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21 february 2013
Katherine M. Rogers begins her global history of pork with a description of an inch-thick grilled pork chop served at the Iowa State Fair, "so tender that it can be cut with a plastic knife" (7). The sensory experience alone sounds worth driving to Iowa for. I don't eat many pork chops, but I might have to make an exception for one that defies the laws of physics.
Most of Rogers's agreeable book consists of cataloguing pork recipes in the European cookbook tradition that stretches from Apicius to Julia Child. Pork has been used more thoroughly, and in more versatile ways, than most animal meats. Certainly one can do a lot of things with beef, but pork appears in far more forms than the usual steaks, chops, loins, and mince. Curers of pork have created meats that end up very far from their fleshy origins, from prosciutto to sausage to bacon. Not to mention black pudding or scrapple: sanguine, sawdusty delights that don't bear much visual connection to their origins as pig.
Rogers deals early on with the taboos that several world religions have imposed on pork. All sorts of reasons have been floated to explain the proscriptions. Pigs just look unclean; they symbolize settled, even urban food economies; they are beasts of the masses, not of the religious elites; they seem anomalous and heteroclite. It's less likely that Jews or Muslims banned pork because of disease concerns. Trichinosis can be dealt with by cooking, in any event. Taboos rarely have functional explanations. As Rogers notes, the best way to think of them is that they separate "us" from "them." You can always get good ethnic animosities going over the issue of who will or won't eat what.
Then it's back to the recipe catalog. Rogers is at her best describing the various preserving mechanisms that have produced the world's great hams and sausages. And some of the world's less-distinguished hams and sausages. Head cheese and Spam are not about to get feature spreads in Food and Wine, but they are yet further examples of the endless possibilities of pork.
Rogers's purpose is to talk about how delicious the pig can be, not to be an advocate for better treatment of trotters. But some animal ethics can't help but creep in. Pigs are raised in foodlots; breeding sows undergo particularly nasty conditions. I worry more and more about ethical sourcing of meats, and I need to add what little pork I consume to my list of concerns.
Rogers, Katherine M. Pork: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2012.