The History of Pork
EMG Pork Notes
In this episode of Eat My Globe, our host, Simon Majumdar, shares things you didn’t know you didn’t know about one of the most consumed proteins in the world, Pork. It is a protein that that has been part of the human diet even before we began to domesticate animals, and it is beloved in certain cuisines. And yet, it is also a protein that is precluded from the diet of people who hold particular religious beliefs. So, if you want to know why pork is so popular and yet so polarizing, come and join us on the next episode of Eat My Globe.
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EAT MY GLOBE
PORK-TA-CULAR: THE HISTORY OF PORK
What do you call someone who steals a pig?
I don’t know. What do you call someone who steals a pig, Simon?
No, that’s just… no.
We should do a whole show like this. A whole show just of food jokes. I think it’d be fantastic.
Right. Let’s get on with this.
Hi everybody, and welcome to another episode of Eat My Globe, a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food.
And, on today’s episode, we are going to be talking about one of the most consumed meat proteins in the world, and one of which we Americans alone consume over 50 pounds per person every year. It’s a protein that is beloved by many cuisines – such as Spanish, Filipino, and Chinese – but, at the same time, is prohibited specifically by two major religions, as well as those, of course, who promote abstinence from all meat consumption. It is a protein that is at the very heart of what, I believe, is America’s greatest contribution to world cuisine – Barbecue – and a protein that has a permanent place on my own weekly shopping list – I am not sure what the consequences would be if I did not make my lovely wife her regular order of Japanese Tonkatsu.
Yes, that’s right folks, on today’s episode of Eat My Globe, we are going to look at things you didn’t know you didn’t know about pork.
So, as always, why don’t we begin by being very clear about the subject about which we are going to talk and to look at the origins of its name.
Our chums at Merriam Webster define pork as,
“the fresh or salted flesh of swine, when dressed for food.”
While Dictionary.com is a little more direct, referring to it as,
“The flesh of hogs used as food.”
Both of which are useful, as they tell us that the term, “pork,” can only refer to meat from swine, pigs or hogs, and can only be applied when those hogs have been butchered and dressed for food.
Which raises an interesting question. Why is it that we use the term, “pork,” when describing the meat, rather than just referring to it as the animal from which it came, “pig”?
For an answer to this, we need to look at the etymology of the word “pork,” which is derived from the Old French word, “Porc” – P O R C – which referred to any pig, swine or boar.
Invaders from Normandy raided Britain in 1066, and William of Normandy – or William the Conqueror, as he became known – defeated his English rival, Harold Godwinson, at the famous Battle of Hastings. After the Norman victory and subsequent occupation of English lands, the languages of the French and Anglo Saxon began to be layered and intermingled. The use of French or Anglo Norman became the social language of the upper classes and of administration, while Anglo Saxon terms remained the remit of the lower classes.
For the purposes of our story, the use of words became split between the culinary terms for the meat, which came from the Anglo Normans, who could afford to eat the animals, and the terms for the animals themselves, which came from the Anglo Saxon, who tended to raise them.
So, the term, “cow,” was used for the animal, but once butchered and served, it became “boeuf” –later anglicized to “beef.” The term, “sheep,” again referred to the animal but became “mouton” – later anglicized to “mutton” – once it reached the kitchen. And our subject, “pig,” became “porc” – P O R C – later anglicized to “pork” – P O R K.
Some Anglo Saxon words did survive. Although the French word for ”domestic fowl,” “pouletrie,” became “poultry,” the word “chicken” is still the word we use today, instead of the French word, “poulets.” However, I should note that a small segment of the poultry industry refer to “young chickens” as “pullet,” which is derived from that French word, “poulets.” And, the term “poisson” lost out to our word, “fish,” apparently because “poisson” sounded too close to the Anglo Saxon word for “poison.”
Now that we have talked about what pork is, and how it came to have the name pork, thanks to our pals in France, let’s talk about how pork became one of the most popular proteins in the human diet.
Of course, this happened long before the French and the Anglo Saxons came on to the scene. First, we need to look back almost two million years to the origins of the first group of hominins or human beings, who are primates, that began to develop skills as hunter gatherers.
