Pig, By Brett Mizelle

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The Independent Culture

How odd that Reaktion's Animal series has covered 38 creatures, most recently Camel, Giraffe and Lobster, before reaching what may of us regard as the most sympathetic and (there's no way of getting round it) tasty of beasts.

Brett Mizelle confronts this contradiction in the opening to his informative exploration of pigs and us. "The human-pig relationship, despite being almost always centred on the killing of the former by the latter, was not always so distanced or as alienated as it is in the industrialised world today." He suggests that wild boars "in some sense 'chose' domestication". They benefited from proximity with humans.

This bond may be seen as "a treaty between consenting intelligent parties... at least, of course, until slaughtering time." Unfortunately, the human half of this agreement has tended to vilify the swinish element. Unearthing a notably weird statistic, Mizelle points out, "There were at least 37 prosecutions of pigs between the 9th and 19th centuries."

The pig soared in esteem during the 18th and early 19th centuries when crowds flocked to see phenomena such as Toby the Sapient Pig. Robert Southey complained that the English admired learned pigs "far more than Isaac Newton".

Though the book is rich in hoggish lore, noting for example that "porcelain" derives in a roundabout way from pigs but "piggy bank" comes from a kind of clay called "pygg", it is defective for readers on this side of the Atlantic. This is particularly evident in the chapter on "Meat", where Mizelle, a Californian professor, devotes a mere 11 lines to the sausage and twice that amount to the hot dog. This imbalance is partially redeemed by an old poster for the British company Marsh & Baxter showing a pig pulling a half a dozen plump sausages on a little cart. The strapline: "Drawing his own conclusion."

Italian porcine marvels such as culatello and prosciutto get a mention but only because someone happens to make them in "downtown Seattle". There is a whole page on Spam but no allusion to the glorious British pork pie.

However, this book reveals that Britain has banned sow stalls, unlike the US where the Smithfield Company alone "processed 27 million hogs in 2005". Mizelle describes pigs as "exceptional animals; intelligent, social and enthusiastic." It is a shame that more of his countrymen do not feel the same way.