Taste the Past: Sharing Meals and a Rich Heritage

Farm To Table

While I was growing up in rural Northwest Ohio as part of a farming family, life seemed to revolve around food. Meals were the time when everyone took a break from their work to get together and share not only food but lively conversation about everything that was going on that day. Family get-togethers were often prefaced by menu planning, discussions about who was in charge of bringing certain dishes, and talks of whether or not ice cream would be needed (it always was). The kitchen wasn’t just a place to cook – it was a meeting place where people would stand around while snacking and connect with each other. As you can imagine, all this has led me to have a deep appreciation for food and the ways that it can bring people together.

Peach rhubarb pie

I carried this passion with me when I began working at Conner Prairie. Early on, I loved to bring in cookies or other goodies that I had baked to share with the rest of the Agriculture (Ag) Team. Before long, we as a team, started having periodic office picnics in the style of a potluck where we would all bring something to share. We used these lunches to try out some of the meat products that came from right here at Conner Prairie so that we had a better idea of how to market them to the public. I jumped at the chance to claim the informal title of “Head Chef of the Ag Team” (unbeknownst to my team) and offered to cook up the main courses. These dishes I created came with a special twist though — the animals we raise are rare heritage breeds.

Me doing food prep for dinner

What are Heritage Breeds?

Heritage breeds are the types of livestock that were raised by early settlers in America. These animals fed, clothed, and worked for our ancestors and were selectively bred to be well-suited to local regions, surviving and thriving in environments much different from modern farms we see today. Subsequently, they have qualities and genetic traits that aren’t found anywhere else in the world and represent a huge asset to biodiversity. However, as agriculture evolved throughout time more productive breeds were developed, causing these heritage breeds to fall out of favor and leaving them in danger of going extinct.

English Longhorn cattle

Conner Prairie is working to preserve five such rare breeds — English Longhorn cattle, Arapawa goats, Tunis sheep, Ossabaw hogs, and American rabbits. Each brings with it an array of traits that makes them special, and each represents a species of livestock that would have been very important to Indiana settlers in the 1800s and onward. A main job of Conner Prairie’s Ag Team is to promote these breeds, and one of the ways that we do this is to use some of these animals in the food chain.

Eat ’em to save ’em

Now, you’re probably wondering: if these animals are so rare, why are we eating any of them? Wouldn’t we want to save them all? On the contrary, entering the food chain is a necessary part of the survival of any livestock breed that produces meat for us. By finding a niche market for these heritage products, higher demand for these animals is created and more animals of that breed can be raised. And with more buzz around these rare breeds, more farmers will hopefully be interested in raising them as well, securing them for the future.

Why try heritage meats?

Heritage breeds typically grow slower and are less readily available in stores than modern commercial breeds, so why are their products worth trying?

Ossabaw hog loin roast

Ossabaw hogs have the extraordinary ability to put on thick layers of fat, a trait which sustained them on Ossabaw Island during seasons when food was scarce. This same trait makes them highly valuable in the world of cooking, as the fat carries rich, complex flavors into the pork. One of my favorite dishes to cook is sausage gravy and biscuits, and Ossabaw sausage has made this meal even more savory. While the sausage is browning, a pool of almost crystal-clear lard simmers down into the pan — a perfect fat to use in making a flavorful roux which will thicken the gravy.

Carving Ossabaw hog loin roast

Grass-fed beef has gained a lot of momentum in the past years, mostly due to the health benefits it offers. Most cattle, when raised on an all-grass diet, produce leaner beef that’s higher in omega-3 fatty acids. This comes with trade-offs, though, as the fat marbling in beef is a large part of the quality and palatability of the meat. English Longhorn cattle, however, offer a middle ground: historically they were developed to be laid-back, self-sufficient, yet productive cattle on pasture and as a result produce beef that’s well marbled even though they grow slower and don’t put on as much external fat as some other cattle breeds. The final product? Delicious grass-fed steaks that don’t sacrifice anything when it comes to flavor and tenderness.

While these are just two of the many heritage breeds that exist in the world, they stand as prime examples of what adding them into the kitchen can offer. Each heritage breed is fully unique, specially bred to meet the needs of the people who raised them throughout history. As a result, the flavors, textures, and qualities they pack are unlike anything else that can be found in the grocery store. Although the production of these foods may be slower, that extra time allows us to stop and appreciate the long history and hard work that goes into each bite.

Farm to table

Inspired by reflections I had while writing this article, I recently hosted a dinner party in honor of all the office picnics we’ve had in my tenure on the Ag Team. The main course for the night was a loin roast from one of our own Ossabaw hogs which we all played a hand in raising. Throughout the night we got to enjoy each other’s company, recounting memorable moments we’ve shared on the job and appreciating the hard work that we all put into making the food in front of us.

Ag team enjoying dinner together

That’s exactly what I love about heritage breeds, though: their journey from farm to table is one that makes me pause to appreciate their rich history and really connect with the people with which I get to share the meal. Looking back, I don’t think I realized two and a half years ago when I started at Conner Prairie how blessed I was to have the opportunity to work with these heritage animals or how much closer they would bring me to the wonderful people I get to call my coworkers.

About the Author

Ryan King is a Livestock & Agricultural Specialist at Conner Prairie. Along with the rest of the Ag Team, he works to educate guests at Conner Prairie about the conservation of rare heritage breeds. When not at Conner Prairie, he spends his time baking, playing volleyball, hiking, and listening to music.