At that time, the pre-cursors to modern humankind were primarily located in Africa. They differed from other primates – such as gorillas or orangutans – in that hominins did not scavenge food from the flesh of animals that had died naturally, or had been killed by other animals. Their manner of hunting changed further around 1.9 million years ago with the development of Homo Erectus. These were hominins with larger brains and whose physical attributes allowed for them to walk distances, allowing for the spread of mankind from Africa throughout the world.
As they travelled, they developed methods of hunting animals, which included the creation of tools for hunting – such as fishing hooks, spears and bows and arrows – as well as tools for butchering animals to remove flesh and hides. Around the same time, they also gained the ability to create and maintain fire.
In the area of the Levant and the Caucasus, archaeologists found evidence that hunter gatherers in the Paleolithic era hunted, amongst others, wild boar. Wild boar – Latin name Sus Scrofa – is a species that is believed to have originated in Eurasia, and is still with us today, even in the United States, where in some parts of the country, they are feral and actually considered a vermin.
At around the time 8,000 B.C.E., a period known as the Neolithic period, ancient humans began one of the most important biocultural developments in human history, as they began to move from being nomadic hunter gatherers to creating sedentary communities in settlements. This desire to settle was accompanied by a growing understanding of two symbiotic developments: how to cultivate grains and how to domesticate some of the animals they had previously hunted. Excess grains were used to feed animals, and growing herds of animals needing to be fed likely meant our Neolithic ancestors successfully grew crops. Among those animals were of course, cows – we talked about this in parts I and II of the Eat My Globe episodes on beef in Season 2 – and also, there were chickens and, of course, wild boars or pigs.
Recent studies into the domestication of pigs, using DNA research of over 100 breeds of pig, indicate that the first attempts to farm wild boars came in two different places, China’s Mekong Valley, and Anatolia, in what is now Turkey. This study shows that it was a far more complex process than had first been imagined.
In the 19th century, famed biologist, Charles Darwin, argued that breeding animals to promote certain qualities –in the case of pigs, their tameness, size and meat quality – led to their evolution from the wild boars of yesteryears to the pig we now know today. However, the study shows that there were far more factors involved as domesticated animals were traded and bred with wild animals that were caught and added to the herds. Other more recent studies show that the process of domestication has created significant differences in behavior, in cognition and in physical attributes between domesticated pigs and their feral relatives.
Now, we don’t really have time to go into depth on this subject here, but we will add links to the annotated transcript if you want to go off and read more in depth.
Whatever the uncertainties about the process of pigs being domesticated from the wild and then being dispersed around Europe and Asia, it is clear that by around 3,000 B.C.E., pigs were not only fully domesticated, but were also a regular part of the diet of ancient civilizations.
Pigs, as we mentioned above, were the first animals to be domesticated in ancient China around 10,000 years ago. They not only had value as food, but also became a significant cultural influence. The bones of pigs have been found at grave sites and are believed to represent a sign of wealth. Pigs were also used not only as food, but also in religious ritual as sacrifice animals. The word for home in Chinese script uses a representation of a roof with a pig underneath. And, at around 475 to 221 B.C.E., the system that is now known as the Chinese Zodiac, was developed as a calendar. It included the pig among the 12 animals used to represent the traits of humanity.
Pork remains just as significant in China today, both culturally and as a source of food. In fact, the country remains the single biggest consumer and importer of pork in the world. And, if you visit mainland China, as I have been fortunate enough to do, you will see the vital role it still plays in the culinary lexicon.
The ancient Greeks also had an interesting relationship with pigs. They very much enjoyed the meat from pigs. In his major work, “The History of Animals,” Aristotle gave many references to how pigs should be fed – on chickpeas and figs, apparently, which sounds rather lovely – and how they should be cared for if they are sick.
Much of the meat eaten in ancient Greece, including that of pork, would have come from the leftover parts of animals that were not thrown in the fire during the ritual sacrifice. Cults and cult worship played a major part in ancient Greece, and pigs – as they were in China – were frequently part of the ritual offering to the gods. However, it was rare for a whole pig to be given directly to the ritual flames, and once a portion of the animal had been sacrificed, the rest of the meat was distributed to the members of the cult to be consumed before the meat had the chance to spoil.
