Good Reading : February 2010
FEBRUARY 2010 ı goodreading 51 Are we, perhaps, offloading some of our less desirable traits onto the poor animal, inventing for him a personality that merely combines the worst of our own traits? Hence, selfish drivers become road hogs (pigs, we must therefore assume, are selfish), and those perspiring heavily are said to be sweating like pigs, although pigs cannot sweat (or drive). We even call police officers pigs, a curious irony in that their job is essentially to prevent us from behaving 'like pigs'. Despite all the bad press, then, it comes as a surprise to learn that pork is by far the most popular meat on the planet. About one hundred million tons are produced annually, in comparison to around sixty million tons of beef (including veal and buffalo).This is partly a result of the ease with which the odd pig can be kept in a nor mal domestic setting, especially in the countryside. China accounts for roughly half the world's annual pork output, indicative of a massive preference for pig production, although this might be on the point of changing, now that the People's Republic has embarked on a quest to provide all 1.3 billion of its citizens with one jin (about a pint) of cow's milk per day. Over in the USA, beef is slightly in the lead, but Japan produces twice as much pork as beef, with Chile and Cuba retur ning comparable figures. The Ger mans do even better, putting out three and a half times as much pork.With their neighbours the Belgians it's four times, same as in Thailand. Poland hits a sweet six,Vietnam ten, Denmark nearly thirteen, and Papua New Guinea a frankly excessive twenty-one times as much pork. In Papua New Guinea, tribeswomen sometimes suckle piglets together with their babies, which seems as if it might explain the data here, although I have no idea how. Rightly speaking, then, the pig is man's best food friend. And it's easy to see why. Cows gestate for nine months and give birth to one calf. This is great if you are making a substantial emotional investment in your animal; it gives you time to redecorate the spare barn and to start thinking about a college fund. If, on the other hand, you are already sharpening the carving knife when the animal is conceived, a nine-month time frame for a single beast is ridiculous. The pig gestates for four months and produces litters of about ten. A sliceable, diceable godsend. Unlike most of the mammals we eat, the pig is not a ruminant. He has a digestive tract very much like a human's, suited to the same low-cellulose vegetable diet. The valves from pig hearts have been used to replace worn-out human ones for years, and if the transplant of full animal organs to humans ever gains medical and ethical acceptance, pigs are the likeliest donors. Our flesh is even said to taste somewhat porklike. In Polynesian and Maori culture human flesh is sometimes known as 'long pig', although when the writer Paul Raffaele travelled into the heart of Indonesian New Guinea to meet members of the Korowai tribe, thought to be among the few peoples still practicing cannibalism, they told him that it tastes more like the meat of a young cassowary, a bird similar to an ostrich. Pig or ostrich, I guess it's pretty much academic to us, either way. Unless our plane comes down somewhere awkward. The pig traditionally snaffles up everything we don't want: cheese rinds, kitchen slops, stacks of returned love letters. A semi-domestic vacuum. And he enjoys a good forage, so you don't even need to put your scraps in a dish; just toss them out the window. Pigs are also great converters, tur ning about one-third of all the energy they ingest into more pig.That's a stellar conversion rate: sheep manage around 13 per cent and cows a miserable 7, presumably because they are too busy converting their cud into ozone- layer-destroying methane. (Take note, Al Gore: tur n down your lights and eat less beef rump.) Then, after all that, yo u can slit your waste disposal unit's throat and eat him, every last bit of him, snooter to tooter.You can eat him at a fortnight old, or as a hoary teenager; he's easy. However you slice it, a pig is a tremendously efficient beast to have around. The animal's main (perceived) defect, vis-à-vis the cow, is the absence of milk, a substance that humans do not need in the slightest. It's crazy. Human beings don't produce enough enzymes to break down and metabolise the lactose in milk, and only in the West have we trained ourselves to tolerate cow's milk in large quantities. Elsewhere in the world, it has never been very popular, since all that undigested lactose ends up in the gut, feeding the bacteria there and leading to excess gas and bloating. (That'll be 1.3 billion new gassy Chinese citizens, then, not to mention several hundred million extra methane-pumping cows. Al, China needs you!) We do need mother's milk when we are very young, but that's our mother, not a two-ton Holstein- Friesian hooked up to a great big teat- sucking machine that keeps her lactating unnaturally her entire life. Yet if the pig beats the flatulent, slow-growing, cream-dripping cow on so many counts, why do we diss the porker? Pork is the world's most proscribed meat, banned in both the Torah and the Quran. One theory that seeks to explain these prohibitions is deforestation. Pigs were kept for thousands of years in the Middle East, but as the region became drier and drier, this gradual loss of the pig's natural habitat made it increasingly impractical to keep the animal. Unlike ruminants, the pig does not thrive in semiarid conditions, and the ban on pork in Leviticus may have been no more than sound practical advice; the pig eats what its master eats, not the kind of company you want to keep if food is likely to be scarce, on a forty-year trek in the wilderness, for example. Later on, when Islam began its expansion through the Middle East, eventually reaching as far as the Bay of Bengal, Mohammed's ban on pork meat -- the only food prohibition in the Quran -- would have presented the peoples of these by now semiarid regions with few problems; the sheep and, more to the point, the gloriously hardy and omnivorous goat, already reigned supreme. No, the pig is made for cool, damp conditions, where tubers, root vegetables, and leafy greens abound. A place where there is lots of moist, cool shade. A damp, verdant place.Where it rains a lot. Don Porco, welcome to Galicia. Everything But the Squeal by John Barlow is published by Wakefield Press, rrp $24.95. If the pig beats the flatulent, slow-growing, cream-dripping cow on so many counts, why do we diss the porker?
December January 2010