For all the demanding eaters Jesse Sandlin has dealt with during her 30 years in the restaurant industry, there’s one that’s truly an animal.
During a hunger-inspired rampage one evening, this girl knocked dozens of houseplants on the floor, leaving a wake of pottery shards and dirt in Sandlin’s Baltimore rowhome. “She’ll wake up in the morning and knock tables and chairs over,” demanding food. One time, Sandlin said, “She ate my couch. Ate the f---ing couch.”
That “she” is Fernie, one of two mini pigs that Sandlin, the chef and owner of Sally O’s, Bunny’s and The Dive, has owned for nearly a decade. The other, more reserved pig is Olli Speck, named for a sausage company and a type of bacon. (Fernie’s full name is Dylan Fernet, after Bob and the drink).
Today, the swine share Sandlin’s East Baltimore rowhome with her, partner Peter Enny, two English bulldogs, a cat and a betta fish named Chicken that Sandlin admits doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. The sound of animals heavily breathing acts like a white noise machine in the house. Sandlin and Enny seem to find it comforting. “I thrive in chaos,” Sandlin said. “I’ve been working in restaurants for 30 years.”
Enny, too, enjoys the hubbub. He pauses “Mean Girls,” which he was viewing in preparation to host a trivia night at The Dive, the bar he co-owns with Sandlin and their business partners Brian Acquavella and Matt Ackman. He wipes a hair remover atop the surface of an ottoman in the kind of unconscious cleanup motion a pet owner or parent performs approximately 1,000 times a day in a Sisyphean effort to tidy up after creatures that live to make a mess. The biggest challenge to keeping mini pigs, Enny said, is cleaning up after them. “He’s not a super fan of the pigs,” Sandlin said later.
Sandlin’s journey into pig ownership began years ago, when she was living on a farm and looking for a low-maintenance pet that would be both hypoallergenic — to accommodate her then-boyfriend, who was allergic to dogs — and low-maintenance enough to survive her long hours away as a chef. But even though the pigs are trained to use a litter box, “they are more work than people think,” Sandlin said.
Their intelligence can turn into manipulation, she said. As a baby, Olli figured out how to jump over a baby gate to sleep in Sandlin’s bed.
The phrase “mini pig” is also misleading. Both Fernie and Olli weigh around 150 pounds, the maximum allowed weight for a pig to be kept as a pet, according to regulations from the Baltimore City Health Department. Owners must get a permit, and there are rules for what type of breed is allowed. There are just eight pig permits on file, according to a spokesman for the department.
Fernie is overweight, Sandlin said, but it’s hard to put her on a diet since she’s such a pain when she’s hungry. “I get it,” Sandlin said. “She gets hangry.” She and Olli mostly eat pellet-shaped pet food from a farm in Pennsylvania and a variety of vegetables. Olli liked to eat the tomatoes Sandlin grew in a home garden; Fernie, of course, would rip the plants straight out of the ground. “So we just stopped planting tomatoes,” Sandlin said.
Of all her pets, it’s the pigs that make Sandlin a somewhat reluctant part of what she refers to as “the pig community.” There are groups on Facebook and Instagram. There’s a mini pig association that aims, among other things, to “encourage responsible mini pig ownership.” And when you own pigs, people tend to buy you all kinds of pig decor, including paintings and figurines that Sandlin has around the house.
But Sandlin has her limits: “I don’t go to mini pig meetings.”
The bulldogs, Holly and Dozier, mostly get along with the pigs, but they also have their limits. “In the pig community,” Sandlin said, “you’re never supposed to leave pigs and dogs alone together.” Pig squeals can sound like someone being murdered and can get the dogs “riled up.” And pigs, forever the prey animal, tend to squeal a lot, like when their hooves are being trimmed by the traveling farrier who comes to the house every few months to do the job.
Building trust with a pig takes time. Constraints make them feel like they’re being attacked, meaning it can be hard to throw them on a leash and take them for a walk. Fortunately, Fernie and Olli “like the comfort of the house.”
When she heads to work, if Enny isn’t around, Sandlin keeps Fernie and Olli in their own private bedroom, where they’re content to cool themselves in the air conditioning — they hate water — and dig their noses through layers of blankets. “They’re bougie,” Sandlin said. (She has never put lipstick on a pig, but she did try to paint Fernie’s hooves. It didn’t go well.) They pull apart whatever pillows Sandlin leaves for them, leaving balls of fuzz on the floor. “I almost bought them a child’s bed.” Knowing Fernie, she would eat it.
There are people in the world who can’t eat pork because they saw the movie “Babe,” or read “Charlotte’s Web.” But Sandlin doesn’t find that keeping pigs as pets has made her any less likely to enjoy pig products or serve them in her restaurants. On the menu at Bunny’s, you’ll find cassoulet with pork belly, or a brunch burger served with bacon. Years ago, Sandlin ran a restaurant on Exeter Street. It was Oliver Speck’s, a barbecue joint she named after her pet pig. “Kinda morbid,” she reflects.
Could she eat her own pigs someday? “I think they would be delicious,” Sandlin said. “But I couldn’t do that.”