Pork too played a major role in the diets of the ancient Romans. As H.C. Coote, Esquire, wrote in his essay as part of the voluminous book published in 1867, “Archaeologia: or Miscellaneous Tracts Relating to Antiquity,”
“We now come to wild boar and pork. The first was in high esteem; but the latter was more, it was a passion of the Roman palate.”
Both the poor and the rich enjoyed meat from the butchered pigs, although, as was so often the case in history, the lower classes had to settle with eating the offal and the poorer cuts after the wealthy had availed themselves of the best bits.
In his book, “Natural Histories,” author Pliny The Elder gives detailed reference to the care of pigs and also notes the delicious flavors of pork once it had been reared and slaughtered.
“Apicius made the discovery, that we may employ the same artificial method of increasing the size of the liver of the sow, as of that of the goose; it consists in cramming them with dried figs, and when they are fat enough, they are drenched with wine mixed with honey, and immediately killed. There is no animal that affords a greater variety to the palate of the epicure; all the others have their own peculiar flavour, but the flesh of the hog has nearly fifty different flavours.”
As well as eating the fresh cuts of the meat, the Romans also developed ways of preserving the meat for later use. Meat would be smoked and salted to create, amongst other things, “perna” and “petaso,” which are some styles of ham, a bacon which they called “laridum,” and many styles of sausages.
In the work, “Cooking and Dining in Imperial Rome,” which is often credited to one Marcus Gavius Apicius, I counted about sixteen recipes for suckling pig, saw recipes for most of the other parts of the animal, as well as recipes for different styles of sausages, including a Lucanian sausage using fresh pork and lots of black pepper, and my favorite, known as Aliter, which includes pork belly, bacon, fresh pork and leeks.
And by the 3rd century C.E., the popularity of meat to the population of Rome had become so important, the government expanded the frumentatio – or the distribution to the populace of free grain or grain at a cheap, set price, depending on the current leader – to include olive oil and pork. How can I sign up for that?
Now, some cultures, however, did not take such a benign view of Bre’er Pig. And, this seems like a good point in the episode to look at why that came about and why those prescriptions are still in force today.
Immediately, when we think of pork being prohibited in the diet, we think of the Abrahamic religions of Judaism and Islam. And, we shall return to these in a minute. However, it is worth noting that these were not the only cultures that had reservations about pigs and pork.
The ancient Egyptian civilization’s relationship with pigs could have been classified under that old Facebook relationship status, “It’s Complicated.” Ancient Egyptians considered the porcine unclean and while they might be used in some circumstances of sacrifice, there were very strict rules about how they could be used and when, if at all, they were able to cross the threshold of the temples.
Around 425 B.C.E., Roman historian Herodotus published his epic work, “The Histories,” and he said,
“Swine are held by the Egyptians to be unclean beasts. In the first place, if an Egyptian touches a hog in passing, he goes to the river and dips himself in it, clothed as he is; and in the second place, swineherds, though native born Egyptians, are alone of all men forbidden to enter any Egyptian temple; nor will any give a swineherd his daughter in marriage, nor take a wife from their women; but swineherds intermarry among themselves.”
However, although they were, as the historian says, considered unclean, there are records and archeological findings that suggest that if pigs were taboo, keeping them most definitely was not. In his terrific book, “Lesser Beasts: A Snout-to-Tail History of The Humble Pig,” Mark Essig suggests that, while the priests and bureaucrats dined on the more luxurious beef and lamb, those on the fringes of society fed themselves on pork.
We see mention of them being bequeathed in tomb chapel paintings. The mayor of a city known as el-Kab allegedly owned about 1500 swine, and a mortuary temple to King Seti I – the father of Ramses II – kept large herds in its enclaves. Even the ancient Egyptian god of thunderstorms and violence, Seth, is associated with the pig.
In the Old Testament Book of Leviticus Chapter 11, laws are laid out for what an animal must be to be “kosher” – that is, fit to eat for those who follow Judaism. First, they must chew their cud, which, according to Lexico, a dictionary from Oxford, means to,
“further chew partly digested food.”
