Book review: Lesser Beasts - A Snout-to-Tail history of the Humble Pig

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 June, 2015, 11:47pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 June, 2015, 11:47pm


As a meat-eater, what is my desert island animal? Easy: the pig. Sausage, bacon, pork chops, chorizo, ham, barbecue, suckling pig and black pudding all come from what Homer Simpson calls "a wonderful, magical animal".

The pig should be man's best friend, but our relationship with this beast is a troubled one: to call someone a swineherd is an insult.

The pig domesticated itself. In the distant past, wild pigs came into early human settlements and stayed. But the pig never evolved far from its wild cousin. As Mark Essig writes: "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."

Pre-Christian European societies loved the pig. A surviving Roman cookbook has more pork recipes than for any other meat. But further east, the pig was shunned. They were associated with filth and, worse, the lower classes. Nomadic pastoralists kept sheep and goats. A snobbish disdain for pork arose, which was codified in two of the three great monotheistic religions. This distaste has a long history; in the 5th century BC Herodotus writes of how an Egyptian noble had to cleanse himself in the Nile after accidentally brushing against a pig.

Yet the pig, Essig argues, has been integral to Europe's success. The conquistadors introduced them to South America, spreading disease among the Indians but providing food for the Spanish. More than the cow, it was the pig that won the West for American settlers.

The Royal Navy got through 40,000 pigs annually. Pigs have helped China feed its massive population. Today the Chinese government maintains a "strategic pork reserve", just in case. Essig has a good nose for rooting out tasty morsels such as these.

Lesser Beasts, written in an understated and often amusing way, functions as a history of western civilisation told through the pig. Where there are plenty of forests for the pig to forage, then it is venerated - as in Rome and medieval Europe. But where food is scarce and it eats waste, it is shunned.

According to cannibals, our flesh tastes very similar; humans were known as "long pigs" among Polynesian peoples. So perhaps our problem with the pig is simply one of guilt at our near-cannibalism. "We look back at the pig and see quite a bit of ourselves. And then, more often than not, we eat him," Essig writes.

Lesser Beasts: A Snout-to-Tail History of the Humble Pig  by Mark Essig (Basic Books)

The Guardian