Lesser Beasts: A Snout-to-Tail History of the Humble Pig

BOOK: Lesser Beasts: A Snout-to-Tail History of the Humble Pig

More Advance Praise for

Lesser Beasts

“Mark Essig tells a fine tale of the unsung exploits of the lowly pig, from the age of the pyramids and the wars of the conquistadors to the awful abattoirs and trendy restaurants of today. With clear prose and careful research, he redeems an animal that has played a seminal role in human history while enduring near universal disdain. This fascinating book provides a marvelous antidote to our unexamined views on the pig.” —Andrew Lawler, author of
Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? The Epic Saga of the Bird That Powers Civilization

Lesser Beasts
is a delightful romp through porcine history from the Neolithic era to the present. Mark Essig offers surprising answers to the question of why humans have had such a love-hate affair with the humble pig, and unveils many other unexpected insights. Well written and well researched,
Lesser Beasts
is a must for historians, pork lovers, and anyone who just loves a good read.” —Andrew F. Smith, editor-in-chief,
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America

Lesser Beasts



A Snout-to-Tail History of the Humble Pig

Mark Essig

A Member of the Perseus Books Group

New York

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Essig

Published by Basic Books,A Member of the Perseus Books Group

All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For information, address Basic Books, 250 West 57th Street, 15th floor, New York, NY 10107.

Books published by Basic Books are available at special discounts for bulk purchases in the United States by corporations, institutions, and other organizations. For more information, please contact the Special Markets Department at the Perseus Books Group, 2300 Chestnut Street, Suite 200, Philadelphia, PA 19103, or call (800) 810-4145, ext. 5000, or e-mail
[email protected]

Designed by Pauline Brown

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Essig, Mark, 1969–

Lesser beasts : a snout-to-tail history of the humble pig / Mark Essig.

pages cm

Includes index.

ISBN 978-0-465-04068-1 (e-book) 1. Swine—History. 2. Pork— History. I. Title.

SF395.E64 2015



10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

For Melissa, Jack, and Lydia

“Cattle country” calls up instant visions of distant mountains and wind-swept plains leading off to nowhere and cattle grazing on slopes and tattooed men in wide-brim hats gathered around a fire with their horses standing stalwartly in the background. . . . But who, among the teeming city masses, knows about “hog country”? Who knows where lies that land?

—William Hedgepeth,
The Hog Book

“Humble?” said Charlotte. “‘Humble’ has two meanings. It means ‘not proud’ and it means ‘near the ground.’ That’s Wilbur all over. He’s not proud and he’s near the ground.”

—E. B. White,
Charlotte’s Web


The Magical Animal

n a trip through the North Carolina mountains in 1878, Virginia newspaper editor James Cowardin found himself surrounded by thousands of pigs. “Hogs were before us and behind us, and both to the right and to the left of us,” Cowardin wrote. “There was whipping and shouting and twisting and turning” as the swineherds yelled, “Suey!” “Suey!” “Get out!” “Suey hogs!” “D—d devil take the swine!”
Cowardin too cursed the pigs at first, but once he settled into the rhythm of the road, he began to daydream about following his “grunting friends” to their destination and enjoying a pig slaughter feast: “What luxury in spare ribs, backbone, and sausage we would have,” he fantasized, “not to mention pigs’ tails broiled on hot rocks!”

The flesh of Cowardin’s traveling companions, though, was destined for other stomachs. He had stumbled upon a seasonal
movement of livestock that had been happening each winter for half a century. The swine had been fattened in eastern Tennessee, a fertile farming region with many pigs and few people. A couple of hundred miles away lay the plantations of the South, which didn’t raise much food. Planters preferred to grow cotton, sell it for cash, and buy pork to feed their slaves (or, after the Civil War, their sharecroppers and tenant farmers). The hog supply was in Tennessee, the demand in South Carolina and Georgia, and in between lay the Blue Ridge mountains. No rivers or railroads connected the two, so there was only one way to move the hogs: on foot.

