Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Big Two-Headed Hog Dish: The Exegesis

There's no getting around the ick factor.  Though a great many of us have made our peace with carnivorousness, and sought out sources for sustainably raised meats from farmers who husband their animals with a commitment to concern for their welfare, the prospect of handling, preparing, and ultimately eating certain anatomical features of said creatures fills us with dread.  Ethical consumers or otherwise, who of us is willing to come face to face with our food?  As a point of comparison, have a look at the post on spare ribs I recently posted.  I'm sure at least some of you reading this would look at this photo and say, "yum" (or words to that effect). 

While the thought of cooking this 
 (talk about face to face) probably gives you some pause.  Or makes you outright revolted?  Now why exactly is that?

[This is a post in two parts.  If you want the little scholarly excursus, keep reading.  If you want a recipe and food porn, go here, to part two.]

Let me note, as I have on occasion here, that I'm a socio-cultural anthropologist who has taken up the study of "local food"ism, with a particular focus on pasture-raised, outdoor, niche-market, what-have-you pork here in the Piedmont of North Carolina (speaking of which, here's some textual confirmation of the fact, and a shameless plug).  And it will come as no surprise to find an anthropologist taking an interest in the many taboos that attend to eating animals.  

Take the spare ribs.  Why spare ribs? No, this isn't a cute reference to Adam's gift to Eve, it refers to the ribs that are attached to a pig's belly.  More specifically, this contrasts with the ribs that attach to the loin of the animal, which we now call babyback ribs, thanks to insufferable jingle marketing.  But note, a pig has spare ribs (and babybacks, and a loin, for that matter) while you and I have only ribs.  What I mean by that is that when a pitcher wants to back a batter off the plate he hurls a heater into his ribs - or maybe his rib cage.  But not into his spare ribs; nor does he pop him in the babybacks.  The point (for those of you a tad baffled by the baseball metaphor) is that people have ribs, while pigs have spare ribs and baby backs (oh! and don't forget rib tips!).  In other words, the language we use to designate the edible elements of the animals we eat is structured so as to distinguish those bits from their equivalents in the human anatomy.  Human loins are those features we cover with a loin cloth; pig loins go into pork chops (and note - humans don't have chops, either!) Such differentiations in language (and the claim I'm making here follows rather directly from a classic account by Marshall Sahlins and is not that removed from what Edmund Leach had to say, in a somewhat different way) actually shape out attitudes towards food.  The human anatomy is euphemistically rendered when making reference to edible animal cuts.  We can enjoy our barbecue spare ribs, but would probably be disinclined to order "smoked pig's rib cage" (the unavoidable ick factor) even though they are one and the same thing.  

But when it comes to the head, we have no such poetic license available to us.  A head by any other name would not be meat.  Again, to extend the argument, if the language we use differentiates pig parts (and it works for ruminants, too) from their human counter"parts", thereby rendering them edible, then it makes sense that certain parts of the beast that draw attention to the similarities between we humans and those livestock would also be deemed inedible.  To find it disgusting to eat animal parts that are "just like" our human parts confirms for us the idea that it must be ok to eat those creatures' bits that are "so different" from ours.  And we ignore these similarities, and make them tabooed in our culinary habit (an anthropological way of characterizing the ick factor) largely through the language we use to sustain those differences (edible) and similarities (ick! inedible).  After all, there's no reason why we couldn't call pig heart, or liver, or spleen, or head for that matter by names as equally fanciful as tenderloin, chuck, and brisket and then dig in!

Much as I find this language-based argument compelling, it needs to be modified in a few ways. First, it's clearly NOT the case that this logic of edible:inedible::euphemism:literalism holds up for all peoples at all times. For one thing, some pork consuming peoples have express preferences for those parts that many of us find so repellent.  Blood sausages are a holiday treat in Slavic countries.  Soul food is often centered on food like chitlins/chitterlings (though, again, its hard to find the chitlins on a human).  All you Scottish readers are no doubt ready to jump in with haggis (ok, ovine, not porcine), a sort of ne plus ultra of the inedible as glorious.  In many of these cases, though (all of them derived, in significant part from Euro-American histories of cuisine) the pride of eating such dishes is, itself, an expression of the "ick logic" I've described. That is, foods deemed inedible were, by virtue of that quality, meant to be appropriate for those strata in society not entitled to enjoy all of the benefits of the "truly" edible. Soul food is fine, but we'd rather eat high on the hog. “Eating chitterlings is like going slumming,” as Eldridge Cleaver said, "The people in the ghetto want steaks. Beef steaks."  In other words, edible vs inedible is just another way of ranking the people that eat, not the food they eat.  I find that a little simplistic, and dismissive of many people's actual tastes and preferences.  But I don't think it's a stretch to say that there is culinary and aesthetic value to be had in taking what's been deemed socially undesirable and turning it into a source of esteem, and even celebration.

