boar ribs on restaurant menus.
At the moment, however, the majority of trapped hogs are probably euthanized in their traps and dragged off to rot, which, by my thinking, is a damn shame. We are not talking about nutrias. Wild hog tastes great. And culinary preferences aside, there are plenty of people going hungry in Texas (about 1.4 million households, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture), so why are we euthanizing food animals and leaving them for the buzzards?
Mostly, it turns out, because it is illegal to donate feral pig meat to needy folks, or to anyone else, without following a specific process. Which brings us to the next roadblock to eating our way out of the feral hog problem: government regulators.
Though deer can be shot by a hunter, dropped off at a licensed processor, and donated to the hungry, the law treats feral pigs the same way it treats domestic pigs, meaning they are subject to antemortem and postmortem inspection. A licensed inspector has to see them both before and after they are killed. If the meat from feral pigs was deemed to be safe, according to Lee Pipkin, the food resources director of the Texas Food Bank Network, it would make a huge difference. “We have met with TPWD, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Health on this subject,” said Pipkin. “Protein as a whole is the biggest empty spot on our shelves. It’s so vital, yet so underresourced.”
Most of the students had luck the first night, and despite a few missed shots, there were half a dozen pigs to be skinned. Philip Keil, a 44-year-old architect and first-time hunter from Austin, got two. Philip’s grandfather owned a market in Tyler, where they butchered all their own meat, but since his father did not hunt, Philip did not grow up hunting either. “I knew this would be a good place to learn, an accepting environment where I wouldn’t worry about being a complete novice,” he said. “It only takes one generation for the hunting tradition to disappear.”
Darkness came quickly, and while the rest of us cracked beers, Tink and Robert Selement, the ranch manager, were hard at work. Jesse was talking the new hunters through what Tink and Robert were doing; the experienced hunters were happy to sit back and let someone else get his hands dirty.
If you have never skinned a hog, it is just like skinning a deer, except you have to cut all the skin off instead of peeling it off. And the hogs are covered with a beautiful layer of fat, which, if you have a freezer full of lean venison, is something you will appreciate. In March, the hogs at Madroño were still nice and plump, in part because 2010 was a banner year for acorns. One by one, the hogs were bled, skinned, and eviscerated. Nothing most of the students hadn’t seen before, until Jesse gave instructions on saving the caul, a thin membrane of fat around the intestines that is universally loved by chefs but nearly impossible to find on the commercial market.
Compared with deer, pigs need closer attention if you want them to taste good. I’ve found that deer shot with a rifle generally bleed enough, but this is less true with feral pigs. If you do not make an effort to get all the blood out of a hog before you butcher it, your taste buds will pay the price. The blood spoils quickly, and people who don’t like feral pork are probably eating animals that have not been properly bled.
As far as the kind of pig you want to eat, the younger ones are more tender, while the older ones have more useful fat. “If you are looking for bacon, you need at least a one-hundred-fifty-pound hog,” Jesse said. And while folk wisdom says that animals below two hundred pounds make the best eating hogs, Tink and Jesse disagree. Unless the animal smells offensive from a distance—like a really huge boar can—it is going to taste good. Just make sure you bleed it and cool it down quickly.
The next morning, everyone went hunting again, and a few more pigs were shot and put into the meat locker. After a lunch of wild boar pasta, the most important part of the weekend began, which was the detailed butchering of a feral hog. The carcass was first divided into the primal cuts—hindquarters, shoulders, and the trunk—and as Jesse cut, he talked both about the butchering and about what the cuts should be used for.
“Most game is going to be cooked one of two ways: either hot and quick or slow and low,” he said. Almost everyone knows how to grill or sear meat. Braising, Jesse explained, is also an important technique in cooking wild game. “You want a very gentle, slow simmer—about three hundred degrees in the oven—versus a hard boil, which will toughen the meat,” he said. “And always make sure the meat is completely submerged. You want the meat protected.”
He continued to cut up the hog as he talked. The shoulders were boned out for sausage, though they also could have been used for roasts; the hindquarters were boned out for cutlets. All the soft fat was trimmed and put aside to be rendered, while hard fat went in the pile for sausage. Even silver skin, a whitish tissue that is the bane of any home butcher, was put aside to be boiled to make thickeners for stock. “There is a place for everything,” said Jesse.
Various dishes were discussed, from tomato-braised wild boar shoulder (see recipe below) to prosciutto. Once the pig was fully disassembled, an hour was spent showing the proper way to make sausage, including chaurice, hot Italian, and knockwurst. Furiously taking notes while Jesse talked, I realized why none of the sausage I had made had ever turned out well. I had omitted about ten steps—and misinterpreted the others. And I was not the only one. As Paul Retzlaff, an experienced hunter from Colorado, later said, “It is easy to shoot things but really tough to make good cuts of meat.” After class, Philip added, “It’s pretty satisfying to know I’ve got prosciutto curing in my garage from a hog I shot.”
Most of what was cut up that afternoon was used for dinner that night, a five-course feast of suckling pig, various types of wild boar sausage, racks of ribs, grilled spring onions wrapped in prosciutto, and more local salad greens. “People still have a mentality,” Jesse said as we ate, “that an animal raised in a feedlot, slopping around in its own waste, then trucked off to be killed in a slaughterhouse, is somehow cleaner and safer than an animal raised on clean grass, killed in the field where it grew up, barely handled at all before it reaches your plate.”
On Sunday, loaded down with pork they had killed and butchered, the students began to leave Madroño Ranch. Tink and I drove around the property in his truck, looking for hogs, with Jody standing in the bed, looking to take pictures. Tink has big dreams for Hog School. “If we can reintroduce the idea of hunting for food rather than a trophy, that is a good thing for everyone involved, both the people and the animals. Not to mention you’ve got all these people now who want to go hunting, who want to eat local and organic meat but don’t come from a hunting background and don’t know how or where to start. Wild-caught meat is generally going to taste a lot better than what you buy at the supermarket.”
Indeed. But will opening more hunting schools address the hog problem? If so, a lot more people need to return to the woods. Texans have always been a self-reliant bunch, but the longer we live in the cities and the longer we think of that rack of ribs as something born in plastic wrap, the further we drift from our native self-reliance.
Most likely, managing our feral hog problem is going to require a multimodal approach. If the hog problem is so extreme that we are shooting hogs from helicopters, it is time to get aggressive in figuring out an approach that is less wasteful and more humane—an approach that could turn this cost into a benefit, feed the hungry people in our state, and create jobs.
Under current regulations, this will be difficult to accomplish. But we are not the first ones to face this problem. Australia, for instance, which has more feral hogs than people, now licenses professional hunters. The hunters are essentially trained to serve as the antemortem inspectors, and when the hogs reach the processing station, they are given a postmortem inspection as well. And the Australians are not alone in this approach. The European Union, not exactly known for its lax regulatory environment, also exempts feral pig meat from antemortem inspection, though Germany, France, and Italy all require a trichinosis test.
Joshua and Krystal White, who specialize in feral hog removal and run L3 Outdoors, in Rockport, are currently pushing this idea in Texas. “We already have the infrastructure in place,” said Joshua. “Every small town has a deer processing plant and an inspector. We can train them to inspect hogs as well. We are not talking about reinventing the wheel.”