Hog droving, as the practice was known, formed an essential link in the global economy. In peak years as many as 150,000 hogs made the journey on this single turnpike, and many other mountain routes also carried pigs from upland farms to the Deep South. The pork fed the slaves, who raised the cotton, which supplied textile mills in New England and Great Britain, which made the fabric that clothed the world. And it all depended on a few men herding hogs through a narrow river valley cutting through the mountains of North Carolina.

first learned of hog drives in 2007, not long after my family and I settled in those mountains. A historical marker revealed that “livestock drovers” once traversed a road near our home in Asheville, North Carolina. I had thought cattle drives happened on the Great Plains, not in the mountains, so I headed to the library, where I read books on local history, scanned microfilm of nineteenth-century newspapers, and searched Google Books for old runs of defunct farming magazines. And I discovered the strange truth: most of the animals herded through Asheville had been not cows or even sheep but pigs.

The story of these pigs, I learned, was even etched into the landscape: a local farmer showed me a spot on his land where an old drovers’ road is still visible, a deep trench cut into the clay soil by decades of wagon wheels and sharp little hooves. Think of it: pig drives! Like cattle drives, only stranger! Who knew a pig could walk that far or would travel in the desired direction?
Apparently not many people: I read a 2006 article by a prominent archaeologist, a specialist in livestock, who baldly insisted that pigs “cannot be driven.” The historical record suggests that pigs can indeed be driven. In fact, if you gave them a few lessons and a specially designed steering wheel, I wouldn’t be surprised if pigs could drive.

At about this time I started teaching journalism at Warren Wilson College, a liberal arts school that also operates a farm. The animals live on pasture, and nutrients cycle from the soil into crops, from crops into the mouths of animals, and from animal manure back into the soil. I observed this cycle firsthand one day each week when I volunteered on the pig crew. Working alongside students, I scraped manure, topped up feeders, clipped the milk teeth of newborn piglets, and castrated the young males. I spent a lot of time just watching: a dominant sow chasing off her weaker sisters to get first dibs at the trough; enormous boars, rendered bowlegged by their cantaloupe-sized testicles, hoisting themselves atop sows in heat; young pigs scattering across the pasture as I approached, then returning to sniff and prod at my boots with their snouts. A boar known as Gucci—the students made the most of their naming duties—would prop his front legs on the wall of his pen and gaze around the farmyard contentedly, a lord surveying his estate. The pigs were by turns curious, surly, skittish, and playful. They were the most fascinating creatures in the barnyard, brainy and fully alive.

I headed back to the library and began following the trail of the pig around the world and back into prehistory. I met
all kinds of swine: wild boar that lurked around Neolithic villages to scavenge garbage and gradually domesticated themselves; the outcast pigs of ancient Israelites and their neighbors, rejected as unclean; the beloved fat white swine of the Roman Empire, sacrificed to the gods and roasted whole for banquets; the rangy forest hogs of medieval Europe and colonial America, thriving under conditions of utter neglect and helping pioneers tame new land; the low-bellied pigs of the Chinese, kept in tiny sties, growing fat on rice bran and other farm wastes; the urban pigs of England and America, living in backyard sties or roaming city streets, providing the poor with their only source of meat; the hybrid Chinese-European swine of the nineteenth-century Corn Belt, turning corn into meat on a tight ratio and providing protein for an urbanizing nation; and, finally, the pigs of modern agribusiness, raised in windowless metal sheds, dining on a precisely calibrated blend of corn, soy, and antibiotics, producing cheap meat to feed the world.

The 10,000-year history of the domestic pig is a tale of both love and loathing. A prodigious producer of meat—chubby bulwark against human malnutrition, centerpiece of medieval feasting and southern barbecue, precious mother-source of bacon—the pig has just as often met with contempt. For thousands of years, many people have either refused pork entirely or approached it with extreme caution.

The problem of the pig seems especially relevant today. At a time when choosing food is more complicated than ever—when buying a pork chop raises thorny questions about the environment, public health, workers’ rights, and animal welfare—it makes sense to take a look back at what has been, for several thousand years, the most controversial of foods. Why do pigs provoke feelings of disgust? Why have so many people rejected
pork? The answers to those questions lie deep in the past, tangled up in the biology of people and pigs, in shifting environmental and economic conditions, and in the ways people find meaning in the foods they eat.

igs “were generally recognized as being the cleverest of animals,” George Orwell writes in
Animal Farm
, where the pigs take charge of the barnyard and declare themselves “more equal than” their fellow beasts. Science justifies that arrogance. Studies show that pigs can figure out how mirrors work and use them to scan the landscape for a meal.
A pig that knows where food is cached will delay its gratification until no other pigs are present and then enjoy the meal by itself. It can learn to perform tasks—open a cage, turn a heater on and off, play video games—more quickly than nearly any other animal.
Animal scientist Temple Grandin reports that in barns that use electronic collars to dispense individual portions of food, sows who find a stray collar on the ground will carry it to the food dispenser to steal a second helping.

