It might surprise you just how long pigs have been around. In fact, the pig dates back 40 million years to fossils, which indicate that wild “porcine” animals roamed, forests and swamps in Europe and Asia.

The earliest known evidence found in North America dates back 37 million years. But it is the domesticated pig that interests us. Pigs were domesticated in China around 4900 BC, although some experts claim 7000 to 6000 BC in Western Asia. By 1500 BC the were being raised in Europe, where the Romans improved breeding and developed two breeds – a large one for lard and a smaller framed one for meat.

Jewish religious law banned the eating of pork before 1000 BC and even early Christians also shunned it until around AD 50 when restrictions for them were relaxed and for centuries, production and improved breeding increased all over Europe. All of the pigs of this time period were dark-colored.

In 1493, at Queen Isabella’s insistence, Christopher Columbus took eight pigs on his voyage to Cuba. Those that escaped provided meat for hunting on return trips.

Hernando de Soto is the true “father of the American pork industry.” He brought 13 pigs to Tampa Bay, Florida, where the explorers used the pigs as fresh meat, salt pork and preserved pork. American Indians were reportedly so fond of the pork taste that attacks to acquire some resulted in some of the worst attacks on the expedition.

By the time of de Soto’s death three years later, his original herd of 13 pigs had grown to 700. This conservative estimate doesn’t include the pigs that were eaten, those that escaped and became wild, and those given to the Indians to keep peace.

Until well into the sixteenth century, “bacon” or “bacoun” was a Middle English term that referred to all pork and meant the meat from the back of an animal. When European colonists brought pigs to the New World, production spread rapidly. Sir Walter Raleigh brought sows to Jamestown colony in 1607. By the end of the 1600s, the typical farmer owned four or five pigs, which supplied salt pork, ham, and bacon for his table.

Pioneers heading west in the 1700s took their pigs with them. As western herds increased, processing and packing facilities sprang up in major cities. Cincinnati became known as “Porkopolis,” and led the nation in processing in the mid 1800s. Drovers herded between 40,000 and 70,000 pigs from Ohio to eastern markets in any given year. A herd could travel 5 to 8 miles a day and cover up to 700 miles.

Thank goodness we don’t have to raise our own pigs, process and cure the meat in order to enjoy bacon. Although seventy percent of the bacon in American is consumed at the breakfast table, it has become a popular sandwich item and a favorite ingredient in both appetizers and main dishes like in these recipes.

Quiche Lorraine

1 deep dish pie shell, thawed

8-10 slices bacon, crisply cooked and crumbled

4 eggs, beaten

1 1/2-cups milk

1/2 tsp salt

Dash cayenne

2-cups (8 oz.) shredded Swiss cheese

2 tbsp. flour

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Combine eggs, milk, salt, and cayenne. Mix well. Toss cheese with flour. Place crumbled bacon in bottom of piecrust. Top evenly with cheese mixture. Pour egg mixture over cheese.

Bake at 350 degrees for 40 to 45 minutes. Let stand 10 minutes before cutting. Serves 6

Sweet Bacon Dressing

5 slices bacon

Vegetable oil

2/3-cup balsamic or red wine vinegar

1 1/2 tbsp. brown sugar

1 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. ground red pepper

1 clove garlic, minced (opt.)

Cook bacon in a large skillet until crisp; remove bacon, reserving drippings. Add enough oil to drippings to measure 1/4-cup. Crumble bacon and set aside. Combine drippings, vinegar, and remaining ingredients in a jar. Cover tightly and shake well. Add bacon.

Bacon Wrapped Water Chestnuts

1 can whole water chestnuts, drained

Soy sauce

Bacon slices

Toothpicks

Marinate whole water chestnuts in soy sauce (enough to cover) one hour or more. Drain and wrap each water chestnut in on-half slice of bacon and secure with a toothpick.

Bake in 350-degree oven until bacon is done. Can be cooked in microwave until bacon is crisp.

— Judy O’Daniel’s “Country Gourmet” column appears in the Times-Journal.

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