The Whole Hog, by Lyall Watson

Homage to a charming and versatile beast

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The Independent Culture

One of the best lines in Tarantino's Pulp Fiction occurs when the Samuel L Jackson character declares that he would only eat pork if it came from "the Cary Grant of pigs". This engaging volume reveals that such a porcine paragon is far from a rarity. Lyall Watson insists that a warthog of his acquaintance was "a gentleman ... extremely clean and painstakingly polite", while a Sulawesi wart pig proved to be "a charmer", "impossibly good-hearted" and "an incurable optimist".

One of the best lines in Tarantino's Pulp Fiction occurs when the Samuel L Jackson character declares that he would only eat pork if it came from "the Cary Grant of pigs". This engaging volume reveals that such a porcine paragon is far from a rarity. Lyall Watson insists that a warthog of his acquaintance was "a gentleman ... extremely clean and painstakingly polite", while a Sulawesi wart pig proved to be "a charmer", "impossibly good-hearted" and "an incurable optimist".

Watson has written a paean to the pig in all its splendid variety, from white-lipped peccaries, notable for their social "barking and squabbling, moaning and retching like football fans on their way home from a lost match", to African bushpigs, whose care in eating a root without disturbing the leaves, flowers or fruits "looks like deliberate cultivation - husbandry by pigs".

We learn that pigs are "the most accurate localisers of sound in the animal kingdom," but their "chief executive organ" is the snout. Not only does it send a vast amount of information to the brain (the pong of each pig is "a cloud of information that amounts to a detailed curriculum vitae") but the snout is extraordinarily expressive, "capable of looking beatific, kindly, wise, amused, thrilled or just plain bored to death".

The pig was taken into the human community around 20,000 years ago, as early as the dog, "and with a great deal more to recommend it". Ready-made for cohabitation, pigs are versatile feeders, hugely gregarious, and don't need to be herded. They are clever, with brains proportionately larger than cattle, sheep or antelopes. Pig brains "are not unlike our own. There is little but size to tell them apart."

Like us, hogs are omnivores. This willingness to engage in gastronomic experimentation rather than eating the same old stuff plays "a large part in enhancing intellectual creativity". Intelligence is required for rooting, a skill that benefits us when the pig is drawn to the perfect synthesised copy of boar testosterone emitted by the black truffles of Perigord. Displaying "extraordinary genetic persistence", feral pigs begin to take on the appearance of wild boars within a single generation.

Watson embroiders his porcine love letter with a host of detail. Did you know that the original Uncle Sam was a New York pork-packer who supplied US troops in the war of 1812? Or that pigs outnumbered people in 19th-century North Kensington by three to one? Insisting there is evidence that pigs "are capable of abstract reasoning", Watson is at a loss to explain why they are largely ignored by the scientific community. Possibly we refuse to countenance the pig's similarity to us - other than utilising its heart for replacement mitral valves - so we can continue consuming pork and crackling without a pang of conscience.



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