Cud chewers included cattle, sheep and goat.
Second, they must have divided hooves. The pig fell short by one category. Leviticus Chapter 11, versus 7 to 8 says,
“And the pig, though it has a divided hoof, does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you. You must not eat their meat or touch their carcasses; they are unclean for you.”
Similarly, in the holy book of Islam, the Qu’ran, verse 5, 3, provides a similar prohibition.
“Prohibited to you are dead animals, blood, the flesh of swine, and that which has been dedicated to other than Allah.”
It is interesting that the scriptures in both Judaism and Islam forbade the eating of pork.
The primary reason offered for this prohibition is that those animals were held as “unclean” and that any contact with them or indeed the eating of their flesh would not only lead to spiritual impurity, but also to potential health challenges. Twelfth century Jewish philosopher, Maimonides, later wrote about this in his wonderfully titled, “Guide for the Perplexed,” in Part 3, Chapter 48,
“I maintain that the food that is forbidden by the law is unwholesome.”
He later adds,
“The principal reason why the Law forbids swine's flesh is to be found in the circumstance that its habits and its food are very dirty and loathsome. It has already been pointed out how emphatically the Law enjoins the removal of the sight of loathsome objects, even in the field and in the camp; how much more objectionable is such a sight in towns. But if it were allowed to eat swine's flesh, the streets and houses would be more dirty than any cesspool.”
However, in more recent times, 20th century anthropologist, Marvin Harris, offered up another perhaps more controversial potential reason. In the book, “Food and Culture: A Reader,” he wrote a chapter where he promotes a “Cultural Materialism” approach in which he argues that the decision to ban the eating of pork was as much down to the ecological changes and prohibitive cost of rearing pigs in the parched regions of the Middle East as it was to any spiritual reason. He claims that the former reasons potentially created the latter beliefs as an explanation and a reason to limit the raising of pigs. Now, whatever the reason, the prohibition on eating pork in these two major religious has been strong enough to last to the current day and has become a strong cultural identifier.
Which raises the question about Christianity’s lack of prohibition against eating pork. If Judaism and Islam ban the eating of pork, why is it not only allowed by Christianity, but has also become beloved in certain areas where Christians live? Indeed, as we shall see later, pork has even become an identifier as a Christian.
Again, the reasons proffered are both cultural and spiritual. On the one hand, Christians will point to their belief that Jesus came to fulfill the law laid down in the Old Testament, and therefore render it redundant. With that came a removing of any of the dietary restrictions that had been placed on them as Jews. St. Paul refers to this in the Book of Acts Chapter 10, verses 13 to 15, where he recounts disciple Peter being instructed,
“13 Then a voice told him, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’
14 ‘Surely not, Lord!’ Peter replied. ‘I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.’
15 The voice spoke to him a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’”
From a more cultural point of view, just as following these dietary restrictions have proved to be identifiers for both Judaism and Islam, not following them was seen by early Christians as a way of marking out their differences from the two other Abrahamic faiths.
And, finally, as Christianity began to spread from the Middle East across through Greece, Rome and into Europe, they began to encounter potential converts for whom these dietary requirements would prove perhaps too much of an obstacle, especially when such potential converts boasted, as the ancient Romans did, that
“Pliny, speaking for his own times, says that there were fifty savours given to pork; while by the time of Heliogabalus there were more than eighty, as our Apicius shews, so greatly had they cultivated their favourite.”
At the Council of Jerusalem or Apostolic Council held in Jerusalem in 50 C.E., it was decided that gentile converts to Christianity did not have to follow the Laws of Moses detailed in the Old Testament. Although some restrictions were maintained – such as the way animals were slaughtered and prohibiting the eating of meat that had previously been offered to pagan idols.
In Europe, by the arrival of the Early Middle Ages and after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 C.E., pork was already a hugely popular meat. Pigs were easy to raise, gestated quickly and produced multiple litters. Also, they could forage on their own and were omnivorous, so they could eat just about everything. They were more affordable than cattle, and what was even better was that every part of the animal had a use, either flesh or hide.