The ancients recognized pig intelligence.
Pliny the Elder claimed that pigs aboard a listing ship would scramble to the higher side to balance the cargo.
Sows have been trained to hunt truffles since Babylonian times, though they have a habit of rooting up the prize for their own enjoyment.
In early nineteenth-century England, a black sow bearing the unfortunate name Slut—the word also meant “filthy”—worked as a pointer alongside her owner’s hunting dogs. At about the same time, London theaters staged performances by trained pigs who told the time, spelled words, and solved math problems. “
Pigs are a race unjustly calumniated,” Samuel Johnson observed. “We do not allow time for his education; we kill him at a year old.”

Toby was one of many “learned pigs” who spelled words and solved math problems onstage in England and America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Such performances functioned as burlesque—the lowly swine displaying higher mental powers—but also betrayed an anxiety that the beasts we eat might be nearly as smart as we are.

The pig’s intelligence, however, generally failed to alter its fate. In one twentieth-century vaudeville act, the pigs at a certain point would refuse to do tricks.
The trainer, dressed as a butcher, began sharpening a large knife, whereupon the pigs did a double-take and sprang back into action. The joke cut close to home: nearly all such performers made their final appearance on the dinner table.
The first pig to play Arnold Ziffel, star of the television series
Green Acres
, ended up as pork chops in his trainer’s freezer.

leverness has never been the pig’s primary value to human beings. Nearly every society has placed a high value on meat.
In one convenient package, it provides high-quality protein, fat, vitamins, and trace minerals, all necessary for survival.
Our bodies crave meat, and our minds scheme to acquire it. Although humans can satisfy all their nutritional needs by eating plants, most of us prefer not to. Instead, we feed plants to animals and then eat the animals, and we do not seem to mind that this process is costly and complicated. People have fought wars, conquered lands, destroyed landscapes, and exchanged great wealth to satisfy their deep hunger for meat. When it is scarce—and in large societies meat has been scarce until recent times—only the wealthiest eat it. When poor people begin to earn a bit more money, they spend it on meat. “
Those who could, gorged themselves,” one historian has written of early modern Europe. “Those who couldn’t, aimed to.”

More often than not, the most readily available meat was pork. That was due partly to the pig’s versatile diet. Whereas cows and sheep must live on pasture, eating grass, pigs, like people, are omnivores. They will eat corn in the field, garbage on city streets, kitchen slop in backyard sties, whey in dairy barns, acorns in forests, and mollusks on tropical beaches.

Self-sufficiency added to the pig’s appeal. Give pigs plenty of food and they’ll loll about the sty and grow fat. Take the food away and they’ll slip into the woods and fend for themselves. When explorers in the sixteenth century encountered uninhabited islands, they would drop a boar and a few sows on shore—sort of like tossing a handful of seeds into a jungle and expecting a vegetable garden to grow. Except that it worked. Left alone, the island pigs survived and multiplied, providing a bountiful food supply for the next passing ship. Swine served the same function closer to home. Well into the twentieth century, many American farmers turned their pigs loose in the woods, where the animals fed themselves until they were rounded up for slaughter. Those that escaped the roundup began to live
and breed in the woods like wild animals, creating a thriving population of feral pigs. The United States is now home to an estimated 5 million feral swine that ravage crops, undermine levees, devour rare salamanders, and root up the turf on golf courses.
Efforts to control them—including shooting them from helicopters—have proved futile because pigs breed so quickly.