But there's another reason to see certain limitations to the language-based perspective.  It happens to be the case, as this year-long Charcutepalooza indicates, that a great many food activists and enthusiasts are turning especial attention to these otherwise inedible bits, and revitalizing them as new sources of culinary privilege and priority.  No longer should we turn up our noses at these unmentionables, we should coldly confront them: face to snout. I should note that I'm known by a handful of anthropologists today, as a student of exactly this sort of snout-centric (more commonly known as snout-to-tail) cuisine, as I've presented a paper or two on the social and cultural dimensions of the matter.  Peter Kaminsky has already claimed the title of "hamthropologist" for himself; I suppose that leaves me with "shankthropology," or "guanciagrapher"

In any event, it seems a new article of culinary faith that a commitment to animal welfare, care concern about the food that you eat, and the animals from which it derives (here I must add a link to this video that's been forwarded to me umpteen times- it perfectly captures this new ethos: ""Know your Food!") requires to make the best possible use of every last remnant of that creatures material being.  My favorite quotation to that effect comes from David Chang, the prevailing pontiff of pork fat:

"Farmers do not raise walking pork chops. If you're serious about your meat, you've got to grasp that concept. And if you're serious about sustainability and about honestly raised good meat - which is something that we're deadly serious about at Momofuku and we try to get more in touch with each day – you've got to embrace the whole pig."

So "embrac[ing] the whoe pig" is an expression of precisely one's commitment to "good meat."  A good many other chefs and customers (and bloggers; you can find their rhapsodic waxings everywhere) have equally suggested that eating every last bit of the pig that gave its all is a way of showing reverence and appreciation for that life, lest it have been lead in vain. Headcheese (yes, I'm getting to it!) is just another way of paying your respects.

Now as an enthusiast of both pig farming on pasture, as well as charcuterie, I have strong sympathy for such aspirations.  But, I am forced to point out (it's the anthropologists' code: evidence matters!) that if you really want to be sure that every scrap of pig gets well and truly used (i.e. to satisfy what's called the "utilization problem" in the pig business), then non-industrial pig production and consumption leaves a LOT to be desired.  To begin with, it is just not possible to process pigs in the small, "artisanal" slaughter facilities that most small-scale producers have access to, and preserve all of the pig for sale.  USDA inspectors will check out the liver of the pig, make sure it's up to snuff (which is also a good indicator of the pig's general physiology), and release it for consumption.  But the rest of the offal? Heart, lungs, chitlins, blood, spleen, bladder, etc. all of that is simply a waste product. Down the chute.  Indeed, check out this head I'm cooking with:   Note the unmistakable bullet-hole right between the eyes.  The bullet, which stuns the pig before exsanguination finishes it off, renders this head unusable in commercial enterprise.  You cannot get USDA approval to sell a pig's head with a bullet lodged in its skull; if you are able to get a pig's head that is "honestly raised good meat" you must rely on the  kindness of a farmer or other purveyor to let you have it.  Alex Blanchette, who's studying factory farming in the US, pointed out to me some time ago that "consuming" pigs does NOT mean merely "eating" them.  There are far more and more economizing "uses" of the pig that are only possible when pig's are produced on an industrial scale, and can be – literally- rendered into everything from bone glue for shoes, to gelatin to clarify wine, to heart valves to treat coronary disease.

If you don't want that pig to go to waste, headcheese is not exactly the best way to accomplish this end. Not that I'm encouraging us to promote industrial hog production.  I simply don't want to mistake an interest in culinary revitalization for a commitment to "real" animal welfare.  There are a 1001 good reasons to support outdoor pig production, but the virtue of embracing the whole hog at dinner is more of a gesture of solidarity (and perfectly legitimate in those terms) than a mode of pig welfare maximization.

Ok! The next post will, at last, tell you what to do with this "inedible" unpoetic pig's head on your kitchen table!


  1. I don't know if it's a good idea to get into an argument with an anthropologist, but here goes:

    I think what you are underestimating is the practical value terms like "spare rib" have. Butchers, in order to communicate about their trade, have to use specialized language to differentiate between different parts of an animal. That's the idea of "cuts" (which BTW are culture-specific too).

    Humans are not thought of in terms of cuts, consequently the names for their body parts are different. But specialized language about the human body does exist where needed: doctors do have different names for our equivalent of spare ribs and babyback ribs.

    I would argue that terms like "spare rib" are not primarily euphemisms but technical terms.

    You could of course say that butchers deliberately chose euphemistic names for these cuts but if you look at other languages that isn't as true as it is in English. In my native German, for example butchers use pretty direct terms like "Schweinebauch" ("pig's stomach") or "Rehrücken" ("deer's back").

    Furthermore these butchery terms originated in the Middle Ages where there was much less of a taboo connected to eating animals and I believe that most of them come from terms that were used for human anatomy as well at the time (e.g. "ham" from OE hamm "hollow or bend of the knee", we still use the word "hamstring" in human(!) anatomy). So it is invalid to say they were used to obfuscate the animal origin of a given cut of meat.

    I am not saying that nowadays commercial enterprises do not use these words to separate the customer from the butchery process as far as possible but that this taboo is connected to a very specific time and place: the contemporary US (and to a lesser degree other western countries).

