Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Ossabaw Island Hog: 400 Years Later

Although I once believed that the hog and everything from ham to pulled pork were originally and uniquely Southern, I soon learned that the hog was a present to the Americas from Spanish explorers. However, I was really surprised when I encountered a hog in Georgia that closely resembles its colonial counterparts.

As part of a workshop on African American culture and history conducted by the Georgia Historical Society for the National Endowment for the Humanities, I visited Ossabaw Island to learn more about how culture has been preserved on the coast of Georgia (see “Ossabaw Island: Culture Preserved on the Coast of Georgia” for details).

The island’s mixture of salt marshes, freshwater ponds, forest, sandy beaches, and dunes has also helped preserve a special resident – the Ossabaw Island hog, which has flourished on its namesake Georgia home for about 400 years. Many historians believe the Spanish left hogs on Ossabaw in the 1500s.

The Ossabaw Island hog remains the closest genetic representative of the historic stock that Spanish explorers brought to North America, according to The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore. Because of the Ossabaw hog’s isolation, Oklahoma State University also considers it to resemble accurately its Spanish heritage unlike other Spanish pigs that escaped, became feral in southeastern forests, and eventually mixed with domestic pigs.

As a result, Colonial Williamsburg in 2005 began using Ossabaw Island hogs in its educational programs about animal husbandry and culinary practices of the 1700s because how closely they resemble their colonial counterparts (although they can no longer be removed from the island). “Their hair was heavy because they lived outside, and they were dark and oval. Today, pigs are rectangular and pink,” says Elaine Shirley of Colonial Williamsburg.

The hog that I encountered during a field trip to Ossabaw Island was not the typical Piggly Wiggly. In contrast to modern hogs, Ossabaw Island animals are typically black and have thick coats, upright ears, and long snouts; they also are rarely more than 20 inches in height or weight more than 100 pounds in their natural habitat. On Ossabaw, they also reproduce so frequently that one of the two Georgia wildlife technicians on island has a quota of reducing the swine population by 1,800 each year.

According to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, the Ossabaw Island hog is phenomenal because it has survived in a challenging environment known for heat, humidity, and seasonal scarcity of food. Although it may be as small as 100 pounds, it can store amazing amounts of fat to survive when little is available to eat. In addition, it has also been highly tolerant of dietary salt as it has learned to survive on the Georgia sea island.

Although the hog is not native to the American South, how we enjoy food from ham to pulled pork is connected to the culture of the region. The next time you eat high on the hog or fry some bacon, thank the Spanish explorers for contributing to our foodways and the Ossabaw Island hog for being a living record.

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