Review: ‘Pig Tales’ explores the humane costs of eating pork

Author Barry Estabrook.
Author Barry Estabrook.

Humans don’t always like to admit it – or at least acknowledge it – but we share a lot with pigs and have for a long time. Some recent work suggests that Eurasian wild boars were the first animals domesticated by humans, and 10,000 years later the relationship between pigs and humans remains close. Obviously, it is pork’s key role in human diets and foodways in much of the world that is central, but pigs have played key roles in the imaginative realm as well. Who doesn’t recall with fondness Wilbur from “Charlotte’s Web” or with shock and horror Piggy from “Lord of the Flies”? Or the various pigs in “Animal Farm” and the pig who thinks he’s a sheep dog in the movie “Babe”?

Moreover, the words pig, hog, boar, swine, etc., abound in human metaphors and allusions, not to mention in puns and pun-ish book titles. In 2000, for example, Richard P. Horwitz wrote a good book called “Hog Ties: What Pigs Tell Us About America,” and veteran food writer Barry Estabrook now follows with his excellent and cleverly titled “Pig Tales: An Omnivore’s Quest for Sustainable Meat.”

Its subtitle notwithstanding, Estabrook’s book actually treats the full range of human-porcine relations, and is replete with fascinating details about pigs. According to the author, they “are by far the most intelligent animals we have domesticated,” and can be taught to solve complex puzzles and even to play computer games. Animal researchers report that in cognitive terms pigs are at least on par with human 3-year-olds, and are playful, social animals with highly individualized traits, behaviors and “personalities.” They also taste extremely good, which over time has led to the problem that provided the principal motivation for Estabrook’s book: the appalling brutality of the system of industrial hog farming that dominates production in the U.S. today.

Formally speaking, “Pig Tales” is divided into three main parts, with sections on the three “tribes” of pigs (all from the same species) that live in this country: feral hogs; hogs grown on large-scale factory farms and slaughtered under often inhumane conditions on mass “disassembly” lines; and hogs raised in humane ways on small, non-industrial, sustainable farms and slaughtered in a respectful, albeit still violent manner. The sections on feral pigs and non-industrial hog farming are excellent but serve largely to bookend the much lengthier section on industrial hog production (“Life as a Protein Product”), which constitutes the heart of “Pig Tales,” and can be viewed in some ways as a more balanced and nuanced complement to muckraking works on similar subjects by Upton Sinclair (“The Jungle”) and, more recently, Eric Schlosser (“Fast Food Nation”).

To say that Estabrook’s take on industrial hog production/slaughtering is balanced and nuanced is not to suggest that it is wishy-washy or lacks force. No one will come away from reading the often riveting pages in this section – pages on which hog farming in eastern North Carolina figures prominently – without thinking long and hard about the unsavory ethical and environmental trade-offs that the drive for productive efficiency through industrial agriculture has engendered. That said, Estabrook, in my view, doesn’t adequately contextualize this system nor the reasons for its resiliency. Late in “Pig Tales,” the author gives us a clue, however unintentionally, when he mentions quickly that he can buy a “commodity cut” pork chop at his local supermarket for $3.49 a pound, while the upstate New York artisanal producer he has just written glowingly about is charging $15 to high-end Manhattan restaurants and to yuppies at the farmers’ market in Union Square.

Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and Director of the Global Research Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill.


Pig Tales: An Omnivore’s Quest for Sustainable Meat

Barry Estabrook

W.W. Norton & Co., 335 pages