Pig meat: It’s a weirdly polarizing subject. In some cultures, it’s a mealtime staple; in others, it’s considered so unclean that there are entire dietary laws and rituals governing what to do if a plate comes into contact with a piece of bacon. What accounts for this difference? As is so often the case when it comes to explaining human culture, it probably goes back to stuff that happened a long, long time ago. On NPR’s website, Mark Essig, a Cornell University history professor and the author of Lesser Beasts: A Snout-to-Tail History of the Humble Pig, offers some explanation.
Given that codified pig-aversion appears to have first arisen thousands of years ago in what is today Israel and Palestine, Essig writes that “The mostly popular explanation [for some cultures’ aversion to pig meat] — that the ban protected against trichinosis — is almost certainly untrue (there’s no evidence the parasite existed in ancient Palestine, and other meats could be equally dangerous).” Rather, Essig writes that the best way to understand this cultural difference is to look at places where pig meat has been not only tolerated, but enthusiastically devoured.
Just across the Mediterranean … the Romans loved swine with a passion matched by few people before or since. Romans sacrificed pigs to their gods and created an elaborate pork-based cuisine, including some dishes — such as roast udder of lactating sow — that could make even a gentile shudder.
The final step in solving this tasty versus disgusting mystery is to figure out what separates these different places, and Essig thinks he has the answer:
What accounts for these differing views? In the Near East, an arid land, most pigs lived as urban scavengers. The Italian Peninsula, by contrast, boasted vast oak forests, and Rome imported wheat by the shipload. Rather than eating garbage in the streets, Roman pigs spent their days dining on acorns and grain.
The reputation of pork depends upon the life of the pig. In early medieval Europe, when most pigs foraged in the woods, pork was the preferred meat of the nobility. By 1300 most forests had been felled, and pigs became scavengers. In a medieval British text, a woman explains that she won’t serve pork because pigs “eat human shit in the streets.” Pigs also dined on human flesh, which was available because executed prisoners, among others, were left unburied. In Shakespeare’s Richard III, the title character is described as a “foul swine” who “Swills your warm blood like wash, and makes his trough / In your embowell’d bosoms.” An Irish religious text noted, “Cows feed only on grass and the leaves of trees, but swine eat things clean and unclean.”
It’s interesting to think that deeply held religious beliefs — and deeply loved meals — may go back to the random question of whether one’s ancestors, or the people one’s ancestors traded with or were converted by, hung out with (gross) city-pigs or (wholesome) country-pigs.