Tuesday, January 25, 2005

The Forbidden Pig 

Pig is an interesting animal. Some societies dote upon the pig and the flesh of the pig, others strictly forbid it.

Obviously, eating pig is not toxic or dangerous, or entire cultures would be wiped out by the love of all things pig.

So, why do some cultures forbid pig and others revel in the meat of it?

Some say a God or their Gods spoke and named the food a forbidden one.

I can accept that. But, being the curious-minded person I am, I have to wonder why a God would forbid a perfectly scrumptious dish? Even more so since the society in which I grew up was pig-dependent.

My first chore as a child was taking care of the geese and collecting the goose down they shed. My pockets were always full of prickles, and even today, when I stick my hand into a pocket, I expect to feel feathers. My second job was chopping the heads off chickens. Then castrating pigs.

That order is very important because chopping off chicken heads taught me the proper flick of the wrist needed to castrate the pigs, and the constant exercise strengthened me so I could do the castration quickly and humanely.

Pig was very important to my community. We treated them well, and when they died for our dinners, they died quickly and painlessly.

I couldn't understand for years why some people were forbidden a food I considered essential.

I grew up in rural Germany, in the forested mountains, not far from streams and rivers. It was a lush, ideal environment for the pigs. They spent much of their lives rooting around in the nearby woods. Some would always go feral, of course, but most trotted home at night with little encouragement from the boys.

But in the Middle East, where Judaism and Islam originated, two of the cultures that forbid pig, it was desert.

Pigs sunburn. They sunburn very badly.

In a hot, dry place, their skin peels and cracks. They will seek out mud with which to plaster themselves to escape the agony of the hot sun. If there's no water, they will roll in their own urine and excrement. That means in a desert environment, they are unclean animals. Of course, the conditions under which they are sometimes farmed is no less disgusting because people will raise pigs where they aren't supposed to be. Pigs are forest animals, not plains animals or desert animals.

They take a lot of resources that would best be used for human survival. In deserts, you want cows and goats and sheep - animals that can forage on growing things that people can't eat. Pigs eat the same things people do. They share the same resources, unlike sheep.

See where this is going?

It was counter-survival to allow desert dwellers to concentrate their resources on an animal that was divinely yummy but used up essential resources for human survival. It was far more efficient to herd the goats and sheep and cows in pastures of grasses that humans couldn't eat, then eat the animals.

Pig is a tempting meat. Sweet. Tender. Paeans of praise have been written to the delectability of pig.

And the desert-dwellers were no less fond of pig meat than the forest dwellers.

When it came to survival as a people, or eating yummy things, which do you suppose would win out?

Surprise, it would be the pig.

People are ruled by their tummies. Or perhaps I should say their tongues. Who cares if the family next door is deprived of water and food so your pig can grow fat and sweet for your table?

Obviously, the God of the Jews and the Islams cared.

Or maybe it was a smart priest, who put the survival of his people first, and used the Voice of God to make sure the people weren't weak and raised counter-survivalist food animals.

Either way, it makes solid sense to me to forbid pig meat to desert dwellers eking out a survival in arid lands.

And it makes sense to have a God forbid it, because you just know people will sneak raising pigs in if they can at all justify it. Pigs would be raised as sacrifices, and eaten at first at only special religious ceremonies nad feasts, and before you know it, there'd be a special feast requiring the sacrifice of a pig every week - and people would upset the ecology of the desert to irrigate the land for pig raising because they were sacred pigs. And people would starve for the sacred pigs and the pig feasts.

Selfishness isn't a modern trait at all.

Of course, it could simply be that the desert Gods forbade it because pigs are unclean animals in the desert, and they carry trichinosis.

I prefer the story of survival to the story of disease, mostly because I grew up with pigs.

And if some God whispered in the ear of a priest to spread the word that pigs must be forbidden or the People would die, why, I'd believe it. In the desert, anyway.

And were I descended from such desert dwellers and wanted to adhere to the faith of my ancestors, I'd continue to keep the taboo on pig meat out of respect for the wisdom of my God, who saw to their survival, and hence to my existence. I'd at the very least hold a pig-free fast in memory of those days and as thanksgiving for our continued survival.

But I didn't descend from desert people. I grew up with pig farming Germans, and have a totally different view of pigs.

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