Saturday, December 30, 2006

Hog-Killing Time

I was watching Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus last night, which featured my favorite southern writer, Harry Crews. In the extra stuff on the DVD he tells part of the story of how he nearly died as a child after being flung into the water used to scald a hog in a game of pop-the-whip. You can find the full story in his marvelous autobiography A Childhood: The Biography of a Place (1978). Anyhows, Crews' story got me thinking that we are more or less at the time for traditional hog slaughter in the South, although it has been a bit too warm here in Tyrone, Georgia for the past few days. There are long accounts of the traditional method of slaughtering and preparing a hog in a number of places, including the first Foxfire book (which came out of Rabun County, Georgia, natch). For now, though, here are some ways a few Southern writers have described this community ritual.

In his semi-autobiographical novel Run With the Horsemen (1982) Ferrol Sams (from right here in Fayette County) recalled that
One of the farm events that made school attendance almost unthinkable to the boy was hog-killing. This involved so much planning, organization, expertise, and total group participation that the boy likened it to feudal preparations for siege. The frantic activity and excitement were exhilarating, and the boy was attracted to it primarily because so much of the ritual horrified and repelled him.
In A Childhood, Crews observed how
Farm families swapped labor at hog-killing time just as they swapped labor to put in tobacco or pick cotton. Early one morning our tenant farmers, mama, my brother, and I walked the half mile to Uncle Alton's place to help put a year's worth of meat in the smokehouse. Later his family would come and help us do the same thing. Before it was over, everything on the hog would have been used.
Finally, in Southern Food: At Home, On the Road, and in History (1987), John Edgerton provides some of the details
On most southern farms the first cold snap harkened the end of summer vegetables and the annual hog slaughter. Livers, cracklings and chitterlings (small intestines), were eaten immediately. Globs of hog fat were boiled in a gigantic black pot to be rendered into lard. Scraps of meat were ground up into sausages. Ribs were slowly steamed (as in the method recommended by Confederate general Stonewall Jackson, who oversaw the pork preparation for his men in gray). Sides of bacon, hog jowls, shoulders, and hams were cured in salt for weeks. Then they were hung in the smokehouse along with a variety of sausages, ham hocks, and knuckles to be smoked over hickory or pecan wood, peanut shells, or corncobs (known as meat cobs). Some farmers cured their meat with red pepper to prevent infestations of fly larvae in the era before refrigeration.
The contrast between traditional foodways (ones rapidly being lost, I presume, not that that's necessarily a bad thing) and modern pork production needs no further elucidation, I suppose...

Friday, December 29, 2006

A Childhood Memory: The Pink Pig

I didn't get around to taking my niece and nephew to Macy's at Lenox Square to ride The Pink Pig. When my sister and I were children this ride was housed at the now-closed downtown Rich's department store. From poking around the interweb, I've learned that The Pink Pig debuted in 1953. My favorite two memories of it are watching my Uncle Mick attempt to squeeze into it with us and seeing my younger sister freak out when charged by a live turkey! I no longer have my "I rode the pink pig" sticker, but I wouldn't be surprised if mom has one stored away in a scrapbook somewhere in the attic.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Barbeque Oral History Project

While reading the paper at mom's house in Tyrone, Georgia this morning I stumbled upon an article about the wonderful Southern Foodways Alliance, a group dedicated to documenting and celebrating the food cultures of the South. If you happen to be in the ATL on January 6th you should attend their Potlikker Film Festival down at Sweetwater Brewing (makers of my favorite local beer, Sweetwater 420). If you can't make it, though, definitely check out what they've got on their website. My favorite section is the Barbeque Oral History Project, which explores the bbq culture of Memphis and rural Tennessee. As I told my mama this morning, the biggest bummer about being a vegetarian is not being able to eat good pork 'que when I'm home. The photos by Amy Evans and the essays and interviews by Joe York for this project make me miss it even more. And to think I've promised to take friends and colleagues to Daddy D'z, home of the best 'que in Atlanta, in a few weeks during the AHA meeting...

