An enlightening culinary history of an “uncanny beast.”
Essig (Edison and the Electric Chair, 2004, etc.) begins his sprightly tale 65 million years ago, when a giant meteor crashed into the Earth. The climate changed, dinosaurs died, and mammals began to diversify. Ten million years later, the first hoofed animals appeared, pigs among them. Impressively adaptable, they could search out food with a sensitive snout, and they ate everything, ensuring survival in all manner of terrain and climates. Unfortunately, everything included scavenged corpses and human excrement, which led to their being shunned as impure by certain groups: upper-class Egyptians in the fifth century B.C., for example, and Jews. Ancient Greeks and Romans, though, revered pigs, sacrificing them to their gods and feasting on them. Easily preserved, pig meat became a staple of medieval kitchens; lard gave its name to a household’s pantry, or larder. Essig makes a convincing case for the importance of the pig in European economies and forays into the New World. Because pigs breed so easily, have a short gestation period, and can successfully forage for food, explorers’ ships contained many sows and boars, which could be deposited on land and left to themselves. From a pair or two, scores of pigs were ready as food for future settlers. By the 19th century, Midwestern American farmers discovered a perfect match between the “breathtaking amount of corn” they grew and the pigs they wanted to fatten. Wheat was raised for humans; corn was fed to cattle and hogs. The author engagingly traces the change in meat production as family farms transformed into giant factories, where pigs are packed into crate-sized pens, antibiotics have become routine, and waste from pig farms pollutes water and land. Although the pork industry “claims that confinement barns are perfect for the animals,” environmentalists, animal rights groups, and, increasingly, concerned consumers press for change.
A lively, informative farm-to-table feast.