I have friends who started homesteading out in Arkansas back in the early 1970s. Their little girls had been raised in town up to that point, and didn’t have a clear picture of what life would be like in a handmade house in the pinewoods. So when the family acquired a lovely little piglet, promptly named Mr. Piggy, they felt a sense of comfort and companionship. They had a pet. They dutifully fed Mr. Piggy and included him in their games. He followed them much like a puppy and responded to his name. They were amazed at how fast he grew, and how fat, but that’s the way with pigs. Their attachment was so great that their parents could not bring themselves to tell the little girls that Mr. Piggy was going for a ride.
My friends were reluctant to kill Mr. Piggy themselves but needed the nutrition he would bring to the table. They hauled him to a neighbor with no scruples about slaughtering and negotiated a barter that would give the new homesteaders the best of Mr. Piggy’s most edible parts, and leave the lard, skin, and guts for the executioner.
The following week, the girls were smacking their lips over a rarity, a large portion of bacon. It had been a while since the family had been able to afford such a luxury. It had also been a while since the girls had noticed Mr. Piggy playfully rooting in the back yard. When their mother finally admitted that Mr. Piggy was on the plate, not in the pen, the children wailed briefly. But…with a gulp…they finished their bacon. Mr. Piggy had joined Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny in the line-up of parental betrayals, and they were one step closer to growing up.
Pound for pound, there is probably no better meat source than a Sus (Latin for the pig genus, and doubtless the far-back reason why people cry out “Soo-ey” to get a pig’s attention). Yet its consumption has come under suspicion for thousands of years, beginning famously with an injunction from no less an authority than The God of Abraham and Isaac, and most recently, from nutritionists who decry its fat content, declaring it heart-unhealthy, a storehouse of bad cholesterol, an artery-clogger without peer.
I have a weakness for the word “subsistence,” so when I came across Hogs, Mules and Yellow Dogs – Growing Up on a Mississippi Subsistence Farm, a book by Jimmye Hillman (Univ. of Arizona Press, 2012), I knew I had to get a copy. Subsistence is defined as “the condition of remaining in existence” and implies persistence in the pursuit of survival. One of the challenges that a previous generation of Americans had to deal with was to subsist through the Great Depression. Jimmye Hillman, now in his eighties, formerly head of the Department of Agricultural Economics at the University of Arizona, came by his agricultural expertise honestly, by growing up in rural Mississippi in the 1930s.
From an early age Jimmye got his education in hogs, and a lot of his memoir centers on the Sus, beginning with the saga of the Suddy Sow, a pig that his father fed religiously until she was ready for slaughter, and then, just as religiously, gave to a widow lady with children to feed. Young Jimmye believed that underneath his father’s casual “We ain’t that bad off for food,” was a nobler purpose, and beneath that was a reluctance to kill an animal he had been lovingly tending for several years. Despite his zeal for hog meat, Jimmye’s dad had found, in the Suddy [sooty] Sow, his Mr. Piggy. He didn’t mind that the sow would be eaten; he just couldn’t do the deed.
Jimmye’s book returns several times to the reminder that Scotch Irish forebears brought their hogs to America. Though this is undoubtedly true, it’s also true that the Spaniards who preceded them released wild boars in the American South. As to who is a boar and who is a pig, the difference lies in the fence line. Pigs, swine, or hogs, the words being interchangeable, are domesticated when we pen and feed them. A pig released into the woods becomes a wild boar in a few breeding cycles.
The pigs that Jimmye ate as a child were part-feral, gradually lured from the woods into a killing pen with ears of corn. Jimmye recalls that “the horn of our Ford model A had brought the hogs running… sound equals food, they quickly learned, for hogs are the brightest of farm animals.” Jimmye opines that the wild variety of Sus is more nutritious for human consumption because it forages in vegetation, therefore producing leaner meat than hogs fed in lots on man-made grains with suspicious ingredients.
All this attention paid to pigs prompted Jimmye’s grandmother to chide his grandfather, “All you do is plant corn to feed mules and hogs, to plant more corn to feed more mules and hogs, to plant more corn.” That is a fine description of “subsistence”: a way of life that is self-sustaining, but not necessarily on the upgrade. Jimmye’s parents lifted him out of that cycle by placing as great a value on learning about farming as on doing it.
When I lived in southern Spain, I was very aware of pigs. The basement (also the street-level front entrance) of our little village house was mostly given over to a large stall for the family Sus. All the village houses were built on the same design. Everyone in the family entered the house by the pig stall, where the beast lived in relative luxury compared to its feral cousins. With a deep bed of straw lovingly cleaned so that the manure could bless the orchards and fields, Señor Puerquecito had no chores but to eat the garbage of the household, gluttonously living up to his stereotype. Until a day near Christmas that dawned crisp and cold, with perhaps a few flakes of snow blowing in from the Sierra Nevada to the north.
On such a day, I witnessed our neighbors as they performed their annual ritual. Señor Puerquecito was lassoed and dragged reluctantly into the street. After a year of life underground, the sunlight would have been a shock. But worse was to come: a hangman’s scaffold, set up with care the day before, and nearby, a huge metal tub filled with buckets full of steaming water. The animal began to panic as his front feet were trussed.
The execution was over speedily, as befits a well-liked prisoner whose only crime was its subsistence. Our neighbor added a tender note to the ritual. He lifted up the hog’s ear and whispered into it, “A Dios, puerquecito.”
“To God, little pig.”
