Mar 012016


Today is National Pig Day one of many pseudo-holidays held in the United States to celebrate the pig. The holiday celebration was started in 1972 by sisters Ellen Stanley, a teacher in Lubbock, Texas, and Mary Lynne Rave of Beaufort, North Carolina. According to Rave the purpose of National Pig Day is “to accord the pig its rightful, though generally unrecognized, place as one of man’s most intellectual and domesticated animals.” The holiday is most often celebrated in the Midwest where pig farming is extensive. Seems like a suitable holiday on which to indulge my ramblings.

National Pig Day includes events at zoos, schools, nursing homes, and sporting events around the United States. It is also recognized at “pig parties” where pink pig punch and pork delicacies are served, and pink ribbon pigtails are tied around trees in the pig’s honor. According to Chase’s Calendar of Events, National Pig Day is on the same day as pseudo-holidays Share a Smile day and Peanut Butter Lover’s day, so take your pick if you don’t like pigs. The question of whether the holiday is a time to honor pigs by “giving them a break” or to appreciate their offerings is an open question.


Archaeological evidence suggests that pigs were domesticated from wild boar as early as 13,000–12,700 BCE in the Near East in the Tigris Basin being managed in the wild in a way similar to the way they are managed by some modern New Guineans. Remains of pigs have been dated to earlier than 11,400 BCE in Cyprus. Those animals must have been introduced from the mainland, which suggests domestication in the adjacent mainland by then. There was a separate domestication in China which took place about 8000 years ago. DNA evidence from sub-fossil remains of teeth and jawbones of Neolithic pigs shows that the first domestic pigs in Europe had been brought from the Near East. This stimulated the domestication of local European wild boar resulting in a third domestication event with the Near Eastern genes dying out in European pig stock.

The adaptable nature and omnivorous diet of the wild boar allowed early humans to domesticate it readily. Pigs were mostly used for food, but early civilizations also used the pigs’ hides for shields, bones for tools and weapons, and bristles for brushes. In many parts of Asia, pigs have been domesticated for a long time for pig toilets. Though ecologically logical as well as economical, pig toilets are waning in popularity as use of septic tanks and sewage systems is increasing in rural areas.


A pig toilet (sometimes called a “pig sty latrine”) is a simple type of dry toilet consisting of an outhouse mounted over a pig sty, with a chute or hole connecting the two. The pigs consume the feces of the users of the toilet. Pig toilets were once common in rural China, where a single Chinese ideogram (Chinese: 圂; pinyin: hùn) signifies both “pigsty” and “privy”. These arrangements have been strongly discouraged by the Chinese authorities in recent years; although as late as 2005, they could still be found in remote northern provinces.

Pigs were brought to southeastern North America from Europe by de Soto and other early Spanish explorers. Escaped pigs became feral and caused a great deal of disruption to Native Americans, who had no domesticated livestock. Domestic pigs have become feral in many other parts of the world (e.g. New Zealand and northern Queensland) and have caused substantial environmental damage.

Pork is a well-known example of a non-kosher food. This prohibition is based on Leviticus 11:2–4, 7–8 (as well as Deuteronomy chapter 14):

These are the creatures that you may eat from among all the animals that are upon the land. Everything that possesses a split hoof, which is fully cloven, and that brings up its cud—this you may eat. But this is what you shall not eat from what brings up its cud or possesses split hooves—the camel, because it brings up its cud but does not possess split hooves…and the pig, because it has split hooves that are completely cloven, but it does not bring up its cud—it is impure to you and from its flesh you may not eat.

Why pork was prohibited in ancient Israel is a source of ongoing debate. When undercooked pork was discovered in the 19th century to be a cause of the parasite trichinosis, many scholars jumped on this fact as the principal reason for the pork taboo in ancient times. But this is a lame argument. Animal borne diseases such as salmonella (chicken) or anthrax (beef) are much more virulent and harder to get rid of. Trichinosis can easily be avoided by cooking the pork properly.

Structural anthropologists, such as Mary Douglas in Purity and Danger, have argued that the taboo comes from ancient Israelite cultural categories propounded in Genesis. Israelite cosmology adamantly believed in the existence of three zones – land, sea, and sky – that were created by God during creation and should be kept separate. Not only that, each zone has animals that truly “belong” and those that do not. Fish (with fins and scales), for example, belong in the sea because they swim and can breath underwater. Lobsters do not belong because they walk on the bottom. Amphibians that can live in water and on land are an abomination. In this cosmology, sheep and goats belong and pigs do not, because the former eat grass (land food), but pigs eat everything.


Marvin Harris in Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches takes up a more ecological argument. Why, he asks, do some cultures despise pigs, while others, such as people in highland New Guinea, love them? For the ancient Israelites, he argues, sheep and goats were environmentally beneficial, but pigs were destructive. The core lands of ancient Judah (around Jerusalem) are hilly and difficult to farm. Sheep and goats can be grazed in mountainous regions that are not suitable for arable, eating herbage, and, therefore, turning otherwise unusable land into meat, milk, and bone. Pigs can’t do this. They have to be kept in urban environments.

I have spent a lot of energy asking the question why city-dwelling Jewish priests in Jerusalem despised cities and loved mountain herders, and, in brief, I think the answer lies in Israel and Judah’s constant subjugation to multicultural cities in Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon. I think I can combine Douglas’ and Harris’ ideas, therefore. In part I think they are both right. Jerusalem priests wanted to be left alone and were afraid of assimilation into these vast multicultural empires in which their ethnic identity would be lost. This led to a theology that valued the separation of different things – which included animals, types of cloth, peoples etc. The word “separate” in Hebrew (qadosh) and “holy” are the same. Multicultural cities were evil; the wilderness of shepherds was good. Great leaders such as Abraham, Jacob, and David kept herds. They dwelt in lands that made them tough and fierce fighters. Cities bred arrogance and sloth. Pigs were the food of city dwellers and symbolized their habits: dirty, greedy, and slothful.

(Click to enlarge)

(Click to enlarge)

Be that as it may, pork is incredibly versatile. I couldn’t even begin to list the food products containing pork – sausages, hams, bacon, etc., never mind chitterlings, pork rind, trotters, boar’s head . . . and on and on. Lard is a great medium to fry in and makes superb pastry. I won’t go on. This site is a fairly broad listing of pork dishes around the world – enough to make you salivate.

Ok, OK, pork fat is not tremendously good for your arteries. I get it. But, as with all foods that can be harmful, moderation is the key. Four years ago I moved from Argentina which has the lowest per capita consumption of pork of countries where pork is not taboo, to China which has the highest consumption. Even so, Argentina was the first country where I found pork kidneys for sale in markets, and they were delectable. In China I could have drowned in pork. If you ask for “meat” (肉: ròu) in a restaurant you’ll invariably get pork.

I won’t prejudice you with a recipe. You pick – lentils with ham hocks or pig’s trotters, prosciutto, a BLT, black pudding, chicharrones, pork pie

. . . have at it. Here’s a small gallery:

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