This is something that we have begun to rediscover in the last decade or so with the rise of the “nose to tail” movement in the UK and the US where chefs are trying to use as much of every animal as possible to avoid waste. If you are a collector of recipe books, do go and check out a legendary one called “Nose to Tail” by famous British Chef Fergus Henderson of St. John Restaurant in London. I should also note that many non-Anglo cultures didn’t have to “rediscover” nose to tail eating as they have always been a proponent of it.
In the middle ages, intestines would be used to make sausages. The feet and hooves would make nourishing jelly. Salt pork, hams and bacon would be salted, and cuts would be smoked, as the Romans had done to preserve them through more lean times.
In England, in 1085, again following the recent arrival of the Norman invaders that we talked about at the beginning of the episode, the King, William the Conqueror, commissioned a major audit of his new land known as The Domesday Book, in which he set out to determine the wealth of his new lands in order to raise taxes to pay off his conquering army. It covers nearly 13,500 settlements, and, in many cases, records the number of animals, including pigs, that each settlement had or the amount of woodland, meadow or pasture – presumably to determine if the settlement was capable of sustaining animals such as hogs. This tells me that pigs were important to the economy of the land.
Across medieval Europe too, pork was one of the major proteins to be consumed. Farmers herded pigs into woods where they would feed on the acorns that they foraged from oak trees. Urban dwellers also kept pigs, which roamed free, but this freedom led to the downside of pigs eating the city’s garbage – or perhaps it was an upside if you are a glass half full kind of person like me and think of pigs acting as a composting unit.
Pigs were also sometimes kept in sties, which are basically pig pens. The benefits of this were obvious in that pigs could eat anything and therefore live off of human waste food and excess cereals, and their growth could be monitored and improved by use of set dietary habits. However, these naturally clean animals no longer had outside space in which to wallow in mud – a vital part of porcine welfare – and therefore, had to wallow instead in their own excrement. Not pleasant at all – and one of the reasons why pigs were considered to be so unclean and likely why the terms “pig” and “pig sty” have such negative connotations today.
Other terms that people might also be familiar with today very directly owe its existence to the keeping of pigs and the variety of food they could produce. “Larder” is a term we know to designate a place to store food. However, many people may not realize that it is derived from the pre-refrigeration practice of storing meats in a cool room and particularly, putting the meats in barrels of pig lard.
There is obviously a great deal more history of pork and pigs in Europe, but we only have a limited time in this podcast before all of this talk of pork makes you want to go off and make a bacon sandwich, and I really do want to spend some time talking about how pigs and pork made their way to the New World and to their one particular aspect in the United States of America.
However, before we do that, I did want to touch on one part of Europe – Spain, in particular – which is famous for its love of pork, and particularly hams or Jamon — and by the way, I previously wrote an article on Jamon for The Guardian. So, we will give you a link on the transcript. Please do check it out.
As I was saying, eating pork in Spain showed that as well as being important as a source of nutrition, in some parts of Europe, it was, and still is, important as a cultural identifier. Those of you who know Spain, and I am fortunate enough to have been there dozens of times over the years, will know that their love of hams is something to behold. In fact, they eat millions of hams every year – in 1988 alone, they ate about 25 million Jamon Serrano and 1 million Jamon Iberico – and in 2018, it was reported that there were actually more pigs than people in Spain.
But why is pig so important in Spanish culture, apart from the fact they make the best hams in the world?
And yes, they do. I will have no argument about that.
For that, we need to look back to 711 C.E. when Spain was invaded by the Moors – or Muslim armies from North Africa. At the time, those who lived under occupation by the Moors, which included Christians and Jews, were treated with tolerance. However, food restrictions were enforced, including the “haram” or the prohibition in the Qu’ran against the eating of pork, a meat that was already hugely popular in Spain. And, consequently for the Christians, the pig and eating its flesh became an identifying symbol and a point of religious resistance for the Christians of Spain.
Some 700 years later, after the reconquest of Spain in 1492, the public consumption of pork became a part of Spanish identity and also, in a more frightening way, of identifying those who outwardly converted from Judaism to Christianity but secretly maintained their Jewish faith. Not eating pork was one of the ways that the Inquisition prosecutors used to monitor those who were Jewish, or those who had ostensibly converted to Christianity from Judaism, but secretly still practiced their Jewish faith.
