I had the opportunity to hunt whitetail deer in south Texas recently, and while I did see some nifty bucks, I didn’t shoot one. I did, however, shoot a javelina, and to be honest, I was more excited about that than about any of the deer I saw. Not that I don’t love deer hunting, but I can hunt deer all over the continent. Javelina are special, living only in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.
I know, I know. I can hear some of you groaning. Skunk pigs? Seriously? Seriously. Walk with me for a moment.
Part of my fascination is the animal itself, which is every bit as unique in North America as is the enigmatic pronghorn. But mostly I wanted to test the conventional “wisdom” that javelina are inedible. I felt in my bones that this was bullshit, cowboy snootiness derived from the fact that the little piggies rub themselves all over with a scent gland on their backs to make sure everyone in the herd smells just right. And yeah, that scent is musky, in a men’s locker room kinda way.
But I’d seen my friends Andrew Zimmern and Steve Rinella eat them with no complaints, and many of my friends in New Mexico and Arizona tell me they love them. It was only in Texas where they held an unsavory reputation.
I am happy to report that the myth of the inedible javelina is indeed just that: a myth. The javie I shot in the rain that day tasted fantastic slow cooked as cochinita pibil, a Yucatecan dish with lots of achiote and citrus; more on that in the next post. What’s more, I grilled the backstraps and tenderloins over mesquite to a solid medium and they were epic. Epic, I tell you. As in, screw venison, I want this every day.
Let’s start with a bit more on the animal. A javelina is a New World pig, Tayassu tajacu in Latin. More specifically this is a collared peccary; there are two, maybe three other species of New World pig wandering around in Central and South America. A long time ago there was a common ancestor to the javelina and the pigs we all know and love as bacon, but they diverged about 40 million years ago by most reckonings. To put that in perspective, higher primates like us were just getting started back then.
So yeah, javies are related to pigs, but only in a galactic sense.
Javelina aren’t large. Eighty pounds is a monster, and mine was closer to 45 pounds. They can’t see worth a damn, having a hard time focusing past 100 yards. Their hearing is OK, but ours is better. Where they excel is their nose; javelina have an excellent sense of smell. They like to wander around in family groups of between 10 and 50, and are more or less mellow unless provoked. If threatened, they will let you know why the Spanish named them for their javelin-like canine teeth, which are truly ferocious.
Their diet gives us a clue about how they’d taste. Short version: Awesome, and here’s why — javelina are vegetarians by choice. Sure, they’ll eat dead birds and carrion and bugs, but several studies have shown that animal matter comprises just 1 percent of a peccary’s diet. Humans in general prefer to eat herbivores first, omnivores — like true pigs — second, and carnivores, third. So this fact alone would suggest that a javelina will taste at least as good as pork, if not better.
What sort of plants does Gregory Peccary like? (If you get that reference, you win a prize) By all accounts, the thing they love best are prickly pear cacti. They also love to eat mesquite beans, as well as those of palo verde, lupines and ironwood. They like other cacti, too, and use those teeth to hammer underground tubers, rhizomes and bulbs. They’re big fans of acorns when they can find them. Note that nothing in this list can possibly lend itself to a bad-tasting animal, especially considering that pretty much everything javelina eat humans do, too.
If you want to read more about javelinas from a biologist’s point of view, there’s a cool .pdf on them from the Texas Dept. of Wildlife, and another excellent webpage on them done by the National Park Service. And there’s a whole website devoted to hunting javelina called, as you might expect, javelinahunter.com.
Now. About that smell.
The javie I shot had absolutely no odor. None. Yes, it was a sow, but still. The second javelina, shot by my host so I could bring one home to experiment with, also had no real odor other than your typical dead pig smell, which isn’t lovely, but nor is it so revolting I’d want to toss the thing. It was nothing like the boar taint you’ll smell on an old boar hog, that’s for sure.
Everyone told me to watch out for the scent gland on the small of the back. So I did. When I got around there with my skinning knife, I was very, very careful… for no reason. The scent gland is basically in the skin. Skinning the animal as you would any other was perfectly fine. Yes, I made sure I did not grab the area of the scent glad to pull the hide down, but nor was it tricky to get past it. In short, dealing with the scent gland was no biggie.
If you are extra worried about the odor on the hair getting on the meat, wear a pair of gloves while skinning, then toss those gloves when you gut and butcher — or wear a second pair.
A second pair of gloves may not be a bad idea, as javelina are known to carry salmonella. According to this study, javelina can also carry E. coli bacteria, although not the nasty E. coli 0157 that can really mess you up. But fascinatingly, an extensive search of the scientific and health literature found no record of peccaries ever carrying the trichinae larvae that can cause trichinosis. (Here’s one study that tried to locate it, but came up with nothing.) No trich in javelina? Interesting. Only explanation I can think of is how small a percentage animal matter is in a javie’s diet. Vegetarians rarely carry the parasite — omnivores and carnivores do.
Bottom line: Eat your javelina. And cook it like domestic pork, to which it is related. And since there is no evidence of trichinae in javelina, that means you should be able to serve the meat at an interior temperature of 145°F, which is cooked, but with a lovely blush of pink.
The meat is light colored, very lean and the shoulders and hams lend itself to slow-cooker or Dutch oven cookery. Think pulled pork and you’re on the right track. The backstraps are excellent grilled or seared to a solid medium.
Since it lives in Mexico, South America and our own Desert Southwest, it’s a natural to go there in terms of cuisine. Chile verde, mole, pit cooking, that sort of thing. No reason to stay there, though, as any sort of slow-cooked pork dish would work with a javelina. Southern pulled pork BBQ would be damn good. Maybe a Hawaiian luau?
My one piece of advice on cooking javelina that differs from pork is its need of fat: Javelina are super lean, so always add some fat when you pull the meat. I like pork lard or duck fat, but any sort of yummy fat, whipped or stirred into the pulled meat and sauce will do wonders.