Pork and Feral Hogs in Savannah History

 

Blake Pye

The Deep South has always maintained a fruitful relationship with the swine ever since colonial times. The same cannot be said specifically for the city of Savannah. Even before the Civil War, Savannah came nowhere near to producing the same numbers of pork as the middle counties of Georgia. In more modern times, what small amount of pork Savannah was producing has vanished.  This notion may come as a shock to those who have always associated the spirit of the South with pork. In fact, the only current, local vestige of swine in the Savannah area is the microcosm of Ossabaw Island, the only natural habitat of the wild Ossabaw hog.

To understand Georgia and Savannah’s history with hogs, one must first know how the pig came to the Western Hemisphere and how it quickly became a staple of the American diet. The hog itself is not native to the Americas; instead, it came as a part of the Columbian Exchange from the nation of Spain.[1] This particular swine is known as the Iberian hog, named for the Iberian Peninsula. In the Americas, the pigs would either continue to be domesticated by colonists, or they would return to the wild in one way or another and revert to a feral state. Feral hogs of this kind are known as “razorbacks” due to their pronounced spinal ridge.[2] Other telling features of a “razorback” pig are tusks and a fearsome attitude.

Pigs were ideal for the process of colonization due to their omnivorous diet.[3] In a time when food required large amounts of work to produce, an animal that could eat anything that a human can eat and more was perfect for the American colonies where food was often scarce. Although pigs could be useful in the eighteenth century, they also rapidly developed a reputation as a nuisance. The aforementioned “razorbacks” that inhabited the wooded areas of the colonies often ventured into the property of colonists where they would ruin the precious crops on which their livelihood was based.[4] The domestication processes of colonials did not help their situation either. Common practice of the time was to “fence-out” the pigs they raised for eating, instead of “fencing-in” the pigs.[5] What this accomplished was an encouragement of the development of domesticated pigs into the feral “razorbacks.” It would not be until the early nineteenth century when “fencing-in” became a part of national law, and, even then, it took time for such a practice to become commonplace.[6] Despite issues with wild swine, pigs became an integral part of American society. Nowhere is this more evident than in the American South.

In the Antebellum South, pork was produced on a scale to which the North could not come close. The South produced two thirds of the nation’s pork supply before the Civil War.[7] It would not be an overstretching of logic to state that this abundance of pork is an important factor leading to the South’s strong association with barbecue.  Although pork was common in the South, it was by no means merely a food of the commoner; instead, it was enjoyed by the rich and poor alike.[8] The “razorback,” however, was just as much of a problem in the Antebellum South as it was in the entirety of America in colonial times.

According to author Sam Bowers Hilliard, the razorback of the South was “not notable for his illustrious ancestry and, especially during the early period, he was almost universally maligned as being more like a greyhound than a pig.”[9] The breed of pigs used by Southerners for food was also mixed with the “razorback” found in the woods, and the practice of fencing pigs out intensified their wild characteristics. These pigs also foraged for most of their food instead of being fed directly by humans, who normally own finished the pigs with corn near harvest time.[10] This increasingly became a problem for the South because this variety of hog was too lean to produce the fatty bacon that many Southerners desired.[11]  Furthermore, forage-feeding in the South in combination with mongrel nature of the swine themselves led to the production of lighter pigs than the meatpacking facilities of the West, namely those in Cincinnati.[12]

Despite these complications, pork proliferated in the South. By 1850, the South averaged 2.39 pigs per capita, and that showed in the way Southerners ate. When writing on Southern consumption of pork, Sam Bowers Hilliard states: “In contrast to the Old Northwest where there was a substantial export of swine products, almost the entire southern crop was consumed within the area.”[13] Based on this statistic, we can infer that Southerners were not so much concerned with making a profit by selling their pork to others outside the South as much as they wished to utilize their hogs as a means of remaining an entity independent from the North where larger pork manufactories functioned as profit-making businesses. Although much of the South was inundated with pork, the same is not true for Savannah. Savannah represented the general trend of Southern coastal areas, which historically have always put out less pork than other Southern counties.[14] Generally speaking, however, pork was a major product of the South, and lent itself to the Southern desire for economic independence. After the Civil War, the idea of economic independence from the North becomes all the more evident.