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Things One Learns When Visiting My Sister

I've been in Atlanta for the holidays where my sister has collected a terrifyingly awesome pile of People magazine back-issues so that we can get caught up on the last year of celebrity news. Much to my surprise and sadness, I read therein that George Clooney, said magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive" for 2006, had just lost Max, his Vietnamese black bristled potbellied pig companion of almost twenty years. Max died of natural causes on December 1st. The web versions of the People report, complete with cheesy "Hog Heaven" headline, can be found here. R.I.P. Max.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Politicians on Pigs

It seems that politicians of an earlier era referred to pigs quite frequently. For example, Harry S. Truman famously observed that
No man should be allowed to be president who doesn't understand hogs.
Truman grew up on a farm in Missouri, so he had first-hand knowledge of pigs. I've always guessed the same is true about Sir Winston Churchill, who said
I like pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it's hard to find authoritative sources for these statements. They both appear all over the place, but by some perverse logic, the more these quotations are reprinted the less likely I am to be able to verify them. I'll keep digging...

The "Save Babe" Campaign

So I was poking around further at Animals Australia and took note of their Save Babe campaign. Like PETA in the U.S., the site has a number of celebrity statements, but because they are Aussie, I only know one of them, James Cromwell, the human star of what is still my favorite pig film, Babe. This Animals Australia campaign is interesting for a number of reasons, but for now let me say that someone needs to do some work on the rhetorical strategies of animal welfare and animal rights organizations in a trans-national context…

Pigs as Animal Actors: The Case of Arnold Ziffel

One of the things I noticed at the end of Charlotte's Web (the film is o.k., by the way) was a statement saying that a group called Animals Australia was going to make sure that the pigs used in the filming lived happy and full lives. Paramount Pictures gave AA a substantial contribution, in fact, that they are using to improve the lives of pigs in their country. This made me think of the urban legend about Arnold Ziffel, the pig from the television show Green Acres (1965-1971). The story goes that the cast and crew cooked and ate this animal actor at the show's wrap party. As it turns out, of course, there were many pigs, dozens in fact, used to play Arnold Ziffel, and according to Frank Inn, their trainer, they all lived out their lives on farms after being finished with the show. mentions in passing that this story re-emerged in the mid-1990s in the wake of the film Babe, which led to similar rumors.

Pigs and Han-Hui Conflict in China

Thanks to my colleague Ali I've been reading Dru Gladney's fascinating Muslim Chinese: Ethnic Nationalism in the People's Republic (1991). Gladney notes that the taboo against pork has become a distinguishing marker of identity for the Muslim Hui minority in regions of China where the Hui are not openly religious. While pigs and the pork taboo play a significant role in several parts of Gladney's study, I was especially interested in how pigs were used in an attempt to force assimilation of the minority in the 1960s. Mao urged households throughout China to raise pigs: "The more pigs, the more manure; the more manure, the more grain; the more grain, the greater contribution to our country." Hui who resisted this aspect of the Great Leap Forward were critiqued for "feudalist" ideas . Despite this resistance, some Hui households did raise pigs, although it was mainly party activists who did so. One Hui villager told Gladney about the dilemma of having to take care of pigs or face criticism. He would look at the animal and say "Oh you black bug (hei chongzi, a Hui euphemism for pig) if you get fat, you will die. If you get thin, I'll die!" [135-136]

Friday, December 15, 2006

Off to the Movies

Today is the release date for the new "live-action" version of Charlotte's Web. Here is a photo of its stars, an unnamed shoat and 12-year old Dakota Fanning (from Conyers, Georgia, by the way) on the red carpet at the film's premiere. I'm sure I will have more to say about the film later. For now, though, I'd just like to note that the best thing that E.B. White ever wrote about pigs was his funny and moving essay "Death of a Pig" which appeared in the January 1948 issue of Atlantic Monthly. You can find it reprinted in The Essays of E.B White (1977). It describes his reactions to the days and nights spent taking care of a sick pig on his farm. This pig eventually dies. Several critics have argued that White partly (and unintentionally) wrote Charlotte's Web to save this pig in retrospect, as it were. As White wrote in "Death of a Pig" upon burying his pig, which he was raising to eat eventually:
The loss we felt was not the loss of ham but the loss of pig. He had evidently become precious to me, not that he represented a distant nourishment in a hungry time, but that he had suffered in a suffering world.

