After years of eating only hybrid tomatoes, my first taste of an heirloom tomato eight years ago forever convinced me that hybrids no longer had a place on my plate. I was enlightened, to say the least. And so now with pork, according to Taste Network’s Brady Lowe, the founder of the Cochon 555 event (in St. Louis Aug. 25), it’s time to realize there is more to the pig, as well.

“There’s just a huge range of flavor differences between heritage breed pork and pork that you typically find at the grocery store,” Lowe notes. “A good comparison would be like what Kobe beef is to a regular steak. You know very quickly that there’s something very premium about the Kobe. And that’s exactly what heritage breed pork is. When you have it on your plate, you know that it’s a premium product.”

Lowe explains that heritage breed pigs are deeply rooted in our nation’s history, as they, too, arrived with the early colonists. “The pigs basically date back to about five different species from Spain and about 20 different species from the U.K.,” he says. “They made their pilgrimage here with the early settlers, and for hundreds of years, people have been preserving the bloodlines. It's kind of a lost art when compared to what we see in the food system today.”

Also included in this history, Lowe notes a split that took place years ago between industry and independent farming, with the industrial side modifying breeds to create a ‘super pig’ that could be raised indoors in confinement, and could withstand accelerated growth, as well as the administration of pharmaceuticals. “And that’s what we’ve been eating,” Lowe says. “It was designed to be ‘the other white meat’ to compete with chicken, because back in the 1970s, the industry wanted a leaner, cleaner protein for the meat-eater. But then, on the other side, the small, family farm fortunately kept these old breeds alive. Except for those who knew how to get it, heritage breed pork literally fell by the wayside for about 30 or 40 years.”

Lowe says these farmers are incredibly passionate about what they do. “Without doubt, 100 percent more care goes into raising a heritage breed pig,” he points out. “These farmers work with the animals and raise them naturally without any hormones or antibiotics. The animals have the opportunity to range and to exercise. They also have social systems—they bond with the other animals. And the people who are feeding and growing these pigs believe that what you put into the land you get out of the land, so they are raised in healthier surroundings and have the best diet possible.”

In 2004, quite by accident, Lowe stumbled upon some heritage breeds and knew right away that he wanted to learn more. Berkshires, red wattles, mule foots and large blacks—and yet there were still more to be re-discovered. “All these beautiful pigs were lost traditional breeds and were out there on the brink of extinction,” he explains. “So I basically just started going around country to find as many as I could, and I began putting them in the hands of chefs. The next thing I knew, I was running around with this new pork, and there was a niche. But, both the chef and the consumer needed to be educated.”

According to Lowe, heritage breed pigs are raised around the country and can be found at many farmers markets. More and more chefs also are featuring the pork in their restaurants. “When you see a farm or breed listed on a menu, that’s a chef saying here is where your food is coming from and these people stand behind it—and I stand behind them because it’s a good product,” he says. “Heritage breed pork inspires creativity and enthusiasm among chefs. There also is an added health benefit of knowing where your food comes from, and then there's the selfish benefit of it tasting superior to anything else.”

Cochon 555, a national food event tour started by Lowe in Atlanta in 2008, places a spotlight on heritage breed pork, as well as raises monies for charities and farmers. (Cochon is French for pig, and the event features a friendly competition among five chefs, each equipped with a whole pig.)

This year, 18 Cochon events are taking place around the country, including the Heritage BBQ in St. Louis on Aug. 25 at the Four Seasons Hotel. “We have opened up—and even changed—the conversation about our food,” Lowe says. “There are a lot of independent farmers who are out there doing things the right way. Before, it was just a whisper, and we’ve turned it into a pretty strong dialogue in today's kitchen and made it a real conversation amongst foodies and people who enjoy premium food.”


Where to Find Heritage Breed Pork:


• The Cheshire, including Basso, The Restaurant and The Market at The Cheshire

• The Crossing

• Panorama (at the Saint Louis Art Museum)

• Three Sixty (Hilton at the Ballpark)

• Airport Marriott



• Whole Foods Market (labeled as Step 4 Pasture Raised Pork)

More Food & Dining articles.