Monday, March 14, 2011

Book Review: Pig Perfect

I love micro-histories, and I love food. So when my buddy Jess over at Desperado Penguin suggested Peter Kaminsky’s Pig Perfect: Encounters with Remarkable Swine and Some Great Ways to Cook Them as the subject our next simul-blog, I quickly signed on. Pork is a critical ingredient in at least two cuisines I adore* – Spain’s and the American South’s – and I’ve always wondered why the ham in those places just seems to taste better than the stuff I get at home.

Kaminsky explains that little mystery, and many more, in his comprehensive ode to the Ossabaw**, a compendium of all things porcine.

Let’s start with a fair warning: there is no doubt that some animals are necessarily harmed in the making of luscious pork loin and succulent hams. If you are uncomfortable with eating meat at all, and I know many people that are, you should probably avoid this book, not because it is ugly or graphic in any way, but because you have already made decisions that will make the logic of this book less tenable for you. I admire that.

But I should also add a statement of responsibility: the reason that people like Mario Batali and Michael Pollan have enthusiastically recommended this book is because it supports a kind of meat eating that is both sustainable and rare – the kind of meat-eating most likely practiced by humans for millennia. Pig Perfect, at its heart, is a tribute to flexitarianism. It agrees with animal rights activists that the current methods of mass producing animals are heinous, cruel, and environmentally destructive – that humans are simply getting far less out of livestock, energy-wise, than we are putting in. In fact, the environmental disasters that accompany large-scale pig-farming are well documented by Kaminsky.

Instead, Kaminsky looks at the paleo-biological, historical and social roots of humans’ love of pork. He also devotes a fascinating chapter to the pork taboos found in Jewish and Islamic cultures. Ultimately, Kaminsky comes down on the side of moderation, arguing that pigs and humans actually evolved to live together, and makes a compelling argument that Europe’s “primordial” forests were actually products of the human/pig/acorn relationship.
Roaming forest and field is what pigs were born to do. Long-legged pigs are the natural form of this animal, able to move nimbly through woodlands eating acorns and grasses. That they should be raised this way is as self-evident to me as the fact that cattle should be raised on grasslands and not in feedlots on corn and soy. Grazing (as well as rooting, in the case of pigs) is the natural way for these domesticated animals to sustain themselves and us. p. 112

I really liked most of Kaminsky’s message. I can’t say the same for the recipes, which just didn’t look so appetizing to me. And having persuasively advocated for people to be thoughtful consumers of pork products, I really would have appreciated a section on Internet resources for jamón ibérico or Southern hams. Seriously, why create a demand for something, and not help satisfy it? The people who helped him from the book, and might benefit from interest in their products, were poorly served by that omission.

Also, as a strategic communications professor, I was totally put off by his chapter called “The PR Guys,” in which he seemed to be amazed that one of the best studies of the pork industry in the US was produced by a PR firm –to which he attributes negative intentions, without any evidence on his part, even though he finds no fault with the history. It was disappointing to read something so totally biased from someone who prides himself of being a “journalist.” He seemed to miss the fact that half of the people that spoke to him for this book from various companies and farms were probably PR professionals, or performed PR functions in the companies in which they worked – um, that’s why they spoke to him, to get their story out there. Kaminsky seems to subscribe to the notion that it’s “information” when he likes you, and “PR” when he doesn’t. Sorry, he lost credibility with me at that point.

But, in general, I’ll say I agree with his main thesis – and I’ll mention that Kaminsky is not saying anything that Pollan and Mark Bittman haven’t been saying for some time: namely, that we have to be more responsible about what we eat. If we only eat a little meat, we can assure that it is of high quality, and insist that it is treated humanely. I can certainly appreciate that.

Another foodie simul-blog with the Desperado Penguin. Next time we need a title that doesn’t make me so hungry, Jess!

As a non-fiction title, this counts for the Dewey Decimal Challenge. Thanks to Jen at The Introverted Reader for hosting!

*I do share a lot of vegetarian and vegan recipes, but I hope I’ve always made it clear that I do eat a small amount of meat and fish. In fact, since I don’t eat a lot of meat, I go out of my way to enjoy what I do eat, by making sure it’s of high quality (usually organic) and sustainable, which is why this book was so interesting to me.

**An America
n pig breed that is apparently related to the original pigs left by the Spanish conquistadors and early missionaries. And also apparently, as Alton Brown might say, good eats.


  1. I'm not a huge fan of pork (unless it's bacon), so I don't think I'll be reading this, but I'm glad you got something out of it! My husband is amazed that from our trip to Spain, my favorite story is talking about the "disgusting" pig legs hanging over the bar counters. He was in heaven, I was trying not to look! That was a little too much of a reminder about where my food actually comes from!

  2. You got more out of this one than me - I was going to apologize for suggesting it! But I see you had some of the same complaints I did about it. You pick the next title! And if you want great pork, Niman Ranch is always good if you can get it, and DON'T MISS Snake River farms either (they mail-order!)

  3. Hi!
    I've been wanting to read this book. Thanks for the heads up on it. I have read all of Michael Pollen's books and have enjoyed them. Thanks for stopping by my place. Have a great day!

    Just Books

  4. This does sound like a fascinating book. I do think a list of resources would have made a great addition. I try to be a careful consumer and have been lucky enough to discover a small, organic farmer near me, but not everyone is.

  5. Jen -- My children still talk about El Museo de Jamon in Madrid -- they thought it was the most amazing concept ever, so I totally understand your fascination!

    Jess -- I didn't love it, but I was certainly sympathetic. I agree with your review -- the writing was flat. If only he'd managed to make the Ossabaw story more critical, somehow!

    Sherrie -- I think I may finally join the Foodie Challenge. I noticed it again on your site, and I read so many food titles and cookbooks anyway, I thought I should just do it.

    Bermudaonion -- You really are lucky. We've been looking, and there is one farm close to here. I hope to talk my husband into a freezer this summer!

  6. Well I love bacon so I think I need to read this!

  7. Amused -- Bacon is probably the main reason I could never commit to being a vegetarian, I have to admit it.


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