Foodies & Pigs in News & Reviews

There's a nice article by Sara Dickerman, the food and dining editor at Seattle Magazine, in Slate that addresses the recent fetishization of the pig by food writers. You can find a link to her article here. She's right to call attention to what she calls "the piggy confessional," in which the killing and/or eating of a pig is used as a point of entry into larger discussions of contemporary food production and consumption. She fails to note, though, the frequently nostalgic if not elegiac tone of many of these writers who are using the pig as a tool to critique modern agricultural capitalism. While I think Dickerman puts too much stock in the Jewish and Muslim food taboos as an explanation for what she sees as a current cultural obsession with pigs and pork, her essay is certainly worth taking a look at.

Dickerman's piece, apparently timed for today's release of the new film version of Charlotte's Web (about which more later) doesn't mention the recent New York Times essay about Au Pied du Cochon--The Album, a cookbook produced by Martin Picard and the staff of his restaurant in Montreal. I had a chance to eat there over the summer, but as a vegetarian was unwilling to try his pig dishes. The illustration for this post comes from the cookbook, which is illustrated by Tom Tassel, one of the waiters at Au Pied. Apparently the book has sold out of its first printing, so you might not be able to grab a copy for the foodie on your holiday list. There are plenty of other suggestions, however, in the Slate article.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Pig War, 1859

All this talk of pigs and the culture wars got me thinking about times when actual living pigs have produced conflicts. I have a forthcoming review in the Journal of Social History of Virginia Anderson's excellent book Creatures of Empire, which charts the ways in which animals created conflicts between European colonists and Native Americans in British North America. For today's posting, though, I'm interested in another conflict, the Pig War of 1859 between the British and Americans in Oregon. Because I teach 19th century U.S. history I was aware of the conflicts between Britain and the United States over the Pacific Northwest, but somehow I'd never heard the tale of the pig killed by an American squatter named Lyman Cutlar on San Juan island on June 15, 1869. The pig was rooting in Cutler's garden, which was property he claimed under the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 in territory claimed by both nations given the ambiguity in the Oregon Treaty of 1846. The dead pig was owned by an Irishman named Charles Griffin who was employed by the Hudson's Bay Company. When the British authorities threatened to arrest Cutlar, Americans on the island called for U.S. military protection. The British, fearing further American occupation of San Juan Island, sent troops and warships, turning the incident into a major international crisis. Ultimately Gen. Winfield Scott was sent from Washington to negotiate a settlement, something important given the sectional tensions that were dividing the Union. An agreement was reached to jointly occupy the islands, an arrangement that lasted until a final settlement in 1872. The Pig War is commemorated at the San Juan Island National Historic Park and at an annual festival and encampment. Today's image is of a pig made by some guys and taken to the 2000 festival. You can read about their exploits, including their run-in with irony-deficient historical reenactors and park administrators, at

Monday, December 11, 2006

Wild Pigs, I mean Javelinas, on the Attack!

Several of my students e-mailed me today with this headline from CNN online: Wild Pigs Attack, Bite Woman, Puncture Dog's Lung. I was immediately interested, of course, but was a bit surprised to see that the story came from Tucson's KVOA television and was actually about a javelina attack. You can read the story here (there is also a video link to the tape that CNN used). I have a friend in Tucson who frequently sees javelinas but has yet to be threatened by them. Javelinas travel in packs of 8-15 called squadrons and tend to ignore humans. The Arizona Game & Fish department has an excellent fact sheet about living with javelinas here. It notes that when problems arise, they usually have resulted from people feeding the javelinas.

It appears that attacks by javelinas are fairly rare. It should be noted, of course, that the javelina (more properly known as the collared peccary, Tayassu tajacu) is a new world species, whereas the wild pigs one usually hears about are European pigs that have gone feral, Eurasian wild boars brought to America for hunting purposes, or a wild combination of the two. There are an estimated four million wild pigs in America, present in 39 of the 50 states.

