Malicious but delicious
For your personal health, you should probably eat more vegetables.
But for the future of civilization as we know it?
More pork. Feral hogs, to be exact.
They’re multiplying like mad — like rabbits with hooves, tusks and an epic sense of entitlement — especially in Texas, where an estimated 2.6 million of them routinely desecrate farmland by rooting up crops, decimate reptile populations by snacking on them, devour feed meant for livestock and probably do some other pernicious thing beginning in “de-” that won’t come to me right now.
Destroy enclosures! That’s it! Feral hogs have been known to chew and stomp their way into suburban yards and even onto Army bases, said Richard Heilbrun, a biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “And when you have a military installation with a fence problem,” he told me, “you have a national security problem.”
You also have an excellent reason to turn these hammy hellions into dinner.
That’s what the chef Ned Elliott was up to when I dropped by his Austin restaurant, Foreign & Domestic, on Friday. He and several other cooks were using deboned flesh from two feral hogs for porchetta, the beloved Italian roasted pork dish. They planned to serve it, along with giant Asian tiger prawns and Himalayan blackberries, at a special feast at the restaurant staged in cooperation with the Texas chapter of the Nature Conservancy.
The event had a saucy sobriquet, “Malicious but Delicious,” and a serious mission: to raise people’s awareness of, and ideally whet their appetites for, the bullies of the ecosystem, more formally known as invasive species, invasives for short. In certain areas of the United States, the hogs, the prawns and the blackberries qualify.
“They’re aggressive,” Elliott told me, providing a tidy case for their digestion.
All you principled environmentalists out there, you’re being lax. Your recycling is admirable and your farmers’ market patronage appreciated, but there’s a whole class of animals, fish and plants that are throwing the earth out of balance, and it’s time you turned not just your attention but also your bicuspids and incisors toward them.
They aren’t evil in and of themselves. They just don’t play so well with others, and proliferate ostentatiously. Many aren’t even meant to be part of the habitats they now maraud across, but thanks to human meddling, they ended up there, then got bossy about it.
“It’s as if you came home from work and a bunch of people had moved into your house,” said Laura Huffman, the Texas director of the Nature Conservancy. “Maybe they’re nice enough, but they’re still eating all your food and sitting on your furniture, and that’s going to disrupt the way your family lives.”
She was referring not only to hogs and tiger prawns but also to European green crabs, now common in Maine, where they prey on unsuspecting scallops.
Also Asian carp, the thuggish mobsters of the Mississippi, though maybe not for long. There’s been talk of rebranding them as “Kentucky tuna.”
Edible invasives are cataloged on a website aptly titled “Eat the Invaders.” It reflects a slowly growing awareness of the problem and a fledgling effort by ecologically minded chefs to address it.
In New York not long ago, the chef Kerry Heffernan prepared Asian carp and lionfish, which pose a ferocious threat from the Caribbean to the Carolinas, for a dinner at the James Beard House. At Miya’s Sushi in New Haven, Bun Lai regularly promotes such invasives as Asian shore crabs and burdock, a plant whose root is a delicacy in Japan.
He said he paid $20.99 a pound for fillets of lionfish, which are absurdly plentiful in the nearby Caribbean, but $17.99 for tuna flown all the way from Hawaii.
Feral hog meat, used at Haven for a “wild boar chili,” is less exorbitant and more available, partly in response to a piggy population explosion sometimes called the “pig bomb.” Across dozens of states, there are about 5 million feral hogs, descendants of imports from Europe, and Heilbrun said that the fecundity of females, which give birth more than once a year, is the stuff of legend.
“The old joke is that their average litter size is six, but 10 survive,” he told me.
While Texans have accelerated their killing of hogs to about 30 percent of the population annually, that still allows for a doubling of the population over a five-year period. And that underscores the strange blind spots in the ways of us conscientious omnivores, who congratulate ourselves on foraging and on nose-to-tail eating while failing to chow down adequately on an entire breed just begging to be bacon.
Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.