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Fifty flavours of pork

I jabbed a toothpick into a well-browned piece of sausage that was bursting out of its skin and oozing fat. Somewhere, a pig had given its life for us, I thought, as I gratefully popped the sausage into my mouth.

The pig needs to be fêted, so I was happy to read a book about its life and times.Pork: A Global History (2012) by Katharine M. Rogers is part of a series called ‘Edibles’, which explores the history of cuisine.

It was some 7,000 years ago that people in Asia domesticated the sus scrofa, the Eurasian wild boar, she writes. “Since then, pigs have provided the most widely eaten meat in the world. Pork is the most versatile of meats — ranging from the rich, delicate succulence of a roast loin to the dry, salty assertiveness of ham and bacon.”

In India, too, the meat has had its share of hardcore fans. Food historian K.T. Achaya writes that Kshatriya rulers were always partial to pork. In the Mahabharata, King Yudhisthira fed 10,000 Brahmins with pork and venison, he tells us.

Getting lean

“The Romans (like the Chinese) considered pork the most wholesome and digestible of meats,” Rogers says. Pliny the Elder had raised a toast to the pig, stating that it offered “almost fifty flavours, whereas all other meats have one each.” Achilles in the Iliad, Rogers adds, entertained his guests with the loin of a fat-laden hog. “He and Patroclus cut up the meat, spit the pieces, salt them, and roast them over the embers of an open fire; then they serve the meat with bread and wine.”

Lord Elmsworth may disagree, but Rogers believes that pigs are easy to keep — largely because they are omnivorous. “They do not require extensive land for grazing like cows or sheep, but can forage on their own in woods or even in city streets, or be kept in small pens and live on human leavings. They can be fed whatever is cheap — sweet potatoes in New Guinea, corn (Zea mays) in the U.S. Midwest, coconuts in Polynesia.”

Now that pork occupies the high table (the American Pork Board calls it “the other white meat”), American and European breeders are producing leaner pigs. On an average they are 16% leaner and carry 27% less fat that they did two decades ago, she says.

Uncle Sam feeds the army

I remember an Italian chef once telling me how the greatly prized black Iberian pig is looked after in Spain. It is fed fresh acorns through the day but, sadly, has to run from one end of a large field to the other for its feed. It makes the pig healthy, and gives us lean meat (and much joy) subsequently.

The book has some interesting anecdotes. I learnt the genesis of the phrase, ‘bottom of the barrel’. There was a time, back in the 18th and 19th centuries, when large pieces of pork were kept submerged in a barrel of brine in the U.S. “This was the standard meat for poor to middle-class people and for the army,” she writes. Barrelled pork was graded according to the pig parts. “Well-to-do working-class families got the better varieties, slaves the lowest grade.” And the prominence of barrel pork survives in the idiom ‘scraping the bottom of the barrel.’

In the War of 1812, a New York packer called ‘Uncle Sam’ Wilson supplied such huge amounts of pork to American soldiers “that he came to personify the entire government and was portrayed by cartoonists as a giant figure in a tall hat under a banner that read ‘Uncle Sam is feeding the Army.’”

I recall that when the pig playing Empress of Blandings in the BBC adaptation of Wodehouse’s Blandings Castle series died in 2013, the cast paid its sombre tribute to her. Timothy Spall, who played the role of Lord Elmsworth, recalls an interesting aspect of the medal-winning pig: “She was by far the most flatulent member of the cast and, believe me, she had a lot of competition.” For a pig, if that’s not a compliment, what is?

The writer likes reading and writing about food as much as he does cooking and eating it. Well, almost.


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Printable version | Oct 22, 2021 7:37:02 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/food/fifty-flavours-of-pork/article36643837.ece

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