How a Carnivore Carnival Is Saving Pigs

Cochon 555, a nose-to-tail hog cook-off that travels around America, is trying to build the hype around sustainable, family-farmed bacon.
(Photo: Josh Scherer)
Apr 9, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Josh Scherer has written for Epicurious, Thrillist, and Los Angeles magazine. He is constantly covered in corn chip crumbs.

A 350-pound mulefoot pig—gutted and shaved, its bright-red flesh and enamel-white bone exposed—was splayed out on a table, a team of four butchers hovering over it, knives in hand. As hundreds of semiformally dressed spectators watched in stunned silence, the pig was precisely hacked into commercial bits, an animal slowly turned into a commodity. When a Boston butt or a perfectly striated slab of belly was dissected from the animal, one of the butchers hoisted it above his head with his arms fully stretched, presenting it to the crowd the way Mufasa presented Simba to the world.

(Photo: Josh Scherer)

Meanwhile, students from a local culinary school ran through the crowd at the Viceroy Hotel in Santa Monica, California, holding pig parts wrapped in butcher paper, yelling prices for the cuts of pork as people scrambled for their wallets. If I’d had more than a debit card in my pocket, I would have given in to the fervor and bought a $12 package of liver and kidneys, the blood visibly seeping through its wrappings. Maybe next year.

There are few events in the world like Cochon 555. Per its website, it’s an “epic pork feast featuring top chefs preparing whole heritage breed pigs that celebrates champions of the good food movement.” Every year, the traveling carnival for carnivores swings through 10 cities across the nation, with five chefs preparing five heritage breed pigs from local farms at each stop in a nose-to-tail cook-off. Since 2009, Cochon has donated $400,000 to local charities and has invested more than half a million dollars in family farms—more than any live event in the country.

“A lot of events support and highlight the chefs that use our pigs—and that’s awesome,” said Krystina Cook, co-owner of Cook Pigs Ranch, whose Large Black pig, cooked by chef Walter Manzke, was crowned the Los Angeles–event champion. “But Cochon is really based around the farmers and where the food is actually coming from.”

That, and plenty of heavy drinking, eating, and near-idolatry of pork.

(Photo: Josh Scherer)

On paper, Cochon is a charity event highlighting and supporting local farmers—but in person, it comes off more like an Eyes Wide Shut pig orgy, or, at its tamest, an alcohol-fueled bacchanalia of bacon. A baconalia, if you will. In 2010, the Los Angeles event, held in a deconsecrated Catholic church, featured a whole-roasted hog laid out on the altar.

Last month in Santa Monica, there were ritzy wine, beer, and liquor purveyors at every corner of the outdoor venue, which looked more suited for lounge chairs and cabanas than hacksaws and pig carcasses. I watched as a bartender dressed as a Wild West sheriff pointed his fake pistol at a mascot in a plush pig costume and yelled, “Die! Die! Die!” as he repeatedly pulled the trigger. The pig begged for mercy before pantomiming its own death. Some people in the crowd put down their pork-fat beignets for long enough to applaud the make-believe ritualistic slaughter.

But then the man-pig got up and started break dancing—so it all worked out.

(Photos: Josh Scherer)

Cochon 555 is bipolar like that. For every person ceremoniously kissing a severed pig head on the lips (and there were a few), there was someone giving an impassioned speech about the importance of supporting local, sustainable farming.

Toward the end of the night, after all the chefs had finished cooking, the alcohol vendors had cut off their supply, and the judges had finished deliberating, the event’s founder, Brady Lowe, grabbed a microphone and took center stage.

When he started talking, the crowd seemed to collectively sober up. Everyone knew this was the important part of the night. He brought the farmers who raised the heritage pigs featured in the competition, including Krystina Cook, up to the stage with him and spoke about why the event meant so much.

Lowe talked about creating a better food system for the next generation and giving people a choice in how their food is grown and raised. He used the term “conversation power” and encouraged people to “change the culture”—but those are both impossible metrics to track.

All Cook knows is that her farm has felt very real, positive effects from Cochon 555.

Cook Pigs Ranch is the only operation of its kind in Southern California. On a 15-acre plot of land in eastern San Diego County, Krystina and her husband, Mike, along with their three children, tend to a herd of 500 or so pigs. The animals are fed on a rotational pasturing system when they’re not eating acorns fallen from the ancient oaks—or occasionally gorging on avocados.

The ranch is home to 11 of breeds of heritage pig, and several of them are critically endangered. There are only about 200 mulefoot hogs currently registered in the U.S., six of which live at Cook Pigs Ranch—and one of which was butchered at Cochon 555.

Though it seems counterintuitive, the best way to prevent a breed from going extinct is to raise it for food. “By eating heritage pigs, not only is it more delicious and you have better quality, you’re supporting farmers like us being able to keep these breeds alive,” Cook said. If the demand for mulefoot pigs—or Kune Kune, or Berkshire, or Duroc, or other heritage breeds—was to drop past a certain threshold, the breed would die out entirely.

That the pig’s survival is literally dependent on its status as a commodity gives a deeper context to everything that goes down at Cochon 555. All the alcohol vendors, the charcuterie purveyors, the artisanal butchers carving up cuts of pork you’ve never heard of—even the pig mascot, may it rest in make-believe peace—are all part of this grand hype machine that’s steering people away from the old-guard factory farms and toward a more sustainable bacon future.