Lesser Beasts, by Mark Essig

Ah, the pig...reviled, beloved, abstained from, engorged on...the pig is many things to many people, a complicated animal with a complex history. Essig's well-researched history of hogs delves into the biology and evolution of swine, their domestication and the development of how humans live with and raise them, and of course their varied cultural associations. Moving essentially chronologically, Essig explains how pigs most likely domesticated themselves several different times in several different places, and how the consumption of their meat has fluctuated wildly, though usually for the same reasons. Feeding on anything in their path, including human corpses and excrement, pigs developed a reputation for being filthy, unclean animals, suitable only for poor people who had no other meat available (the notable exception to this rule being Rome, whose ruling class had a serious love affair with pork). This association fed on itself (pun intended), to the point where some societies outlawed eating pork as a means of social control over the lower classes. We find the vestiges of this in the kosher and halal laws of Judaism and Islam, respectively. Even taking religion out of the picture, the association remains very strong, and wasn't helped by the unveiling of horrific meat processing conditions in the early 1900s, nor by the revelations of modern agro-business's indoor meat-raising plants.

For the most part, this is a relatively unbiased look at the animals some love excessively and some despise passionately. Essig's eventual conclusion is the simple exhortation to make an effort to know where your pork is coming from and to support farmers who choose to forgo huge industrial operations in favor of treating their pigs well, in comfortable, natural environments, the side benefit being that the well-treated pig almost always makes better tasting pork. The book is easy to read and engaging, though it does occasionally get bogged down in numbers. I certainly feel more educated about the biology and history of the pig, though I wish at times I hadn't been eating as I read it. Despite the occasional gross out moment, this is a noble work on a "lesser beast."


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