Lesser Beasts

I just finished reading Mark Essig's book Lesser Beasts.  It is a fascinating account of the history of the pig - from hunter-gather times right through to today.  There were all kinds of interesting tidbits about the pig and the book uncovers an often unappreciated role for the pig in the development of civilization, politics and power-dynamics, and more.  

One theme that comes up several time is that throughout history, the pig was often a food of choice for the poor, in part because they pigs are so prolific producers of offspring and because they are such versatile eaters (devouring everything including excrement and dead bodies).  As a result, the ruling elite often disliked pork because of the pigs' unsavory diets but also because hogs gave the poor freedom to ignore the dictates of the leaders.  Kings and other rulers often controlled the supply of wheat and other-foodstuffs as a way of keeping their subjects in line, but pigs gave poor their own access to calories.  Essig also plays up the role of pigs in fostering the rise of civilization, writing:  

Only when farmers grew enough food to fill the bellies of bureaucrats, priests, and soldiers could these elites go about the business of creating what we call civilization.

Another interesting theme of the book is that throughout history pigs have served as a store of value, insurance against risk, and as mechanism to prevent waste and transform undesirable or inedible calories into tasty bacon, lard, and ham.  For example, Essig describes how Spanish and Portuguese sailors discovering North and South America made ample use of the pig. They: 

dumped breeding pairs of pigs on uninhabited islands. ‘A sow and a boar have been left to breed’ on a certain island, one Spanish explorer told another in a letter. ‘Do not kill them. If there should be many, take those you need, but always leave some to breed, and also on your way, leave a sow and a boar on the other islands.’

The plan apparently worked quite well.  When one supply ship sent to Jamestown, VA was blown off course to an island in Bermuda, they were pleased to find pigs left by the Spanish more than a century prior.  There is another story about how 24 pigs in Cuba soon turned to 30,000.  We also learn that one of De Soto's prized possessions in his trek across North America was his swine herd.  

Pigs were adept at converting inedible wilderness into tasty human food.  They continued to do this as the world industrialized:

By the seventeenth century, however, a growing economy had created a new niche for pigs. Activities such as dairying and breadmaking, once undertaken in every household, became large commercial enterprises. The concentration of by-products rose, and so did the concentration of pigs: they began to devour all sorts of commercial wastes.

Fast forward a few centuries,  and they were not only devouring waste (as they still do today) but pigs were making use of the easy calories coming from a New World crop: corn.  As Essig writes: 

In the nineteenth-century America, corn was too difficult to transport to become a cash crop, so farmers turned into valuable added products that were easier to sell: pigs and whiskey.

He also quotes an individual in 1867 as asking, "What is a hog but fifteen or twenty bushels of corn on four legs?"

The last three chapters were easily my least favorite as Essig uncritically recounts the "evils" of factory farming.  While there might be aspects of modern hog production that many of us would like to change, its in these parts of the book that Essig moves from the positive to the normative.  At one point Essig acknowledges pigs of yesteryear didn't always have lead lives high in animal welfare, but he seems to place a lot of moral weight on intentionality writing:  

Such suffering, while not uncommon, indicated that something was wrong. The problem with confining pigs is that cruelty is built into the system.

If you're looking for a more balanced critique of modern hog production, I suggest the documentary At the Fork.

These quibbles aside, I recommend Lesser Beasts - it's hard to imagine finding a more compelling account of the history of the humble pig.