Eating the most ethically-raised meat on the planet made me vegetarian

How eating world-class Spanish jamón forced me to confront my own gastronomical ethics

Left: the legendary black pigs of Spain. Right: the author in Sevilla, 2015

“In Spain, everyone eats jamón. Even vegetarians.”

I thought about that a lot when I decided I wasn’t going to eat any more pigs.

“The pigs are vegan,” she continued, by way of explanation. “It’s really just acorns, no?”

These words were spoken by a woman who’d been plying us with high-end Cava since the early afternoon. She was in charge of sales for Cinco Jotas, legendary producers of jamón ibérico, and she was very good at her job.

My friend who works in gourmet food importing had invited me on a business-meets-pleasure trip to Spain. We toured olive oil groves and got wined and dined by some of the country’s most skilled food producers. It–and I cannot stress this enough–did not suck.

The Cinco Jotas pigs are arguably the most ethically-raised animals in the world, but eating them was the beginning of the end of my existence as an omnivore. I continued to eat meat for two years after my trip to Spain–and not just the ethically-raised, lived-a-good-life variety. I ate halal cart lamb-over-rice and bodega ham sandwiches and cheap pepperoni slices dripping in spicy, rendered pork fat.

Mostly I became a vegetarian because I watched too many documentaries; a pork processing plant worker deftly slicing open an enormous abscess on a pig carcass as it traveled past on the conveyor belt is an image I can’t shake. I read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, and I was changed. I read too many articles about the outsize role factory farming plays in greenhouse gas emissions.

And I never stopped thinking about the black pigs.

Dehesa is Spanish for “meadow.” The word meadow is imperfect; it calls to mind golden light and waist-high grasses that one might run through while wearing a gauzy white dress. The word I would use to describe the dehesa would be forest, but it’s not really that, either. Neither Spanish nor English contain a word that does justice to its landscape: ancient oak trees towering imperially over absurdly saturated green grass scattered with wildflowers and dappled with patches of chartreuse moss. A trillion little lives bursting from inky-black soil.

I had traveled to Spain from New York City, a dirty city that smells nothing like dirt. Standing in the not-quite-meadow, not-quite-forest, I gulped deep lungfuls of the soil’s heady aroma and waited for the pigs to find us.

The Iberian pigs of southwestern Spain are called pata negra, which means black hoof. Unlike the more than 120 million pink-skinned hogs that are slaughtered for food in the U.S. each year, the pata negra are related to Spanish wild boars, and have dark gray skin covered in coarse bristles. A true Iberian pig–the only kind that can be used to make authentic jamón ibérico–lives on the dehesa and eats nothing but foraged acorns, wildflowers, and grass. They eat, but they are never fed. For two years, until they are “harvested” (an unintentionally grisly euphemism, IMO), they roam a utopian forest, free from all predators–except for one.

On a gray and misty day, we went to see the animals. Ribbons of sunlight unfurled between cracks in the cloud cover. Discarded acorn shells littered the damp ground like so many half-eaten Communion wafers in this Church of the Holy Pig.

Apex predators surveying our territory, we looked for them in the meadow. I tried to arrange my body in a way that would let them know that I was a friend and not a threat, as if striking a contrapposto could obscure the fact that we were, in fact, here to consume the very pigs we were to commune with.

They wandered toward us in a loosely knit group, snouts never breaking contact with the surface of the grass as they searched for the acorns that would give their meat its distinctive intramuscular marbling and sweetness. One of them made her way directly toward me. I felt pressure at the toe of my boot when she nudged it with her charcoal snout. The skin on the top of her head reminded me of an oyster shell.

Then, she looked at me.

I don’t mean that she looked at me blankly and impassively, as one mammal simply registers the presence of another. She looked at me. She lifted her snout and our eyes met and we saw each other. Two onyx marbles searched my face. She looked like she wanted to ask me a question.

A few hours later, in the tasting room, our tongues and hands and faces were slick with unctuous pork fat. Because the pigs eat only acorns, the fat contains over 50% oleic acid, the same kind of fat found in olive oil–the kind that’s good for you.

Left: a slice of jamón ibérico (photo taken in the Cinco Jotas tasting room); Right: Cinco Jotas jamón atop toast, made by the author

Sunlight, water, and oxygen feed the meadow, and the oak trees turn that simple ingredient list into a complete meal served in its own glossy shell. The pigs eat the acorns, transforming a seed into meat. The alchemy of salt, air, and time ages the meat into something not just edible, but exquisite. It is science, but standing in the shade of the dehesa, it feels like magic.

I have the utmost respect for the farmers, craftsmen, and artisans at Cinco Jotas who do the same work their grandfathers did. And I respect the choice to eat ethically-raised animals. But ethically-raised animals eventually become ethically-killed animals.

The black pigs lead idyllic and–compared to factory farmed hogs, who are fattened quickly for slaughter at six months old–long lives.

What’s a year to a pig? I don’t think they can appreciate the passage of time, but I know they can feel pain. I know that they don’t wander the dehesa alone. I saw them gathered in groups by the stream, watched them take long drinks of water and bask in warm sunlight like plump dogs.

It’s been five years since I went to Spain. Three years since I’ve eaten pork. The pig who looked at me has long since been consumed, piece by piece.

I spent over three decades loving animals while also eating them. But eventually the cognitive dissonance was too great; I didn’t want to keep killing them, even if I wasn’t the one holding the knife.

I miss the taste of pork. When I have a moment of weakness–and every time I see lasagna bolognese on a menu, I have a moment of weakness–I remember the pig who started to change my mind. Her searching eyes. How she gave me a gentle nudge with her snout. Her oyster-shell ears.

She was curious and peaceful and intelligent. She didn’t want to eat me.

Eventually, I didn’t want to eat her.

I’m a west coast-based creative director at New York-based ad agency MRY, and the season 5 Masterchef runner-up. I love mayonnaise, yoga, cats, and pizza.

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