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18 february 2012

Pigs are inherently political creatures. I don't just mean in the pages of a barnyard allegory like George Orwell's Animal Farm, either. A pig stands for independent, sustainable resources for rural smallholders. You take windfall mast, kitchen scraps, and literally whatever crap is lying around, and a pig can convert the stuff into high-quality, readily preserved meat. Like potatoes, though, pigs represent a bit too much of an accessible good thing. Governments and industries alike, throughout history, have been wary of pigs because they take yeoman farmers off the grid of commodities that powerful classes can control.

Even Jewish and Islamic proscriptions of pork may stem from political proscription. Brett Mizelle, in the Reaktion Animal book Pig, shows how in ancient Egypt the state bureaucracies that controlled food supplies were threatened by a pig in every pot. Pharaonic governments cracked down on small-scale pig-farming, ladling opprobrium over the beasts like red-eye gravy. Jewish taboos against pork may come from the soujourn in Egypt, and Islamic taboos from Jewish influence.

If it ever comes up, most people will opine that Jews and Muslims avoid pork because pigs are clinically unclean. And of course you could get sick from bad pork, even before trichinosis infected the breed. But you can get sick from any spoiled meat. Entire cuisines – China, Southeast Asia, Oceania, the American South – are founded on pork, without any ill effects to diners. No, pigs are suspect not because they are dirty (though they certainly can be dirty); they are suspect because if you have a pig you may be less willing to bow to the Man.

Mizelle's analysis even made me think about the implacable barbecue debates that characterize my part of the United States. Texas barbecue is made from delicious, savoury beef brisket. North Carolina barbecue is made . . . actually I'm not 100% sure how it's made, but definitely with a pig that has been overcooked and then "pulled" by various obscure processes into a kind of shredded hash. Southerners will argue for hours over the merits of these two foods, advocates of one barely deigning to call the other stuff "barbecue" at all.

I had always thought that these debates were arbitrary, like arguments over whether Hawkeyes or Cyclones is the cooler nickname. But the Old South predilection for pork barbecue reflects the deep cultural attachment of forty-acres-and-a-mule farmers, white or black, to the one critter that could turn garbage cheaply into meat. Ironically, Texas, the state where you go to live free and prosper, owns the food culture of closed ranges, big-rancher cattle drives, the Fort Worth Stockyards, and storebought brisket. Eating beef barbecue symbolizes being in somebody else's pocket.

Of course, in the 21st century, hogs are a commodity like anything else in the food chain. They suffer the same confinement, stress, and abuse that are inflected on battery chickens and veal calves, except where local governments have prohibited the worst practices. And not always out of love for animals; there are more selfish concerns, including the quality of the environment in the vicinity of hog farms, and most selfishly, the quality of the meat they produce. But if the quest for better bacon leads to better lives for pigs, it would seem a win-win situation.

Much of Mizelle's Pig is about pork, and could as easily have been published in the Reaktion Edible series. But there are also chapters on non-food partnerships between people and pigs. (Pigs, smart and sensitive, can find landmines, among other things.) Mizelle also considers the literary pig, which is largely a children's phenomenon (Wilbur, Babe, Miss Piggy). Pigs are very close to people in many respects, including diet, intelligence, and physiology. On CSI, Grissom is constantly sacrificing pigs to the forensic reenactment of decay. That closeness allows pigs to be anthropomorphized in ways that delight children, and spur adults to deeper thought about the relations between humans and animals.

Mizelle, Brett. Pig. London: Reaktion, 2011.