The same quality that makes feral pigs a problem—prodigious fecundity—has delighted farmers. Cows, goats, and sheep provide milk, a bountiful and consistent source of protein. Oxen pull plows and carts, and sheep are shorn for wool. Pigs do not pull plows; they give no milk and grow no wool. Pigs produce only one thing: more pigs. Many, many more pigs. Cows gestate for nine months and produce one calf; sheep and goats require five months and give birth to one or two offspring. A sow, on the other hand, gestates for less than four months and produces eight or twelve or even more piglets, all of which grow to slaughter weight far more quickly than a calf or a lamb. Born at 3 pounds, today’s piglet balloons to 280 pounds by six months of age, at which point it is also ready to breed.
In 1699 a French scholar estimated that in one decade—even making allowances for illness and predation by wolves—a single sow could become grandmother to 6 million pigs. The calculation was perhaps optimistic, but it carried its point.

All of those pigs were good for only one thing: meat.
The two-line poem “Bacon & Eggs,” attributed to Howard Nemerov, captures this uncomfortable fact:

The chicken contributes,

But the pig gives his all.

The pig’s certain doom has launched the plot of many a children’s tale: a cow earns its keep giving milk, but a pig saves itself
only by developing an oddball talent such as herding sheep or inspiring a spider to write words in her web.

In the unsentimental realm of real-world farms, pigs eat, grow fat, and get killed. This process happens quickly and efficiently, and the result is meat that tastes delicious either fresh or preserved with salt and smoke. Cured beef or mutton often tastes like shoe leather, but pork—as bacon and ham lovers know—only gets better. In the time before artificial refrigeration, which has existed for less than 1 percent of recorded history, it provided a year-round source of protein.

Pork also offers variety. In one episode of
The Simpsons
, Lisa becomes a vegetarian.
Homer asks her, “Are you saying you’re never going to eat any animal again? What about bacon?”




“Pork chops?”

“Dad! Those all come from the same animal!”

“Oh, yeah, right, Lisa,” Homer says with heavy sarcasm, waggling his fingers in the air. “A wonderful, magical animal!”

Homer here echoes an opinion first recorded by Pliny the Elder about a century before Christ. “
There is no animal that affords a greater variety to the palate,” Pliny wrote in his
Natural History
. “All the others have their own peculiar flavor, but the flesh of the hog has nearly fifty different flavors.” Given the abundance, variety, and toothsomeness of this meat, it’s easy to understand the enthusiasm of an American farmer who in 1849 greeted the arrival of the year’s first litter with this entry in his diary: “
Pigs! Pigs! Pork! Pork! Pork!”

ith meat the most valued of foods and pigs a prolific producer of meat, one might assume that pigs have been universally embraced. In Asia and the Pacific Island region, that assumption would be largely correct.
Pigs stood at the center of cultural life in much of Polynesia and Micronesia, serving as victims in ritual sacrifice and as the key source of protein; women sometimes suckled orphaned piglets alongside their own children. China’s traditional agriculture revolved around pigs as producers of manure, and its cooks prized pork above all other meats.
The Chinese character for “home” is formed by placing the symbol for “pig” under the symbol for “roof”: home is where the pig is.

In the Western world—which, for reasons of brevity, is the focus of this book—the relationship between pigs and people has been fraught. Judaism placed a complete ban on pork in the first century
, and Islam followed suit more than 1,000 years later. Christians gave their blessing to pork but still found it difficult to shake off Old Testament prejudice, condemning pigs as lazy, filthy, and gluttonous. Englishmen ranked pork as the least desirable of meats. Americans, from colonial days until after World War II, ate far more pork than beef but nonetheless disparaged pork and insulted the pig. The cow—that great, dumb, placid beast with a thousand-yard stare and only a faint glimmer of intelligence—stole all the glory, with steaks and cowboys central to the mythology of America.
In a classic work of American agricultural history, cows get a chapter to themselves, while hogs are consigned to a catch-all chapter titled “The Lesser Beasts.”

Greater in dietary significance than the cow, the pig certainly has been lesser in prestige. Foods, like the societies that consume them, are arranged into hierarchies. For those linked by blood, religion, class, or nation, sharing a meal forges bonds
but also draws boundaries:
we use food to stigmatize foreigners, exclude nonbelievers, climb the social ladder, and kick others down a few rungs. No food has played a bigger role than pork in shaping cultural identities, and examining why this is so might help untangle some of our current dilemmas surrounding food.