Pigs and the Culture Wars II

As I was examining further the "free piglet" movement, which one blog describes as "our way of pushing back against those obsessed with political correctness and (one-way) tolerance," I found this t-shirt. Apparently some folks in this so-called movement don't think this pig is confrontational enough, so there is also one featuring a wild boar in a more aggressive posture with the royal Scottish motto--Nemo me impune lacessit--appended. There were some images out there featuring the Disnified version of Piglet, but, I imagine, fear of highly-paid corporate lawyers led to their deletion.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Pigs and the Culture Wars

Given that the "flesh of swine" is specifically forbidden to Muslims at least four times in the Qur'an it comes as no surprise that the pig is being increasingly mobilized as a weapon by those opposed to the the growth of Islamic communities throughout the west. Last week I noted that a man in Texas is planning to hold pig races on his property adjacent to a planned mosque and school. This week a video has appeared on the web depicting a few residents of a Copenhagen suburb protesting a planned mosque by drenching the site in pig's blood. While this video might be a hoax, it is consistent with other reactionary uses (or suggested uses) of pigs against Islam. The Muslim American Society reported on the 2003 suggestion of a state senator in Massachusetts that terrorist attacks could be deterred if convicted Muslim extremists were buried with pig entrails and blood so that they would not be able to attain paradise. [An aside: The senator's flier claimed that this tactic was used sucessfully by American General John Joseph Pershing in the Phillipines in the early twentieth century, although I've found no corroboration for this story, which circulated widely via the internet, always with this rhetorical question tacked on: "where do we find another Black Jack Pershing?" A full account of this possibly apochryphal story can be found here on the Urban Legends Reference Page. They note that this incident fails to appear in any scholarly account of Pershing's stint as governor of the Moro Province between 1909 and 1913.] Raeed Tayeh of the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation noted that this notion that Muslims would be barred from heaven if buried with pig entrails is "a lie, a fable," adding "This is just a sad commentary on the ignorance of people who are entrusted to represent Americans, that they would pass around such offensive, distasteful and slanderous garbage." It's not surprising, then, that some inmates at Abu Ghraib were force-fed pork and liquor...

By the way, I decided not to include any images with this post given the nature of some of the ones out there that bring Islam and pigs together. Imagine Osama bin Laden wrapped in bacon, though...

Friday, December 01, 2006

Current Performing Pigs

After Friday's post about historical performing pigs, I figured I'd check the web to see what I could find about contemporary porcine performers. Turns out that if you need to hire some entertainment for your school or the halftime show of a sporting event you have lots of options. The "top hog" in the business seems to be Valentine's Performing Pigs. They have an elaborate website where you can watch video of their pot-bellied pigs in action. My favorite is Nellie, who they describe as the "World's Smartest Pig!" Through Top Hogs you can book two different shows: the Bacon & Porkchop Show or the Super Pork Show. On their website you can download your own autographed photos of these hams.

The most common pig show around these days, at least as far as I can tell, are those featuring racing pigs. A former Ringling trapeze artist named Roger Defoce has been training piglets for races since 1997. You can find an article about Rosie's Racing and Performing Pigs here. There are many groups that will put on a pig race, including Hedrick's, All-Alaskan, and Robinson's. These shows generally appear at state and county fairs and haven't seemed to have drawn too much concern from animal rights activists. The only time I found much controversy was when one entrepreneur had the pigs swim, which is apparently something that pigs don't particularly like doing. I have attended pig races when I traveled to the World Pork Expo in DesMoines, Iowa. The pigs (above) raced around the track to be the first to get an Oreo cookie.

One final note: To protest the construction of a mosque and school in Katy, Texas, Craig Baker, the owner of the adjoining property, is planning to hold pig races every Friday night. A member of the Katy Islamic Association calls the proposed races "a slap in the face." No kidding.

Circus Pigs

Here's a great 1898 Barnum & Bailey circus poster promoting the feats of a "Troupe of Very Remarkable Trained Pigs." I find it unlikely that pigs could play the xylophone with any degree of precision (although I'm constantly surprised by what pigs can do, so maybe I'm wrong about this), but the other feats depicted were quite common in the American circus. William Frederick Pinchbeck popularized the "Pig of Knowledge" in the late 18th century, explaining how to train and perform with a pig in his 1805 book Expositor. Prior to the Civil War, the performer Dan Rice was famous for performing with his learned pig named "Sybil." Pigs were also central to the performances of the famous clown Felix Adler. He trained over 350 pigs during his career. Pigs were not just a component of the American circus, of course. I've recently seen a vintage postcard for sale depicting Vladislava Variakoene working with her pigs in a Russian or Lithuanian circus. Having not attended a circus in a while, I'm not sure whether pigs are still being trained to perform these type of feats. There are, however, several independent performing pig acts still out there that I'll have to blog about later...