The dramatic impact of the Civil War on the Southern economy has been repeated numerous times by historians, and the sharp decrease in Georgian pork production during the Reconstruction Era serves well as a representation of the general, Southern economic downturn.  There was approximately 2.6 million fewer pigs in Georgia in 1880 than in 1860.[15] Even so, according to authors O. B. Stevens and R. F. Wright, pork was the principle source of meat in Georgia, particularly throughout the African-American community.[16] To the Georgian farmer, the hog was the “foundation of his livelihood” and a means by which he could provide for future generations.[17] Bacon would have been one of the most commonly preferred cuts of meat, and such a preference was likely the result of the proliferation of the Berkshire breed of pig[18], which stored more fat than the mongrel breed that was most common before the Civil War.

Although the Civil War did curtail pork production, the latter years of the Reconstruction Era saw a large boost in the number of Georgia hogs. A comparison of swine censuses in 1890 and 1899 shows that, in 1890, there were 1,396,362 pigs being raised in Georgia, but, by 1899, this number had risen to 2,093,987.[19] Change in the traditions surrounding pork, however, was inevitable. As is the case with many agricultural products of the modern era, Southern pork gradually became an item of mass production, following the example of the aforementioned meatpackers of the West.[20] One example of Southern traditions affected by this shift is the well-known Southern dish, red-eye gravy. Red-eye gravy is a classic Southern food that is made by taking a pig’s bone marrow and using it as the main component of a gravy. Before the shift to large businesses, author Brett Mizelle argues, many traditions surrounded the cooking of red-eye gravy but were unfortunately lost after pork became a matter of big business. The gravy itself still remains and is a valuable part of Southern heritage.[21]

One important community tradition that practically vanished is the hog-killing day, which was a certain time of the year when a Southern community would gather together and celebrate the pork harvest. This served to connect people to their food, instead of people maintaining a comfortable distance from which they did not have to think about the source of their sustenance.[22] In modern times, Southern hog-killing days do not exist in a form anywhere near the same as its traditional form.

In modern Savannah, there is little to no pork production. One example of a slaughterhouse that was active during the first half of the twentieth century does exist, however. The Meddin Meat Packing Company was founded in 1917 by Abraham Meddin and his family, all of whom were immigrants from Belarus. Meddin maintained a strong presence at the Savannah City Market up until 1954, the year of City Market’s closure, and in 1969, the slaughterhouse officially closed its doors. Today, the Meddin family name is carried on only in the guise of a film studio.[23] Unfortunately, the Meddin Meat Packing Company was the last vestige of a local business that dealt in hogmeat. Of course, to say that there are not a few families who choose to raise their own pigs would be inaccurate for there are always remnants of old practices in current times.

Today, people normally do not associate the city of Savannah with swine, but Ossabaw Island, as a part of the greater Savannah area, is home to a peculiar breed of hog that is closely related to the original Iberian hog of Columbian and colonial times, an effect of their 400 year isolation from other hog breeds.[24] Only a few people inhabit Ossabaw Island, and most of them view the wild Ossabaw hogs as a nuisance. As a result, many efforts have been made to eliminate them.[25] Recent scientific research has shown, however, that there could be an alternative benefit to keeping the hogs alive. Over time, the Ossabaw hog developed a special gene that specifically changes the way they store fat. According to scientist Charles Talbott, the Ossabaw hog can efficiently store fat, and they also have the “ability to drink brackish water due to the high salt content of their body.”[26] He also notes that, in humans, this condition is known as pre-diabetes, and the hog could, therefore, very possibly be utilized in diabetes research.[27]

The future of Savannah hogs is relatively uncertain. Perhaps it lies in the medical field rather than the agricultural and culinary field. As it stands today, few people know about Ossabaw hogs, and, even under the weight of scientific research, some still view them as a nuisance. This state of affairs is somewhat shameful because it appears as if many Savannahians do not realize the opportunities that hogs present – culinary, scientific, or otherwise. As it stands today, pork is a vital aspect of the Southern and, by association, Georgian legacy, but Savannah has yet to truly take part in that legacy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s