There was a time, some years ago, when I worked at Alice Waters’ famed restaurant Chez Panisse. Each afternoon, if our chef had no concrete assignments, we cooks would peel garlic as we caucused in true Berkeley fashion to determine who would work on what for dinner. An informal system for making headway was in place: Inevitably, while discussing a dish, someone would suggest, “How about doing some braised bacon with the beans?” or, “We could wrap the monkfish in some pancetta … ” By invoking the pig, that cook had placed dibs on the course. She had “called bacon on it.”
The pig has powerful mojo in the world of cooking. We enjoy eating every bit of it: flesh, blood, and skin. We adore it for its versatility—for its fat, for the way it flusters anhedonists. One of the chicest things a chef or committed foodie can do today is pick up a whole pig from an organic farm and portion it out, cooking its defrosted chops and trotters for months to come. Perhaps that is why, over the past year or so, I have noticed the development of what I call the piggy confessional.
In the piggy confessional, a dead pig—usually killed, butchered, or eaten by the author—provokes a meditation on the ethics and aesthetics of eating. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma,Michael Pollan hunts and bags a wild pig. At the time of the kill, he reeled with disgust, but he later found a circle-of-life resolution in a meal of it. There is also Peter Kaminsky’s wonderful 2005 eulogy to the ham, Pig Perfect;and in his cooking memoir Heat, Bill Buford studiously dissects a whole pig that he hauled from the green market to his apartment. On TV, tough guys Anthony Bourdain and Gordon Ramsay have both broken down after watching pigs die (in Bourdain’s case, at the tip of a spear he was wielding). On the Web, Seattle chef Tamara Murphy documented the life of a litter of pigs from birth to banquet. And in a less culinary mood, both Pete Wells, the new dining editor at the New York Times,who wrote a 2005 piece for Oxford American, and Nathanael Johnson, who wrote for Harper’s in May, have offered harrowing glimpses at the lives of industrial pigs—raised in secrecy and so alienated from their brethren that some have died of shock after a door slam.
Why pigs? Unless you abstain, pork is hard not to love. From the crackle of its skin to the strange chew of an ear, from the velvety threads of pork shoulder in confit to the blood that fills a minerally black sausage, pigs are edibility incarnate. (Of course, other animals are consumed in their entirety, and Asian cuisines more fully embrace meaty esoterica like beef tendon, duck tongues, and chicken feet, but here, we are more likely to eat odd bits of a pig than other animals.) Chefs of the pro-offal school idolize London chef Fergus Henderson, whose cookbook The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eatingis a manifesto of sorts, with recipes for pig’s head and spleen that function as a form of tribute to the dead animals we eat. “It would seem disingenuous to the animal,” writes Henderson, “not to make the most of the whole beast: there is a set of delights, textural and flavorsome, which lie beyond the filet.” And so a sensitive-butcher aesthetic has developed, with respect for the animal emerging at knife’s tip. Henderson applies it to all manner of beasts, but it is a pig that graces the cover of his book, and it is only for a pig that he provides both recipes for the nose and tail of the subtitle.
The rampant edibility of a pig doesn’t begin to explain its symbolism, though. Why does swine seem to carry more weight among food writers than cows or chickens? Why, for that matter, are there so many symbolic pigs in fiction, particularly message-heavy children’s and young-adult literature? Think about the various sacrificial pigs in Animal Farm, A Day No Pigs Would Die, Lord of the Flies, and Charlotte’s Web, opening this week as a live-action movie. (Speaking of movies, there is the magnificent Babe, which conceals a dark meditation on the soul of the farm beneath a dreamy pastoral fantasy.) Pigs, it seems, are inclined to serve as a grunting mirror of our own beastliness.
Part of it, no doubt, is the whole Leviticus (and Deuteronomy) thing—those biblical passages that define pork as taboo for believers. While pigs have been cultivated by humankind for ages (one theory in Kaminsky’s book suggests that pigs were the first domesticated food animals), somewhere along the line, as made explicit in the Old Testament, and later in the Quran, they became taboo in the Middle East. Why?
There is the old trichinosis theory, which posits that pigs were a source of the disease, but that has been largely discredited. One of my favorite justifications—at its heart hedonistic—is that since pork was the fattiest, most delicious meat, it was prohibited to steer the weak willed away from gluttony. In her book Purity and Danger, anthropologist Mary Douglas says that because pigs are cloven hoofed, but not ruminants like cows, they veered from the ancient Israelite conception of wholeness and holiness, and as such, were deemed untouchable.
Regardless of the source of the laws, Jews had a hard time disentangling themselves from swine. In European society, the very thing that Jews assiduously avoided became associated with them in the most hateful of anti-Semitic practices and images. In her book The Singular Beast: Jews, Christians, and the Pig, French anthropologist Claudine Fabre-Vassas exhaustively documents how Jews were taunted—19th-century French boys twisted the edge of their garments into what looked like pigs’ ears, shook them, and grunted at Jews in the street, and more gruesomely, in the Middle Ages, Jews convicted of murder were hung upside down, like dead pigs.
Even today, a secular Jew like David Rakoff views pork differently than other meats. In perhaps my favorite piggy confessional of the year (buried in a writerly supplement to Gourmet), he writes that of all treyf, the pig packs more symbolic weight than other proscribed foods. “Shellfish is nowhere near as freighted as pork. Many a Dungeness devotee would never dream of touching swine.” Rakoff loves pork, but it is a sad mnemonic: “As a Jew Who Eats Pork, extolling the boundless perfection of the baby pig at Great N.Y. Noodletown on the Bowery necessarily requires a simultaneous split second of silent acknowledgement along with my blithe rhapsody that this is the meat of my grim history. Otherwise, I’d just be a guy eating pork.”
Beyond Biblical prohibition, there is the sense that as much as they can disgust us, pigs are rather like us, too. Among regularly eaten beasts, pigs are probably the closest to human. They’re intelligent, social, relatively unfurry—and they resemble us on the inside. When Pollan looks at his dead pig in the woods, he is swept with revulsion. “I’d handled plenty of viscera in the chickens I’d gutted on Joel’s farm, but this was different and more disturbing, probably because the pig’s internal organs … looked exactly like human organs. Which is why, as I recalled, surgeons hone their skills by operating on pigs.” Indeed, the boundary between human and porcine seems uncomfortably blurred in folk and literary traditions across the centuries: Odysseus’ gang was turned into pigs by Circe, a baby turns into a piglet (shown here on a baby tee) in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and chef-pig statuettes are a not-insignificant category among kitsch collectibles.
This ambiguous quasi-human quality, coupled with an ancient tradition of taboo, is what makes pigs so symbolically rich. While the animal rights movement may garner its biggest headlines with luxury products like foie gras and caviar (although this comix pamphlet is pretty harrowing), for the philosophical foodie, there seems to be more resonance—a certain gallows empathy—in examining the death of the far more ordinary pig.
Thanks to Bruce Cole of Edible San Francisco and Peter Parshall at the National Gallery of Art for their bibliographical help.