  2. Thanks for the helpful perspective. Anthropologists are happy to argue! Though I agree with (almost) all that you say. I fully agree that this language is technical, and is part of the specialized vocabulary of butchery. So does the medical language that recognizes human anatomy, and in most cases, that language is rather different from the language of butchery, even though the language of veterinarians and physicians is largely similar. The point being that the technical terms of butchery, work to provide specificity and to communicate with other butchers, but the content also works to distinguish the edible from the inedible. The more similar the language is to the anatomical, the less edible the "meat" is. Indeed, in English we have pork bellies (similar to Schweinebauch"), but until very recently, pork belly referred to a) the abstract form that was traded as a commodity; or b) the body part that got transformed into BACON, which is what (Americans) actually ate. Again, the MORE direct the terms the relatively LESS edible (or less desirable as a food) is the cut. TODAY, as my post suggested, we DO eat pork belly, and head cheese, etc., as part of a larger commitment to identifying with the lives of the animals we eat, which the "euphemisms" work to obscure.
    Most of all I want to emphasize that, indeed, the language and the practices and "taboos" I'm describing are as you say, American middle-class food issues. I certainly recognize that the reluctance to eat pork belly, jowl, shank, head, is a feature of the American food system- and that is what I was trying to make some sense of. Indeed, MANY cuts can be made from animals that Americans have never heard of. At our market stand we get requests for a collar of lamb, or certain steak cuts from a pork shoulder that are not part of an American vocabulary. These comparative points demonstrate what I am talking about: we have elaborated a language that differentiates humans from animals in specific, structured, systematic ways. Like all languages, this is a cultural question, and not simply "given" to us in animals themselves, nor is it a matter of "human nature." Different people generate different languages to organize their relationships with animals, and to structure their eating practices - all people recognize SOME relationships, and distinguish SOMETHINGS as inedible, but the specific content of these varies enormously.

  3. The other thing that to add is that this discussion needs to include more animals and more cuts to make the points more clearly. Again, in an AMERICAN context, if you compare a bit of cows and pigs (beef and pork of course - their both edible, so we invent a name for their meat; nobody eats cow or pig, per se) you see that a common pork cut is pork shoulder. While in beef, one has a chuck roast. Both cuts come from the shoulder of the animal - why does a cow have a chuck, while a pig has a shoulder (or a Boston butt, and a picnic ham, but never a chuck). Here I think the language indicates a wider, more systematic elaboration of the edible:inedible contrast. Beef is more edible relative to pork for Americans. We eat MUCH more beef that pork, and pay much more for it. A nice chuck roast is a prime beef cut (not as prime as a rib roast, I grant you, but still a premium meat) while pork shoulder is seen as a cheap cut. The distinction chuck:shoulder corresponds with the RELATIVE preferences in the American diet. Not that we don't eat pork shoulder, but we (and I mean in a cultural sense, not perhaps you or I, but the values our farms and markets, and consumers accord these things) value beef chuck roasts more highly.

    I doubt I've persuaded you of much, but I appreciate your thoughts, and - as I said- strongly agree that I'm describing a logic that is specific to a time and place. And that is what I set out to do - understand why "we" love good spare ribs but recoil in horror at a pig's head. Not all people would always have been so inclined, but my hunch is that most Americans are.

  4. Thanks for answering in such detail.

    I do not disagree with your point as it relates to contemporary attitudes towards meat.
    However, as an archaeologist and medievalist I tend to take a historical perspective. That's why I am not sure whether I can accept your last argument. It is true that in America beef is a lot more valued than pork. But I think (though I can't prove it at the moment) that the terms chuck and pork shoulder are medieval terms as well. And in medieval England pork was the higher valued meat.

  5. Oh, it seems I have to eat my words:

    Apparently "chuck" is first recorded in the 1670s (according to: ) while shoulder may well be an exclusively American cut of meat: At least it doesn't show up on Wikipedia's diagram of British cuts of pork but it does on the American one.

    Whether my argument still stands depends on American attitudes towards pork and beef in early modern times.

    Anyway, as I said I do not disagree with you but I do want to show that a diachronic perspective can be helpful in these cases and should not be ignored.

    On an unrelated note: I love your blog and the fact that you do research on the foodie phenomenon!

  6. Well, I am grateful for the serious engagement of your replies, and for the final comments! I have a student doing research on early American uses of meat, and it seems that beef was established as the preferred meat by the mid 17th century, largely because of aspirations to retain their ties to "Britishness", where pork may have been more widely consumed, but beef was ascendent as the choice of the elite. I think this diachronic framework helps, in some ways, to make sense of ongoing uses of terms for cuts of meat that are otherwise archaic. Why DO we continue to employ specialized vocabulary for so many cuts of beef, and many fewer for pork, and fewer still for chicken. Lamb tends to be quite similar in terminology to pig, in spite of their physiological and anatomical similarities to cattle, which speaks, I think, to the on-going supremacy of beef as an American meat par excellence. In any event, much of my current work is about the ways such usages ARE changing - as "undesirable" cuts are now being preferentially sought out. It'll be interesting to see how this plays out!

  7. I'm enjoying both of you replying back and forth almost as much as the blog itself!