Then the protesting animal, now sure that something was amiss, had his worst fear confirmed as his throat was slit and he was hoisted onto the scaffold where his blood was caught in a tub. Once bled, choice chunks of meat were deftly sliced off, and the carcass was dumped into the steaming vat.
The ritual of slaughter was a joyous one to these subsistence farmers of Provincia Almería. There would be meat for the year. The men did the cutting, slicing, hefting and trussing; women and children did the scraping, washing, rinsing and collecting.
At Jimmye’s house, the hog was knifed and bled lying on the ground; then dragged to a sunken vat where, “the hot water loosened the hair and tendered the hide so that the animal could be more easily scraped and cleaned before being ‘dressed out’ or gutted. We threw into the water pieces of hardened pine tar and green pine needles. These served as a catalyst to facilitate hair removal…everyone present…descended onto the hog and began scraping off its hair with sticks or knives or our bare hands.”
Like Jimmye, and like my friends’ little girls once they got over the first “gulp” of mournfulness for Mr. Piggy, I didn’t hesitate to eat the remains of the slaughtered Sus. We were invited less than 24 hours after the fatal event, for a plate of morcilla, the first sausage, seasoned with fennel. Its dark color bespoke its origins; blood sausage is common in every culture were pork is eaten. Delicious! The women of the house had not slept the night before, toiling over the morcilla. It was custom, culture, and subsistence.
In addition to near-poetic descriptions of the yearly pig execution, Jimmye Hillman tells of hunting wild boar, an activity described in this several-hundred-year-old ballad collected in the Appalachian Mountains by Cecil Sharpe:
“There is a wild boar in these woods
He’ll eat your meat, he’ll drink your blood
Old Bangum he drew his Bowie knife
He swore he’d take that wild boar’s life
Old Bangum went to the old boar’s den
And he saw the bones of a thousand men
That wild boar came in such a dash
He cut his way through oak and ash
They fought four hours in that day
Old Bangum took the boar’s life away
Old Bangum, did you win or lose?
He swore by God he’d won his shoes.
Now let us pause for a word from the Loyal Opposition.”
In America, especially in the South, the consumption of pork has always been prevalent along rich and poor alike. Diners feature fresh ham, salted ham, sausage patties and links, sausage and gravy, pork chops, pork loin, roasted pork, pig liver, sousemeat, chitlins and cracklins, pig’s feet pickled in brine… everything but the oink, as they say. However, from the mid-1800s when they were first identified, until the end of the twentieth century, the well-named sutoxins such as trichinosis were also prevalent. These nasty worms, carried in the flesh of mice and rats or even in the raw flesh of pigs themselves and consumed by the family porker, transfer happily to humans, causing muscular pains and very rarely, nerve damage and death. This has been an argument for greater control of pigs, resulting in modern “factory farming” that then resulted in an outcry against mistreatment of animals, especially the intelligent kind like Mr. Piggy.
It is well known that both the Christian Holy Bible and the Muslim Koran forbid the eating of pigs:
From the Biblical book of Deuteronomy: “You may eat any animal that has a split hoof divided in two and that chews the cud. …the pig is also unclean; although it has a split hoof, it does not chew the cud. You are not to eat their meat or touch their carcasses.”
From the Koran: He has forbidden you carrion, blood, and the flesh of swine; also any flesh consecrated other than in the name of Allah.
Apparently, Someone was looking out for the proponents of these major religions by ordering them to avoid the flesh of animals that feed on other animals in general, and on dead animals in particular. For some people, this provides a rational, not religious, reason to avoid pork despite the traditions surrounding its consumption (ham for Easter dinner being one local custom, and hog jowls and black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day) and the zealous ad campaigns of the pork industry, piggishly scrabbling for their market share in a country gone mad with healthy living.
Another argument against eating pork is that, as my friends’ daughters innately understood, the pig is a smart creature. Studies have shown that pigs have complex social lives, that sows sing to their piglets, that pigs dream (perhaps they dream of having wings!) and that pigs are not easily fooled. Pigs can distinguish images on a screen. All pigs are smarter than any dog. Sorry, Fido.
However, the pig only excels as a pet when he or she is young. I once met a man who was in a sad dilemma about his pot-bellied pig. This animal was very intelligent, loved music and made an excellent companion. But from an adorable baby he had grown and grown, and now weighed in at about 200 pounds, so that even as a “miniature” member of the Sus family, he was too much pig for one bachelor. His food requirements were becoming an onerous burden, and no gentle pen would hold him. I didn’t hear what happened to this potbellied Mr. Piggy but I suspect he was one of many such animals abandoned to the wild, where he would soon revert to feral habits.
For Jimmye’s family, religion was important; Sunday included the ritual of chasing up and feeding the feral hogs, and occasionally feeding the preacher, after church. It’s not clear how roast pork sneaked back on to the Christian table, but where I live, good people eat plenty of pig meat, pig pickin’ is a weekend excuse for a party, and pork barbecue is just about synonymous with North Carolina. However, some Christian sects like the Seventh Day Adventists do not chew but rather eschew the meat of the pig, citing a lower incidence of trichinosis in the bloodstreams of believers as evidence that they have made the right choice.
Hillman’s book would make thoughtful reading for any homesteader, as it describes not just the author’s encounters with pigs but a panorama of life in times of economic stress where the only industry, logging, had died out and people had to fend for themselves as best they could without much cash. The parallels to America’s current situation are obvious.
My wish for Mr. Piggy is that he finds a way to let us know what other purposes he was made for, and so free himself from the bondage of the food chain.