The particular reason I mentioned Spain is not only to show just how positively or negatively what you eat can identify you to yourself and others, but also to show that pigs and pork were such a part of Spanish life after the Reconquista – or the reclaiming of Spain from the Moorish occupiers – that it is very likely that they would begin to carry them around the world during the initial years of European colonization.
Once again, we must turn our attention to a process that we have touched on quite a few times before on episodes of Eat My Globe [Ed. Note: Fish & Chips, The History of Chocolate, Interview with UCLA Professor Teofilo Ruiz, and The History of Beef Part I among others], and that is one known as The Columbian Exchange. This is a process described by Professor Alfred W. Crosby in a 1972 book of the same name. In this work, he describes the flow to and from the New World colonies of animals, plants and often, diseases. This flow is responsible for how so many ingredients that were not indigenous in most places now appear regularly on menus around the world, such as tomatoes, chilis, corn, potatoes, etcetera, etcetera.
And, for the purposes of our story, the Spanish Conquistadors not only brought New World ingredients to the Old World, but also imported animals and crops to their new colonies as a way to feed the Spaniards who now lived there, and to raise animals and grow crops for potential profit. It was inevitable, given their love of matters porcine, that pigs would be among the animals they brought with them to the New World.
On October 13, 1493, when Columbus set off on his second voyage to the New World, he took with him the first European livestock including cattle, horses and pigs. As he travelled around the islands including Dominica, Antilles and Hispaniola – now the island that contains the Dominican Republic and Haiti – he took the pigs with him. As they began to breed, so they spread out through the discovered territories.
As Mark Essig again points out in his book, “Lesser Beasts,” the European pigs fared very well in these new lands. Lands that, to this point, had a few domesticated animals, such as llamas and alpaca. Essig argues that these local animals could not match those that were brought in by the Spanish for use in transport or meat production. The pigs provided a travelling meat supply for the soldiers and, once they began to make settlements, the pigs would begin to breed as successfully as they had done in Europe.
We also begin to see mentions of pigs both in letters and reports sent back to Spain, as well in books about the botany and wildlife of the new territories. In his work, “The Natural and Moral History of The Indies,” Spanish Jesuit priest Joseph de Acosta noted,
“I am in doubt whether there were any swine in the Indies before the Spaniards came thither. . . . But howsoever it be, it is most certaine that this cattell hath greatly multiplied at the Indies. They eat the flesh fresh, and hold it to be as holesome and as good as it if were of mutton.”
The first arrival of pigs into what is now the United States of America can be credited to one of Columbus’ successors, Hernando de Soto. Born in 1496, de Soto went against his father’s desire for him to be a lawyer and instead pursued the dream of riches in the Indies. He was hugely successful and by 1538 he set out with 10 ships and 700 men on a journey to North America. He also brought with him 13 pigs, which were the first domesticated pigs to arrive in North America. By the time de Soto died in 1542, it is commonly believed that his 13 pigs had become 700 and the population of hogs in North America had begun. He is often quoted as being the “father” of American pig farming.
The pig’s population expansion continued as more explorers and colonists arrived. Sir Walter Raleigh is believed to have brought pigs with him on his voyage to the Jamestown colony in 1607. Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes is also said to have brought pigs with him to Mexico.
Initially, pigs would have been allowed to roam free, very much as they had in medieval Europe. And soon, huge numbers of domesticated and semi wild pigs were almost infesting the colonies. So virulent were they that they actually became a threat to crops. The laws in the colonies said that animals had the right to wander as they please and that it was the farmers job to protect their crops with fencing. A fence had to be,
“horse high, bull strong, and pig tight.”
And if it met these criteria, then a farmer could demand payment from the owner of an animal that creates any damage.
Other practical measures were taken as well. Every hog that grew over a height of 14 inches was required to be fitted with a “hog ring,” which allowed people to better control the animal.
