By serving mulefoot pork on his menus, Boulder chef Eric Skokan is helping save a heritage breed.
It all started in 2008 when Eric Skokan, the owner of Boulder’s farm-to-table restaurants Black Cat Bistro and Bramble & Hare, had too many turnips in his fall harvest. “I put turnips in every dish and fed them to the employees every night—and still had a truckload left over,” Skokan says. “I thought, ‘If only I had a pig, I could feed it all these turnips.’ ”
And so the research for a breed of pig that would do well in Colorado began. Skokan discovered that mulefoots—named for their syndactyl (fused) hooves that resemble a mule’s—are extremely hardy. The hog, which has a dark coat to help prevent sunburn and provide warmth, also has a long and storied history: In the early 1900s, hundreds of mulefoot farms dotted the country. By 1985, however, commercial hog farms had become the norm, and the mulefoot breeding stock had slipped to fewer than 100 in the United States. Hard work from a few dedicated breeders has, according to Skokan, brought the number up to about 1,000. But what sold Skokan was the mulefoot’s superior flavor profile.
“If you’re fat-phobic, don’t even bother tasting it,” Skokan says. Indeed, commercial hogs have been bred to produce large, lean chops, and clever marketing has led calorie-counting Americans to think of pork as something more akin to chicken than, well, pig. Mulefoot pork is dark, rich, and marbled—almost like beef—and much juicier. “People have one bite and invariably say ‘wow.’ ”
One of Skokan’s hogs won the judge’s table at the Cochon 555 competition—arguably the most important pork event in the nation—at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen in 2012. And he says the more people taste and order the pork, the more they say they want to get involved in preserving the breed. “Ironically,” Skokan says, while stroking the floppy ears of a curious piglet, “the best way to help save the mulefoot is to eat it.”