This Little Piggy Went to Market

Mexican Pork Market

Pork for sale in Oaxaca, Mexico

If you said “Wall Street” and “pigs” in the same sentence, people might think you were talking about greed and dirty dealing, or perhaps they would assume it was a socialist comment about capitalism. However, Wall Street has an older association with pigs than these metaphorical ones. In the 1600s, semi-wild pigs were wreaking such havoc in the grain fields and gardens of colonial New Yorkers that a long wall was built on the northern edge of the colony on Manhattan Island, to control the roaming herds. The road that ran along the inside of the wall became, of course, Wall Street. But this search for solutions to the “we want pigs, we don’t want pigs” conflict has gone on for a long time.

All domestic pigs are descended from the wild boar, Sus scrofa, and in fact, the domesticated pig is simply called Sus scrofa domesticus. Various subspecies of the wild boar ranged across an area that extended from the British Isles to Morocco in the West and Japan and New Guinea in the East. (There are more species of boar or wild hog than just Sus scrofa, but they are not ancestors of today’s domestic pig.) There is debate as to precisely where the first domestication occurred, but it is possible that pigs were actually domesticated in multiple locations at different times. The Chinese state that intensive pig production occurred there as early as 4300 BC. However, the largest amount of archaeological evidence places the first domestication in the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean at about 8000–5000 BC.

Because the wild boar is both inquisitive and opportunistic, it is likely that domestication did not provide any great difficulties. Offer them leftovers and a degree of protection from larger carnivores, and they’re going to stick around. Because they reproduce prolifically (the gestation period is only four months, and a sow has an average of 10 piglets, though litters can be as large as 30—only the rabbit is more prolific) and don’t compete with humans for food, having swine stick around seemed like a good idea.

By 1500 BC, pig raising was well established in Europe. Cuneiform tablets from the Hittite Empire (c. 1400 BC–c. 1200 BC) reveal laws regarding the ownership and control of pigs. With the rise of ancient Greece and Rome came the introduction of the idea of eating for pleasure, and pigs became part of the search for luxury. The Greeks thought the tastiest pigs were those that had died of overeating. Romans fed their short-legged pigs dried figs and honey, to sweeten the meat and fatten the livers, and imported hams from Gaul (modern France).

As cities grew, pigs increased. From Greece’s early days through the Middle Ages, pigs roamed the streets of towns all over Europe. Pigs were useful in urban environments because they ate garbage, which helped keep urban waste under control. (Pigs will, in fact, eat almost anything. They do not do well on cellulose alone, but they will happily eat roots, acorns, mushrooms, worms, grubs, eggs, and small reptiles and mammals—and even larger mammals, if the opportunity arises. However, it was this eating of garbage that contributed to the sometimes deserved reputation of pigs as being “unclean.” They would eat vermin in the cities, which sometimes led to the spread of disease.)

There was a down side to the proliferation of urban pigs. They were constantly in the way of horses, wagons, and pedestrians; they would push themselves in where they weren’t wanted, often upsetting pails or knocking down vendors’ stalls; and they customarily invaded vegetable gardens. The first attempt to solve this problem came in 1131, after a street pig in Paris dove between the legs of a horse ridden by Crown Prince Philip, son of Louis the Fat. When the horse bolted, the prince was thrown, and he died of a fractured skull. An edict was passed forbidding the raising of pigs in town. The edict was ignored, and four centuries later, Parisians still had their pigs.

For more than 2,000 years, pork would be virtually the only meat available to Europe’s peasants— though the middle and upper classes raised pigs, too. It was because of this that the peasants clung so ferociously to keeping their pigs, even as they acknowledged the problems pigs caused in urban settings. But not all foraging pigs were city dwellers. “Pannage,” the pasturing of pigs in the forest, is an ancient practice that has still not disappeared completely in Europe. Each type of forest nut—acorn, chestnut, or beech—alters the taste of the pork, and each has its fans. As the number of pigs grew, it became necessary to protect the forests, so a pannage season was set.

