Pig/Pork: Archaeology, Zoology, and Edibility

By Pía Spry-Marqués

Bloomsbury Sigma, 2017; 256 pages; $27.00

Growing up in Madrid, Pía Spry-Marqués might sensibly claim that there’s a little bit of swine in every cell of her body, for pigs are to Spain what apple pie is to America. The average Spaniard, she notes, consumes 114 pounds of pork products annually in such forms as chops, ham, and chorizo sausage. Pork is not only a national food, it is an art form: Jamón ibérico de bellota, a ham whose reputation for succulence and expense rivals that of Kobe beef, is produced from an exclusive breed of pigs that are fattened on acorns in stands of holm oaks in the southwestern Iberia and is processed in a complex series of salting and aging steps that can span several years.

Currently a research archaeologist at the University of Cambridge, UK, Spry-Marqués opens her book with a readable summary of recent scholarship on the origins of domestic swine in China and in the eastern Mediterranean, citing remains at prehistoric sites and recent studies of mitochondrial DNA. Her subsequent chapters, less academic in emphasis, range widely over the porcine landscape, providing a highly informative and entertaining look at the natural history of the animal, and highlighting the stake, which nearly everyone, not just Spaniards, has in their breeding and consumption.

There’s a chapter on swine physiology, in which one learns, among other things, that pigs are not really very good at sweating, and that, because they are easily sunburned, there are several brands of swine sunscreen on the market. In a section on pig poop, we read of the Enviropig, a genetically-modified Yorkshire breed that has been engineered to digest plant phosphorous more efficiently, thus reducing the amount of algae-inducing phosphate pollutants leaching into streams and lakes. For adventurous gourmets, there are descriptions of odd treats some pork lovers used to salivate over, such as Bath Chaps, a forgotten British delicacy that consists of “the cheek and tongue of a pig, tied into shape and later boiled, skinned, and breaded.” And, appropriately for these fractious times, there are several chapters on the social aspects of pork, especially the history and nature of Jewish and Islamic strictures against the eating of meat from pigs (ironically, from cultures whose forbears pioneered their domestication).

Notable, too, are numerous distinctive recipes that mark the ending pages of each chapter. Here you’ll find some attractive, even iconic, regional dishes, such as a pork tenderloin with oranges from Spain and veal-pork meatballs, frikadeller, from Denmark, along with more dubious edibles such as criadillas (pig testicles in sauce), and Asian-inspired pork uterus with green onion and ginger.

In a surprising and provocative last chapter, Spry-Marqués argues for her own decision—after beginning work on this book—to renounce the diet of her youth and eat vegan. Many of the farming and pig-processing practices she has written about, on closer examination, seem to her neither humane nor necessary. Do we really need to slaughter 1.3 billion pigs a year to satisfy our gustatory pleasures? She envisions a future in which, while acknowledging our debt to past diet and tradition, we “Love pigs, not pork.”