It’s not everyday that someone offers you a pig's head.
I had just finished eating red-braised Meishan-Duroc cross-breed pork in the cafeteria of the National Level Meishan Pig Species Protection Farm. I wanted to see the raw meat, famous for its intense marbling and high-fat content.
Tang Guo led me into a side room and cracked open a chest freezer. Inside were various configurations of pork, ground, diced, and in large slabs with thick bands of creamy white fat, and two whole heads, skin, bristles and ears on. Tang, a youthful-looking 38-year-old and the director of the farm, grabbed one head by the ears and yanked, trying to break it free of the ice lining the inside of the freezer. I was afraid the big, floppy ears, now frozen solid and brittle-looking, would break off, leaving just the head.
“Here, here, take one of these,” Tang prodded.
Shanghai's Own Heritage Pig Breed: The Meishan
I had come to the research farm to see the adorable ugly faces of the Meishan pig, one of two heritage varieties native to Shanghai. It had taken me years to screw up the patience to make the long drive out to this far corner of Shanghai, on the edge of Jiangsu province, in Jiading district. I had first encountered them on a Tokyo restaurant menu, at a place that specialized in deep-fried pork cutlets, and I wondered what Japanese chefs knew that Chinese chefs did not. In thousands of Chinese dinners across China, I’d never once seen the Meishan mentioned.
I took that question to the internet, to the library, and ultimately to Tang. In my research, I learned that the ugly little guys (er, not that little – they can grow up to 200 kg), were considered a lard pig, the type of pig that is so fat, so obese, that they were killed just to be melted down — the whales of the pig world. After butchering, I read, they have so little meat, and they grow so slowly, that they are not worth the time or investment to raise one. Instead, they are prized for their high litter size, and, starting in the 1980s, began to be bred with the leaner and massive American breed, Duroc, producing a pig with both a good amount of fat and meat, that grows quickly but not too quickly, and that has a lot of babies, an important consideration for farmers.
Tang filled in the back story.
Rise of the White Pig
The research and protection center, a spotless facility and farm centered on a landscaped fishing pond, was founded in 1958. At the time, farmers in Jiading district and in Taicang city, just across the Shanghai border, were still raising purebred Meishan pigs, as they had for generations, but there was no systemic effort to protect the species. This foresight would prove wise when, in the 1980s, farmers, now exposed to capitalism, sought out pig breeds with better yields, higher percentages of meat, and a faster growth cycle. This was the rise of the white pig. The Meishan was mostly left behind in this rush to commercialize, and the heritage breed fell out of favor and into obscurity.
Except at Tang’s farm...
The Meishan Pig (Semi) Retirement Community
Today, Tang estimates there are 1,000 Meishan sows left in the entire country. At the protected facility, which is supported by numerous levels of government, Tang counts 200 purebred sows, and a further 1,800 pigs that are either: purebred males, used for breeding; purebred females that nonetheless don’t meet the beauty standards, or otherwise have the classic traits of a Meishan pig (big floppy ears, a curved back when young that becomes straight as they mature, a wrinkly face, and a black coat tinged with orange), and so are sold to local farmers to be used for commercial breeding; or Meishan-Duroc crossbreeds, which are sold off for meat. The farm itself is banned from undertaking any commercial activity such as starting a brand or a distributorship. Presumably, giving away a head doesn’t count.
After lunch, Tang suited up in special boots and a lab coat, and took us out to the rows of pens where his Meishan empire lives. As he led us through the facility and answered my stupid questions (“Do fat pigs get diabetes?” answer: “They can”), I stopped at as many stalls as I could to coo at, make baby talk with and take pictures of Tang’s brood.
Tang schooled us in the finer points of animal husbandry, in which he holds a college degree, from whether pigs should have their teeth clipped (in China yes, in Europe no) to why and how antibiotics are used (sparingly between 45 and 60 days old) and how we might go about buying the meat to use for a pig roast or for a restaurant (either through their sole approved third-party distributor or directly through the farm, whole pigs only – an exception to the non-commercial nature of the center).
The afternoon passed in a blissful haze, bouncing between Tang’s professional and encyclopedic knowledge of the world of pigs, and Meishans in particular, and a kind of petting zoo euphoria, seeing and anthropomorphizing fat round black wrinkly pig after fat round black wrinkly pig. By the time I left, my hair smelled like the pens, and I couldn’t have been happier. I had met the Meishans. Way past ugly, the pigs were tremendously cute, with their distinctive wrinkly mugs and huge dangling ears.
I didn’t mind the belly for lunch, but how could I ever eat that face?
I left the head in the freezer.
Here's the contact info for the Meishan Pig Species Protection Farm.