The fluctuations of weather in Europe demanded that a way be found of preserving meat. Pigs were fattened during the summer and autumn, and then slaughtered before winter set in. Cured pork products proliferated, from a wide range of sausages to salt pork and bacon to smoked and cured hams.

But Europe lagged, and still lags, behind Asia, as far as pigs are concerned. China has always been the world’s leading consumer of pork—in fact, pork is more important in China than all other meats combined. Pottery models of pig houses have been found in tombs dating to the Chou and Han dynasties (1122BC–AD 220), and the Chinese ideograph for home consists of the character for swine beneath the character for roof. The Chinese make use of all parts of the pig, and even fry most pork cuts in lard. In China, if you say “meat” without being more specific, you will get pork. (And because of China’s fondness for pork, Mongolians have an aversion to it. Eating pork is seen as “going Chinese.”)

Pigs came to the New World as soon as Europeans did. Christopher Columbus had a few pigs along on his voyage to Cuba in 1493, and it became a common practice to drop pigs on islands, to support anyone who might get shipwrecked in the area. Hernán Cortés had pigs with him when he landed in Mexico in 1519. The large, sometimes dangerous wild boars that thrive in the areas along the Gulf of Mexico today are in reality the feral descendants of early Spanish pigs.

The honor of introducing pork into what is now the United States belongs to Hernando de Soto. De Soto landed in 1539 at Tampa Bay with 13 to 15 pigs. The region’s native population became almost instantly enamored of the flavor of pork, which resulted in a number of serious attacks on de Soto’s expedition. Despite the fact that many pigs were consumed by de Soto’s troops, some escaped (the ancestors of the razorback), and others were given to Native Americans to keep the peace, the expedition’s little herd had grown to 700 pigs by the time de Soto died three years later.

Sir Walter Raleigh introduced pigs into Virginia, and each new wave of settlers brought more pigs. Pigs increased in popularity in Mexico, the Caribbean, and, to a lesser degree, South America, where beef was generally preferred. Pioneers heading west took pigs with them. During the Civil War, pig production exploded, because it was the easiest way to feed the troops. In the mid-1800s, drovers moved 40,000-70,000 pigs a year to eastern markets. One hired hand per 100 pigs was needed to move the huge herds. Pork did not lose its preeminent position in the North American diet until the early 1900s, when it was displaced by beef. (Thank goodness. Those great, old Westerns just wouldn’t have been the same with guys herding pigs.)

Developments in transportation and refrigeration have made it possible for pork products to be shipped far from where the animals are raised. Today, Canada is the world’s leading pork-producing country, followed by Denmark and the United States. (China has more pigs, but they are largely owned by individual farmers, who use them for personal consumption, not as commercial products. Hence, the Chinese do not fall into the category of major producers.)

Today, pork is second only to beef as the most commonly eaten meat worldwide, despite being taboo for major population groups (primarily Muslims and Jews). From the delicate prosciutto of Italy to the hefty sausages of Germany to the savory carnitas of Mexico to the myriad pork stir-frys of China, pork remains one of the most important meats in the world.

Vastly more could be said about pigs, from Viking dreams of eating pork in Valhalla to the extinction of the dodo bird because of the introduction of pigs on Mauritius, from the Etruscans training pigs to respond to a trumpet call to the French using pigs to find truffles. Pigs and hogs have been a significant part of human and culinary history. And just so you know, the difference between a pig and a hog is age. A hog is simply a pig that has reached sexual maturity, which happens between six to eight months old. So technically, no one breeds pigs; they breed hogs.

And then there’s the history of barbecue, which is also tied up with the history of pigs—but we’ll save that for later. Anyone up for some ribs?

[This originally appeared in a slightly different form in Hungry Magazine.]

©2008 Cynthia Clampitt

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Filed under culinary history, Food, History

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