Jun 152016


Today is Nirjala Ekadashi, a moveable sacred event in the Hindu faith, and therefore perfect for this year’s blog, were it not for the fact that it is the most stringent fast day in the Hindu lunar calendar.  Devout Hindus are supposed to refrain completely from all food and drink for a 24-hour period on this date – much stricter than the Ramadan fasting regulations which call for an absence of food and drink in daylight hours, but relax these prohibitions after dark. Despite appearances to the contrary, this is a FOOD blog, and finding a way to include a recipe du jour for an absolutely austere fast day, while not impossible, runs counter to the spirit of the Hindu faith. I could, for example, focus on what people eat after the fast, as I did for Ramadan, but in the latter case the focus is legitimate because Muslims do break the fast at sundown. Not so for Hindus on this date. For them the fast is absolute for a complete 24-hour cycle. Instead I’ll move on to a fixed anniversary– the Pig War.

Today marks the anniversary of the beginning of the Pig War,which was a confrontation in the 19th century between the United States and the British Empire over boundaries between the US and Canada. The territory in dispute was the San Juan Islands, which lie between Vancouver Island and the North American mainland. The Pig War is so called because it was triggered by the shooting of a pig, on this date in 1859. It also called the Pig Episode, the Pig and Potato War, the San Juan Boundary Dispute or the Northwestern Boundary Dispute. There were no shots exchanged in the dispute, and no human casualties, therefore this was a bloodless conflict.


The Oregon Treaty of June 15, 1846, resolved the Oregon boundary dispute by dividing the Oregon Country/Columbia District between the United States and Britain “along the forty-ninth parallel of north latitude to the middle of the channel which separates the continent from Vancouver Island, and thence southerly through the middle of the said channel, and of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, to the Pacific Ocean.” However, there are actually two straits that could be called the middle of the channel: Haro Strait, along the west side of the San Juan Islands; and Rosario Strait, along the east side.

In 1846 there was still some uncertainty about the geography of the region. The most commonly available maps were those of George Vancouver, published in 1798, and of Charles Wilkes, published in 1845. In both cases the maps are unclear in the vicinity of the southeastern coast of Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. As a result, the geography of Haro Strait is not fully clear either. In 1856, the US and Britain set up a Boundary Commission to resolve a number of issues regarding the international boundary, including the water boundary from the Strait of Georgia to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. However, because of mapping and treaty ambiguities, both the United States and Britain claimed sovereignty over the San Juan Islands. During this period of disputed sovereignty, Britain’s Hudson’s Bay Company established operations on San Juan and turned the island into a sheep ranch. Meanwhile, by mid-1859, around 25 US settlers had arrived.


San Juan Island held significance not for its size, but as a military strategic point. While the British held Fort Victoria on Vancouver Island to the west, overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the entry point to Haro Strait, leading to the Strait of Georgia, the nation that held the San Juan Islands would be able to dominate all the straits connecting the Strait of Juan de Fuca with the Strait of Georgia.

The map below, which you can click to enlarge, shows the region with three lines showing the different boundary proposals. The blue line was favored by the US, the red line by Britain, and the green line was a proposed compromise. Both the red and green lines place San Juan in Canada.


On June 15, 1859, exactly thirteen years after the adoption of the Oregon Treaty, the ambiguity led to direct conflict. Lyman Cutlar, a US farmer who had moved on to the island claiming rights to live there, found a large black pig rooting in his garden. The pig was eating his tubers. Cutlar was so upset, this not being the first time a pig had entered his garden, that he took aim and shot the pig, killing it. It turned out that the pig was owned by an Irishman, Charles Griffin, who was employed by the Hudson’s Bay Company to run the sheep ranch. He also owned several pigs that he allowed to roam freely. The two men had lived in peace until this incident. Cutlar offered $10 to Griffin to compensate for the pig, but Griffin was unsatisfied with this offer and demanded $100. Cutlar refused, believing that he should not have had to pay anything for the pig because the pig had been trespassing on his land. When British authorities threatened to arrest Cutlar, US settlers called for military protection.

Brigadier-General William S. Harney, commanding the Department of Oregon, initially dispatched 66 US soldiers of the 9th Infantry under the command of Captain George Pickett to San Juan Island with orders to prevent the British from landing. Concerned that a squatter population of the US would begin to occupy San Juan Island if they were not kept in check, the British sent three warships under the command of Captain Geoffrey Hornby. Pickett was famously quoted as saying defiantly, “We’ll make a Bunker Hill of it.” Escalation continued. By August 10, 1859, US troops with 14 cannon under Colonel Silas Casey were opposed by five British warships mounting 70 guns and carrying 2,140 men. During this time, no shots were fired.


