Can consumption promote conservation? 

The term “gavage” describes the process of force-feeding an animal to make it fatter, like French farmers do to geese to produce fois gras. It came up in conversation at Cochon 555, a traveling food festival that hit Seattle in mid-March.

Cochon, held at the urbane and unremarkable Cedarbrook Lodge in SeaTac, was the picture of gluttony. Alongside pork dishes wrought from five different varieties of pigs served countless ways by five Northwest chefs, on hand was an oyster bar, a cheese bar, a tartar bar, a mescal bar, a Manhattan bar, five different wineries, a brewery, a cocktail competition and pork-infused desserts. Also an additional smoked pig for good measure. Four hundred patrons paid $125 or more to attend. Liquor distributors paid in the thousands.

At the entrance to the carpeted conference area where Cochon took place was a schedule of the afternoon. At the top it read, Your mission: Taste everything. Remember to vote.

More permutations of pork were present than was possible to taste in three and a half hours; the ones I sampled were all creatively prepared, delicious and deserving of detailed description that I won’t get into here. The voting was to select the event’s best chef. Jason Franey of Canlis took the prize and was crowned “Prince of Porc” as a food-woozy crowd cheered. He and his team, he said, spent months of personal time planning and prepping for this day.

Besides indulgence for the sake of it, Cochon purported an activist angle, raising awareness of small-farm heritage-breed pigs. Some American hogs come from bloodlines that are hundreds of years old. They’re raised humanely and organically over the course of years and slaughtered as mature adults—a much happier picture than factory farming, in which an animal can go from piglet to cutlet in a matter of months. The pigs at Cochon were all of various heritage breeds.

The event was heavily branded, not only by the presence of a couple dozen food and liquor sponsors but via Cochon t-shirts and aprons and whatnot. Despite an atmosphere of highbrow excess, Cochon never achieved Caligula-like grossness; the many food-industry pros in attendance, detached and bemused, balanced the eager civilians. My companion, Madison Park Conservatory chef Cormac Mahoney, called it “a foodie fashion show” and snapped surreptitious photos of people’s shoes the whole time.

Midway through the event, in the behind-the-scenes staging area, Cochon founder and organizer Brady Lowe arranged paper cones of pork fat-infused kettle corn on a long, wheeled table. “I love everybody who likes pig,” he said to nobody in particular.

An imposing, vaguely dangerous looking guy in a black sport coat, T-shirt and 5-o’clock shadow, Lowe addressed the crowd from the stage of Cedarbrook’s event hall several times. He introduced a couple of short films, one documenting his beloved heritage hogs, the other about a “heritage barbecue” event he’s starting in Memphis. With his swaggering, ruddy-faced enthusiasm for Cochon—its patrons, its participants, its energy—Lowe came off as a PT Barnum of pork products. His personal passion for authentic swine coincides with a quickly growing trend in conscientious conspicuous consumption, and his profile has boomed because of it.

I spent a few minutes talking with Lowe in the staging area, where I dropped a question on him that’s been on my mind, and not just in reference to elite food festivals: How can consumption promote conservation? The idea is everywhere right now and seems self-contradictory and blindly capitalistic.

“You gotta eat it to save it,” he answered, a line he’d clearly practiced. He went on to describe the necessity of genetic diversity in breeding healthy pigs. “Consumption is based, on some level, on how quickly you go through your pigs and how much sex [they] can have,” he said. Maybe we were talking about two different things. I pressed him on my admittedly heavy question. He threw out words like “community” and “networking” and “business.”

“It’s an intuitive conversation that people are trying to figure out right now because it’s never existed,” he said.

It was true: Conversation flowed freely at Cochon, only partially stifled as we gavage-d ourselves into awareness.

Photo by Cormac Mahoney.