In Review: ‘Lesser Beasts: A History of the Humble Pig’ by Mark Essig
The book by historian Mark Essig, “Lesser Beasts: A Snout-to-Tail History of the Humble Pig,” is a history of pig and human interaction in North America, the Middle East and Western Europe. The title of the book stems from Essig’s opinion that pigs in traditional American agricultural histories are treated as less important than cattle, even though he feels that pigs played a more important role in American history than people believe.
In the history of the United States, pigs represent a way for the American working-class, the rural and the urban poor to become self-efficient. In the 1800s, a farmer in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina wrote that the region, “truly, it is a paradise for the poor man,” because with a herd of pigs, a poor farmer could build a nice house. In 1860, a physician wrote
the United States “might properly be called the Republic of Porkdom.”
Essig feels that the history of pigs shows a darker side of United States history and other societies. The tendency to create hierarchies is another reason why older, more elitist historians may have considered pigs “lesser beasts,” because pork was the meat of the common person.
One example of this is in the decades that followed the Civil War. Many southern elites worried that would that there would not be enough labor to work their plantations, since the slaves were free. State legislatures closed the public grazing land in most states, thus reducing the amount of pig ownership, and forcing many rural blacks and whites to become sharecroppers and tenant farmers for the plantation owners.
Even in modern times the pork industry tends to reinforce hierarchies. According to Essig, meat packers, one of the most injury-prone industries in the United States, tend to be done by de-unionized, low-skilled, low-wage, non-English speaking workers.
Essig believes in some of the ideas of the slow food movement, where “food is produced or prepared in accordance with local culinary traditions, typically using high-quality locally sourced ingredients [from Oxford Dictionaries].” He is not against the eating of pork; at one point he takes a workshop called “Advanced Meat Curing.” Essig feels that pigs are one of the more intelligent animals that humans have domesticated. He believes that industrial agriculture changed the way humans interact with pigs, and not for the better.
An example of one of the methods used in modern-day pig farming is called gestation crates, which are metal pens about seven long and two feet wide” in which most sows are housed on industrial farms for most of their lives. The pork industry claims that the crates prevent the pigs from fighting each other, allows for more equal distribution of food, and prevents the sow from crushing her piglets. Many animal rights experts believe that gestation crates should be banned, because in the words of the animal scientist Temple Grandin, “basically you’re asking a sow to live in an airline seat.”
The front cover flap of Lesser Beasts has phrases such as “pork has been prized in societies from Ancient Rome to dynastic China,” makes it sound like part of the book will be a global history of pigs, when the book only covers dynastic China in one paragraph together with the Pacific Islands. That being said the book is a very effective overview of pig-human interactions in the regions it does cover and of modern industrial pig farming. Anyone who is involved in agriculture or the food industry, or just wants a more unusual aspect of history, might find this book interesting.
Essig does not have solutions to the many problems of industrial agriculture. The pork the system produces is just too cheap to create a mass movement against it. Essig believes that people should know where and how their pork is produced, and they should care about the welfare of the animal they eat.