Historically, the question of which people eat which foods has been a matter of tradition, price, status, and availability: the rich eat what is rare and expensive, and the poor eat whatever they can afford. Today, the calculations have shifted. Consumers with the means ask themselves if pesticides lurk in the folds of their lettuce, if their chips were made from genetically modified corn, and if the workers who picked their tomatoes were paid a fair wage. The meat counter poses a separate set of dilemmas: Does the chicken harbor antibiotic residues or dangerous bacteria? Did the steak come from a cow fed slaughterhouse by-products? Did the ham require undue suffering on the part of a pig?

People, in other words, are pausing to think about the animals that become meat: What did they eat, where did they live, and how did they die? Similar questions have been asked about pigs for thousands of years.

The anxiety about pigs starts with their omnivorous appetite. In addition to acorns and rice hulls, pigs happily devour that which most disgusts us—rotting garbage, feces, carrion, even human corpses. Of all the animals commonly eaten by humans, the pig is the only one that will return the favor. Many texts, from scripture to Shakespeare, have noted the pig’s willingness to scavenge human bodies, and such incidents happen even today.
In 2012 an Oregon farmer went to feed his sows and never returned; authorities later searched the sty and recovered his dentures and a few scattered body parts. If you are what you eat—
an age-old expression found in many languages—then what’s eaten by the animals you eat becomes cause for concern.

Pigs became pariahs in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Palestine as early as 1000
, but even there they didn’t disappear. Instead, they took up residence among society’s human outcasts, living as scavengers among the homes of the poor. For most of history, the vast majority of people lived in danger of starvation, and only a fortunate few could afford to be picky about the food they ate. The elites who wrote dietary laws and set culinary fashions may have turned up their noses at pigs, but people on the margins embraced them as a nearly free source of food. In the tail-chasing realm of social status, this further damaged the reputation of pigs, who became contemptible not only for their own dirty habits but also because they kept company with the poor.

he scavenging ways of pigs created a strange intimacy. Cattle and sheep, throughout history, have generally ranged on the fringes of settlements. Pigs, by contrast, often spent their days quite near people’s homes. They became members of the family, consuming the leftovers of meals before becoming dinner themselves. Eating pigs sometimes seemed to border on cannibalism and required emotional distancing. An old joke tells of a visitor to a farm who spots a pig with a wooden leg. The pig, he learns, has saved the farmer from drowning, scared away a bear, and rescued all the other farm animals from a barn fire. “What an amazing animal,” the visitor asks. “But how did he lose his leg?” The farmer responds, “Well, a pig like that, you don’t eat him all at once.”

Or perhaps you don’t eat him at all. In E. B. White’s
Charlotte’s Web
, Charlotte the spider saves Wilbur the pig from slaughter by weaving a few words in silk. One of those words is “humble,” which Charlotte says suits Wilbur because it means
“not proud” and “near the ground.” She doesn’t mention a third meaning: “inferior” or “low class.” Are pigs humble? The word shares a root with “humus,” or soil, where pigs spend a lot of time rooting. And for much of history they have been considered inferior—filthy animals eaten by low-class people. But “not proud” misses the mark. Wilbur notwithstanding, pigs are fractious, independent minded, and difficult to herd. Given the chance, they’ll happily turn the tables and make a meal of a person. There’s nothing humble about that.

Compared to cows and sheep, pigs are arrogant bastards.
“There’s always a certain tension about a bunch of pigs walking around,” a twentieth-century hog farmer said. “You never know when they’re gonna flare up—start bitin’ off another one’s ear or something. You just don’t get the calm, peaceful feeling like when you see a herd of sheep.” His statement reveals frustration but also admiration. It’s the voice of a father who loves best his worst-behaved child, who knows that docility is close kin to stupidity, who sees in his hogs a bit of himself.

The line between people and pigs can be fluid.
Alice, during her adventures in Wonderland, carries a baby that gradually turns into a piglet, so she sets it down and, with some relief, watches it trot into the woods: “‘If it had grown up,’ she said to herself, ‘it would have made a dreadfully ugly child: but it makes rather a handsome pig, I think.’”
The Odyssey
the enchantress Circe transforms sailors into swine but leaves them “cursed with sense”—Odysseus’s men, that is, retain human minds within animal bodies. The story gives voice to the suspicion that when we eat a pig, we eat our close kin.
Renaissance physicians claimed that human flesh tasted like pork, and reports from cannibals have supported that claim.

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