The governor of the Colony of Vancouver Island, James Douglas, ordered British Rear Admiral Robert L. Baynes to land marines on San Juan Island and engage the US soldiers under the command of Brigadier-General Harney. (Harney’s forces had occupied the island since July 27, 1859.) Baynes refused, deciding that “two great nations in a war over a squabble about a pig” was foolish. Local commanding officers on both sides had been given essentially the same orders: defend yourselves, but absolutely do not fire the first shot. For several days, the British and U.S. soldiers exchanged insults, each side attempting to goad the other into firing the first shot, but discipline held on both sides, and thus no shots were fired.

When news about the crisis reached Washington and London, officials from both nations were shocked and took action to calm the potentially explosive international incident. In September, U.S. President James Buchanan sent General Winfield Scott to negotiate with Governor Douglas and resolve the growing crisis. This was in the best interest of the United States, as sectional tensions within the country were increasing, soon to culminate in the Civil War. Scott had calmed two other border crises between the two nations in the late 1830s. He arrived in San Juan in October and began negotiations with Douglas.


As a result of the negotiations, both sides agreed to retain joint military occupation of the island until a final settlement could be reached, reducing their presence to a token force of no more than 100 men. The British Camp was established on the north end of San Juan Island along the shoreline, for ease of supply and access; and the US Camp was created on the south end on a high, windswept meadow, suitable for artillery barrages against shipping. Today the Union Jack still flies above the “British Camp”, being raised and lowered daily by park rangers, making it one of the very few places without diplomatic status where US government employees regularly hoist the flag of another country.


During the years of joint military occupation, the small British and US units on San Juan Island had a very amicable mutual social life, visiting one another’s camps to celebrate their respective national holidays and holding various athletic competitions. Apparently the biggest threat to peace on the island during these years was the plentiful amount of alcohol available.


This state of affairs continued for the next 12 years. The dispute was peacefully resolved after more than a decade of military bluster by the respective high commands, during which time the local British authorities consistently lobbied London to seize back the Puget Sound region entirely, given that the US was engaged elsewhere with the Civil War. In 1866, the Colony of Vancouver Island was merged with the Colony of British Columbia to form an enlarged Colony of British Columbia. In 1871, the enlarged colony joined the newly formed Dominion of Canada. That year, Great Britain and the United States signed the Treaty of Washington, which dealt with various differences between the two nations, including border issues involving the newly formed Dominion. Among the results of the treaty was the decision to resolve the San Juan dispute by international arbitration, with Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany chosen to act as arbitrator. Wilhelm referred the issue to a three-man arbitration commission which met in Geneva for nearly a year. On October 21, 1872, the commission decided in favor of the United States. The arbitrator chose the US-preferred marine boundary via Haro Strait, to the west of the islands, over the British preference for Rosario Strait. On November 25, 1872, the British withdrew their Royal Marines from the British Camp. The US followed suit in July 1874.

Obviously roast pork, or any pork dish, would be appropriate as a celebration, but a whole spit-roast pig would be ideal. I recognize that most readers won’t be able to manage this for a whole host of reasons, including the fact that you need a whole pig, about 100 guests and space to put them, never mind having a giant yard, a fire pit, and a spit. But I used to do this every year in the 1980s and 90s when I lived on a big property in New York State, so I’ll give you some thoughts. I will say at the beginning though that June around the solstice is the worst time of year in the northern hemisphere for roasting a whole pig. I used to do mine in October. You can do it in the summer, and I have friends who still do it annually, but you multiply difficulties.


Let’s begin with the pig itself. I lived in pig farming country, so it was easy to get a whole pig. A local farmer would kill and dress the pig, and then deliver it the day before I was set to roast it. All I had to do was attach it to the spit. When I lived in North Carolina, locals held pig pickin’ parties. They split the pig completely open so that it lay flat on a grate, roast it skin side down, and then lay a second grate on top, flipped the pig over (big job), and roast the underside next. Roasting skin side down took the bulk of the cooking, and then cooking the underside took several hours more. When the host decided it was time, guests helped themselves by cutting off (pickin’) cooked pieces, and any parts of the pig that were not done were left on the fire to roast more. This makes for a very sociable gathering, but I always preferred to spit roast.

