People love pitting the New York Times’ Kim Severson and me against one another on the debate stage. At the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium in Oxford, Mississippi last fall, the topic was Pie vs Cake (we tied). This time, at the Longhouse Food Revival, It was Oink vs Moo. We tied again.
Here’s what I said, after noting that it had been suggested to me that I could win just by saying the word “bacon,” and then reading the poem “Ode to Pork” by Kevin Young:
I have been as intimately involved with pig as a person can be without actually, you know, porking one.
In a barnyard about an hour from here, I stuck my hand into the slit-open, steaming belly of a pig I’d known since it was a little, bitty piglet and pulled his organs out one by one. I’d watched as this animal shuffled and snorted around his circular pen, snuffling with joy, eating whole, dinged-up zucchini, corncobs and table scraps.
He wallowed and oinked and farted a lot — happy as a pig in shit until the second his brother took a bullet between the eyes and a knife to his throat. My little — or at that point, full and fattily grown — friend snorted in fear at the crack of the rifle, then went back to chowing down on some overripe cucumbers, until the same fate befell him.
He went out happy, and you could taste it.
We owe a debt of pleasure to the pig. Even if they’re not especially sentimental, they are generous animals who give over their whole selves to deliciousness and utility.
“From the rooter to the tooter,” folks like to say. “We cook everything but the squeal!” Every part of this animal is useful.
Until the year 2006, your aunt with the sugar diabetes may have managed her condition with the use of pork insulin, and if she’s figured out a medical supply chain across the Atlantic Ocean, she may still. (After the debate a physician reminded me of pig valves for heart patients and I was kicking myself for missing that.)
A person may choose to adorn their own trotters with shoes and gloves crafted from the supple hide of our porcine pals.
A pig may even be pressed into service to cook its own flesh over a fire made from its own bio-charred bones.
A child in the era of Laura Ingalls Wilder, as yet free from the sway of beeps, boops and passive thumb-pressing pleasures of Nintendo and X-Box would be plenty content — gleeful, even — to bat around a balloon crafted of a blown-up pig bladder by their enterprising Pa on hog-killing day.
Ohhhhh — and hog-killing day. That was and is an occasion for extreme celebration, because a hog’s best and highest purpose is to feed people. (Sorry Wilbur.)
Allow me to indulge for just a moment in a litany of pork-based pleasures:
Pork chops, sausage, pulled pork, BAAAAAACON, chicharrones, carnitas, fatback, pork roast, belly, pernil, cochon de lait, pork rillettes, head cheese, spareribs, scrapple.
A bounty of hams from country to Virginia to proscuitto to Iberico to Tasso to Smithfield to Bayonne and beyond.
There is loin and long-stewed and crisp-fried ears and tails, pickled feet and rolled porchetta, cheek and tongue brined and braised a la Fergus Henderson.
Pigs are cooked whole, long and slow, then cleaver chopped by pitmasters like the mighty Samuel Jones and Rodney Scott, who know that all you need to transubstantiate pork into it highest, most holy state is smoke and salt and time.
In the spice-rubbed hands of Armando Batali and Chris Cosentino, it ascends into Petit Jesu, capicolla, mortadella, cultaello and a pantheon of sublime charcuterie.
Chef Isaac Toups and countless sons and daughters of the Louisiana swamplands drain and thicken its blood into boudin, stuff its stomach for chaudin and grind it with onions for chaurice, candy its belly into rillons and puff its skin into life-bettering cracklins.
Chef Saipin Chutima stirs pig blood chunks into sumptuous stews and minces its flesh into spiced laab and serves it sour with crispy rice.
I could go on — and goodness knows I want to, but I’m aching to get to the lard.
Praise the LAAAAARRRRDDDDD.
It is the most flavorful of all the mammal fats, blessed with a melting point that matches the temperature of the human mouth, coating the tongue in a non-waxy way and eliciting moans of pleasure whether it’s deployed in a pastry crust, layered into a biscuit, seeped into the skin of a deep fried vegetable (or even a chicken leg), or just taken straight from a spoon while no one is looking.
It’s not that hard or that pricey to raise a pig — they’re happy to feast on your table scraps, or what they find on the forest floor. Set them loose in the woods for a little while around finishing time and they come back tasting like acorns and nuts and the flavor of the world around them.
The point of a pig is to fatten it up and make it possible for a family to get through to next spring. Cure the meat, save the grease, boil the head and bat the balloon.
A pig is hope. A pig is home. A pig is life.
And that pig — the one into which I stuffed my hand on that cold slaughter morning — he became ham, caul-fat-wrapped crepinettes, liver pate, sausage and casing, head cheese terrine and, oddly enough, a candleholder on my mantle. I made cracklins from his skin, cooked down in their own fat, and I did not waste a single scrap of what was given to me. I may be a hog, but I’m not a pig about it.
And now that I’ve hogged all your time, I’ll leave you with the words of one of the great swineologists of our time, Mr. Homer J. Simpson, speaking to his daughter Lisa:
Lisa: “I’m going to become a vegetarian”
Homer: “Does that mean you’re not going to eat any pork?”
Lisa: “Yes Dad”
Lisa: “Dad all those meats come from the same animal.”
Homer: “Right Lisa, some wonderful, magical animal!”