As I mentioned on Friday, the totality of American pig history can be traced back to a single man: Spanish explorer and so-called “Father of the American Pork Industry”, Hernando de Soto. Pigs as I mentioned aren’t from this neck of the global woods. They’re native to Eurasia, where they were domesticated some 15,000 years ago. Hogs had to be imported into America — and were, somewhere near Tampa Bay, Florida in 1539. Hernando de Soto landed there with thirteen of them, and in just three years’ time they multiplied into a herd of some 700. Just to add a little perspective to that number, that total did not include the swine he and his men ate, the ones they sold, they ones that ran away, that died, or were stolen in Indian raids.
How is this possible? Because the pig is an eating, growing and reproducing machine. Fully 25% of everything a pig eats is converted to more pig. Compare that to a steer that converts just 5% of what it eats to flesh and bone. Female pigs can bear two litters of between 5 and 15 piglets a year, each of which can grow to weigh as much as 250 pounds. Add all that together and what you have, my friends, is serious meat on the hoof.
They’re also amazingly adaptable. Runaways from de Soto’s original stock took to the wilderness like pigs to, well…you follow me. Their eating and foraging habits initially disgusted the Indians, though one taste was about all it took to turn even the most committed hunting-gathering Seminole into a die-hard barbecue buff. And of course nothing goes to waste in the hog world. As pork connoisseurs like to say, you can eat everything on a pig but the oink.
Pigs were introduced in similar ways all over the hemisphere. And so, by a combination of accident and intention, they became a fixture of the Americas, well before most Europeans ever arrived here.
Interestingly, by the time North American settlers started arriving en masse some 150 years after de Soto, his runaways had devolved from plump, dopey buffets on four legs into boney, nimble, ugly and decidedly foul-tempered “razorbacks” or wild boar.
Early Americans couldn’t decide if these creatures were more intimidating or hilarious, but one thing they did agree on was that they’d rather eat the home-grown variety, which they did in great numbers. Being far more economical than cows, they were the perfect livestock for poor country farmers. Space efficient, cost efficient, and above all delicious, what was there not to love?