So . . . first get a pig. You don’t want it to be too big because you need to be able to handle it, and you need to be able to cook it in one day. The pigs I cooked were usually around 100 lbs when gutted, that is, young pigs – less than a year old. The pig must be stripped of all bristles on the skin, and the internal organs removed so that all you have are muscle meat and bones. Then the belly needs to be sewn or clamped shut in some manner, ready for roasting (I kept head and trotters attached).

I don’t have any photos of the setup I used because they are all in storage in New York, from the days before digital photography. The photo here that I nicked from the internet is fairly close, however. You have to wire the pig firmly to the spit so that you can turn the spit through 360°, and the pig will rotate with it without slipping. You also need a crank on the spit so that you can turn it easily. I am sure that all cooks differ over method. Mine evolved over time, and it’s not complicated – just time consuming.

I used matured and split hardwood for the fire – usually cherry or apple because they were available, but any hardwood will do. The smoke from the wood is an essential component of the cooking process. I started the fire at around 4 am on the day of the party. I took about an hour to get a good bed of coals spread evenly over the fire pit which I replenished throughout the day from a secondary fire pit that I had constantly on the go nearby. I  kept the pig, already attached to the spit, in a shed adjacent to my fire pit, and I would get a friend to help me carry it to the fire pit when the coals were ready. I used to do this in mid October so that it was possible to keep the pig outdoors overnight without the need for refrigeration.

Once the pig was situated over the fire it was just a matter of time and patience. You need to keep the pig turning so that it cooks evenly. I never felt the need to baste the skin in any way, although I know plenty of cooks who do. The skin browns and crisps nicely without any aids. You do need to wrap the ears in foil, however, because they can burn before the pig is cooked, and someone always wants an ear. My hound-dog friend, Lawson, a split cane rod maker from North Carolina, brought his blade to hack them off to chew on towards the end.

My formula was to rotate the pig through 360° in the course of an hour, which meant rotating it through 90° every 15 minutes. Professionals have machine driven spits that slowly rotate the pig for you, but you don’t need it. You can rotate faster or slower as you desire. I don’t think it makes any difference. A quarter turn every quarter hour just seemed neat and simple to me. The vast bulk of the time roasting the pig is just idle time. In the dark of the early morning I sat with the pig, staring at the sky and meditating, and then as the day progressed friends and other guests would arrive and sit with me for a spell. You don’t really have to sit beside the pit; dogs and stray animals will stay away because of the fire. They’d burn themselves trying to get to the pig. I used to sit with it anyway, from start to finish, more or less.  In the pre-dawn hours I could see Orion, the hunter, chasing Taurus, the bull. It seemed fitting given that the October moon is the hunter’s moon, and I was cooking like a hunter of yore.

Some cooks use a meat thermometer, and it’s probably a good idea. I never did. The USDA used to recommend an internal temperature for pork of 160°F but recently lowered it to 145°F (followed by 3 minutes of rest). Pork cooked to 145°F is pinker than many cooks are used to, but it is perfectly safe, and is a great deal juicier than meat that is cooked longer to higher temperatures. There’s a good website on this issue here http://www.pork.org/new-usda-guidelines-lower-pork-cooking-temperature/ My rule of thumb was 14 hours over a moderate fire for a 100 lb pig. It was usually not completely cooked on the inside, but there was enough meat for 100 guests, and I kept the partially cooked parts for later.

Serving the pig is also not complicated, but time consuming. You’ll need butchering knives and some knowledge of butchering pork, but you don’t have to be pretty about it. You need to cut the whole pig into manageable segments and then strip the meat from the bone. Pile the cut meat on heated platters and let guests help themselves. This is where paper plates and plastic forks come in. It’s not a bad idea to have some sauces available in case guests want them. Barbecue sauce is popular. I like very hot English mustard.  Your choice.

Accompaniments are also important. Might as well let the fire do double duty. I used to roast potatoes and apples. For the potatoes, split them partly open, insert a knob of butter, close back up, and wrap each individually in foil. For apples, core them, stuff the center with butter, brown sugar, and spices (any combination of allspice, cloves, cinnamon and ginger will work), and wrap individually in foil. Cook the apples and potatoes by placing them in a single layer on the coals at the edge. Potatoes will cook in around an hour and need to be checked periodically after that. They can stay a little longer if need be. Apples require a shorter cooking time. Depending on the heat of the coals, they cook in about 30 minutes. They won’t stand overcooking in the way that potatoes will. For other side dishes I served a cabbage and mayonnaise coleslaw and baked beans (all home made of course). They were good times.