The pig, Swine, an animal unfit for consumption by many, deemed unclean. An animal that can be utilized head to tail—as with the fine art of charcuterie. To take a lowly pig and add some salt, some smoke, and we go from unclean to art, it is cured —healed — producing the magical wonder that is bacon. I love bacon. And I love pork. And it could be because of those Miller boys.
They lived across the street from me, the Miller boys, Donald, Tony, Derrick and David. I was maybe 14 – they ranged in age from 17 to 24. They were wild in ways I wanted to be. They had big dogs, fast cars, and girls. They threw enormous parties and jumped off the roof of their house into the swimming pool. They had monster trucks and Mustangs with mag wheels that burned rubber whenever they left or returned home, clouds of smoke and the songs of Led Zeppelin pouring out of their windows. They wore boots and had mustaches. My parents were afraid of them.
Their father was Marvin Miller, president of the local Bank of America and an avid sportsman. You can imagine my surprise when he asked my father if I could join him and Donald on a trip hunting wild boar, and my father agreed. So, at four am I jumped in the front of Marvin’s truck between him and Donald, behind us the truck bed was loaded with guns, food, ice, beer, and two dogs—Honky, (an enormous black lab), and Brandy, (a mutt, but a damn good pig dog).
During the journey, I received some lessons and advice that would prove invaluable.
– Hunting Philosophy— “We eat what we kill. There’s no reason to shoot something you are not going to eat unless it is trying to shoot you first. We eat the whole animal. I hate these hunters that shoot something, then just take a small piece of meat and leave the damn thing. No respect. No respect for the animal, no respect for your place on the food chain.”
– Boar hunting strategy— “We let the dogs go. They catch the scent and are gone. Eventually they track down a pig and corner it, chasing it into one of the gullies in the hills. The dogs grab the pig by the ear and try to hold on while it squeals like hell. Once you hear that pig, you run like hell to get there and kill it – before it rips your dogs to shreds with its tusks.”
– And Gun Safety— “Don’t point a gun at anyone, stupid.”
After a couple hours of driving and sage advice, we arrived at their hunting club as the sun came up over the golden rolling hills of Sonoma County. We unpacked and set up a small camp in an area we hoped to recognize from a distance later. After camp was set up and we had a bite to eat, it was time for my shooting lesson. First, I learned to kill beer cans. They didn’t move too quickly, and I proved to be a good shot. I was excited. It was only a matter of time before I was shooting at something I could eat.
Marvin and Donald each shot two pigeons, but they proved to be much faster than beer cans, and too swift for my new gun skills. They were not actually legal to take so they were hidden under the winch cover on the front bumper of the truck.
Donald and I hiked behind the dogs as they zigzagged their way up and down the hills and through the brush, guided by their noses. They became increasingly excited and focused while their pace quickened. Soon they were gone. We hiked in the general direction the dogs had gone for an hour or two before we heard it: Dogs barking and a pig squealing.
I ran faster than I ever have in my life. Adrenaline coursing through my veins, the animal sounds growing louder and more visceral, trying to keep up with Donald across and over the ever-changing terrain. I caught him at the top of a hill as he was unshouldering his .30-06 rifle and started down into the gully, towards the dogs and the boar doing battle below.
Donald shot once, hitting the boar behind the ear and quickly un-strapped the .22 pistol on his hip, handing it to me as he tried to get the dogs off the boar whose front legs had buckled. I shot once, and then about three more times before I realized what happened. Donald wisely taking the pistol from my hand, realizing I had gone full “Lord of the Flies.” The boar was dead, I had killed it and I was going to eat it. Pork chops would never look the same.
After calming the dogs down and giving them some liver treats as rewards, Donald removed his Buck knife from his belt. Rolling the boar on its back, he started with a small incision between its rear legs, working it forward towards the head, right down the center of its belly. Once through the bristly skin, he made shallow incisions working his way through the layers of fat that lay beneath. Always working from the rear to the front of the animal.
“See this layer of fat? The thicker it is the tastier the hog’ll be.”
He then got to a layer of membranes and slid his hand under each, working the knife behind it.
“Here is where you havta be real careful,” he said as he reached the last one. “Under here is nothing but guts. Puncture them an you gotta real mess.”
As he worked through the last membrane the boar’s organs began to emerge as did the ripeness of death. He made one final cut at the back of the incision to make it slightly larger.
“OK. Reach your hand in at the rear and start pulling out the guts.”
“Go ahead. Don’t be a fuckin pussy. Bacon doesn’t grow on trees.”
And I reached my arm, up to my elbow, into the warm carcass between its rear legs and began scooping the guts out.
“Good. Feel that last bit attached at the rear? Give it a good yank.”
And I did. It came free. Donald went to the front of the animal.
“OK, here I need to detach the diaphragm and then cut the esophagus. This is the only part that is really bloody.”
The boar gutted, we got a fallen branch, tying its legs to each end leaving enough room for the branch to rest on our shoulders and hauled it the 2 or 3 miles back to the truck. Halfway back the dogs caught another scent and were gone. We would not see them for 8 hours. Well after the boar was iced down, and the sun had set, there was still no sign of the dogs and we drove to a local diner to eat. Marvin and Donald ordered chicken-fried steak with a side of bacon and black coffee. I had the same. Food never tasted so good.
The dogs made it back right around sun up, tired and haggard, Honky with a gash the length of a beer can in his side. We started home. After a drive through Northern California’s early morning light, we hung the boar up in the Miller’s garage and skinned it. Marvin slammed a shot of Jack and splashed some on Honky’s wound as Donald and I held him down while Marvin stitched him up.
As I thanked them and started back across the street, Donald cut the tail off of the boar and gave it to me. I held the straight, bristly, hairy at the tip tail as I walked across the street, tired and dirty. I had learned a lot that day, about hunting, about myself and about our connection with food. I laid down and fell asleep, the boar’s tail still in my hand and dreams of bacon all through my head.
John Bovio holds a degree in the Culinary Arts from The Culinary Institute of America, where he was M.F.K. Fisher scholar two years in a row, and was one of the ten best student Chefs at the Aspen Food and Wine Festival, before graduating first in his class with the Brillat-Savarin medal of excellence. Bovio later worked as a Chef at Alinea, which received three Michelin stars, and then was Estate manager and Vineyard foreman for Hundred Acre wine estates, where all three of the vineyards under his supervision received perfect 100pt scores from Robert M. Parker Jr.