Did you know that in the Old West, people used to have pig drives, the same way they had cattle drives? They marched huge herds of pigs across the country to be slaughtered. Also, pigs attack and kill people every year, including one man who was pinned to his tractor. We have a very strange relationship with pigs. A new book, Lesser Beasts by Mark Essig, tells you everything you need to know about the fascinating history of swine. You’ll learn how much you really have in common with pigs, plus everything else that you didn’t know you wanted to know.
Early on in Lesser Beasts we get a chapter on pig evolution, which parallels that most classic of supervillain speeches—“We’re not so different, you and I.” Essig shows how, in a world of specialized creatures, the pig and the human followed the same path by becoming dietary generalists. Sure we look different outside, but everything between the lips and the anus is pretty much the same. Both humans and pigs evolved to eat nuts, roots, meats, fats and sweet, fruits and scraps.
This means in both species, the teeth are good for everything from tearing to chewing, the guts are good at breaking material down, and the colon extracts all the water it can from whatever we eat. (And anyone who has worked with pigs knows that the products of pig and human digestion look pretty much the same.)
Our outsides aren’t all that different either. A pig’s snout, though it looks blunt and useless, has the sensitivity of fingertips while retaining the toughness of the bottom of a foot. It can, like a pair of hands, pick over and manipulate the things it comes into contact with—a good trick, if most of what you eat is half-buried in the debris on the floor of a forest.
Over the course of the book we learn things like why pigs and humans developed an affinity for each other, why pigs are herded, why some cultures love eating pigs while others consider them too unclean to touch. And along the way we come across every fun thing that we could want to know about pigs, and several things we never thought about. Here we find the recipes that the Romans used when preparing pig, which was their favorite meat. (A favorite was the liver of a fig-fattened pig prepared with fermented fish sauce and grilled in fat.) We meet a researcher who grumbles that his research on how intelligent pigs are doesn’t make waves because people already expect pigs to be intelligent.
And then just for spice we get a quick story about the farmer who went out to feed his pigs and never came back. All they found of him was his teeth.
If you eat pork, you will want some on hand while reading this book. If you don’t eat pork, you’ll probably crave it during your read, but you will feel righteous about abstaining. Learning about pigs makes you admire them. The fierce wild boar, the hardscrabble frontier hog, the clans of forest pigs, and the deliberately-fattened porker are examples of the pig’s adaptability and range. The book gives us a kind of nostalgia for the many types of pig that once both roamed free and fed people—often at the same time.
It’s impossible not to be sad when you get to the inevitable chapter about mass production and factory farming. The cruelty and the lack of character are both on display. Fortunately, that’s not the last chapter. Essig talks about how, while the developing world is turning to factory farming as a way of getting tasty calories out on the market efficiently, developed countries (which for the most part have a sufficient amount of calories available) are slowly turning to better ways of farming pork, and to better-quality pork.
The first chapter, focusing on pork as a popular food instead of just a necessity, is all about the excess of ancient Rome. While few people would even want to eat like an ancient Roman, that may be a good model to work with—not the over-consumption, but the tendency to see pork as a feast. Now that we meat eaters know there are so many types of pigs out there, and that their taste varies so widely, we might be inspired to try all kinds of differently-produced hogs, instead of the same ham sandwich.