And, in another one of those fascinating “please bore your friends with this fact at a dinner party moments,” the original Dutch colonists of New Amsterdam – now, of course, New York – built a wall to protect them from invaders. Unfortunately, the pigs kept damaging it. Governor Peter Stuyvesant even wrote multiple letters to the homeland, including this one, saying,
“We cannot, consistently with duty, omit calling your Worships’ attention to the injurious and intolerable destruction, which we, to our great dissatisfaction, daily behold the hogs committing on the newly finished works of the fort, whence the ruin thereof will certainly ensue.”
The area near the wall became the current “Wall Street.” So there you go. Wall Street and pigs have co-existed for a long time. There’s a joke in there somewhere.
Anyway. Back to our story.
The new nation of the United States of America began to grow in the 19th century with acts such as the Louisiana Purchase and territory gained after war with Mexico between 1846 and 1848. Along with this growth, so too did the population and popularity of pigs grow until it was one of the major food commodities in the United States. If you have listened to the Eat My Globe episodes on the history of beef – and if not, please do go and check out Parts I and II – you will remember how America began to develop sophisticated systems of processing and distributing both livestock and meat.
Just as it was for beef, so it was for pork. And, just as Chicago became associated with its stockyards and beef processing, so did the city of Cincinnati become associated with pork. So much so, in fact, that the city became known by the nickname, “Porkopolis.” It was a name given to it in 1825, by a British banker responding to a series of letters from another banker, George W. Jones, in Cincinnati. Jones repeatedly extolled the amount of hogs that were slaughtered in the city each year. Finally, the British banker had a pair of papier mache hogs made and sent them as a gift, declaring Jones as a
“worthy representative of Porkopolis.”
The city definitely seemed like a city of pork – in 1860, around 2400 workers slaughtered 450,000 pigs.
That success has carried through to the present day with the pork industry in the United States now being worth nearly $20 billion and employing over 500,000 people. In 2018, the United States ranked only behind China and the combined production of the European Union in pork production.
Now, there is obviously only so much we can cover about the history of pork in the USA in a relatively short podcast like this, so do check out our annotated transcripts if you have time, and do listen to our previous podcast on the history of SPAM, which is fascinating in its own right.
However, before we leave this episode, I did want briefly to touch on how pork fits into what I believe is America’s greatest contribution to world cuisine: Barbecue. Now that, too, is a subject worthy of its own episode or two. It is worthy of a great deal of research from topics such as the hotly disputed origins of the term “barbecue,” and the origins of all of the different styles. And I promise you, I’m working on that. However, it would be wrong to finish this particular episode without referring to this exquisite use of pork.
Now, while I am a huge fan of the beef barbecue of Texas, and the mutton barbecue of Kentucky, all due reverence must be given to pork for being the big bang protein of this classic American cuisine. As the animals that roamed free in the fields tended to be leaner, the Southerners developed the slow cooked method that is still used today. I suspect that, if you listen to this podcast, then you will be interested enough in food to have tried “real” pork barbecue by now – be it whole hog, ribs, shoulders, sauce or no sauce. But if not, that’s my homework for you before you go to the next episode: eat some fine American ‘Q and report back on social media.
There may well be a test.
Until then, I am off to eat something pork-ta-cular.
See you next week folks.
Do make sure to check out the website associated with this podcast at www dot Eat My Globe dot com where we will be posting the transcripts from each episode, along with all the references and resources we used putting the episodes together, in case you want to delve deeper into each subject. There is also a contact button, so please do let us know if there are any subjects that you would like us to cover.
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Thank you and goodbye from me, Simon Majumdar, we’ll speak to you soon on the next episode of EAT MY GLOBE: Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Food.
The EAT MY GLOBE Podcast is a production of “It’s Not Much But It’s Ours” and “Producer Girl Productions”
and is created with the kind co-operation of the UCLA Department of History. We would especially like to thank Professor Carla Pestana, the Department Chair of the Department of History and Doctor Tawny Paul, Public History Initiative Director, for their notes on this episode. Also, a huge thank you to Sybil Villanueva for her help with the research and the preparations of the transcripts for this episode, which can be found on the website.
Published Date: May 11, 2020
Last Updated: October 1, 2020