I’m simmering Polish sausage, sliced into rounds like thick, old coins, in a mixture of wine and water, and as soon as the liquid has evaporated and the meat begun to brown, I’ll spoon them over a slurry of lentils, carrots, celery, and onions. It smells wonderful. Really wonderful. The vegetables were cooked in bacon drippings (which I’ve been hoarding in the refrigerator) and then added to the lentils to simmer, slowly, all afternoon in the crock pot. These pork products were raised, slaughtered, and butchered locally: I actually met the people who handled the animal and processed the meat. Earlier in the autumn, I could have recited even more provenance of an evening meal—onions and carrots from the couple who run Weiche’s farm, parsley and thyme from Elaine of Southside Gardens—but it’s too late in the season for those fresh items.
Still, I know precisely where this pig came from. I could plot it on Googlemaps, with a little narrative of its life: born (farrowed, don’t we say of piglet-birth? or is that only a transitive verb applicable to the subject-mother, and not the object-offspring? I’m uncertain of the lexical complexities of animal husbandry) on the south side of Zeandale Road, then a few months later moved maybe half a mile north to finish among the broken stalks of the summer’s sweet corn in bottomland along the Kansas River—I have often ridden my bike along the road there, before turning off to pedal uphill on the dirt road gloriously named Swamp Angel. From there the pig was trucked north and west some 40 miles to Clay Center, where Dieck’s Meat Locker (“Whole Hogs Are Our Specialty”) processed the animal into a freezerful of chops and bacon, loin and ribs. My friend Angela and I bought this pig from Darrell Parks, proprietor of Parks Pasture Pork, and we brought the meat home from Clay Center in her little Civic hybrid—another 40-mile trip. She also took home some neck bones, from which her husband makes spaghetti sauce—this sounds a little weird to me, but Angela says it’s delicious. Did I mention the ham hocks? The Diecks smoked these, and I already transformed three into a huge vat of split pea soup.
The sausage is browned nicely. Time to eat.
For months I’ve insisted on reciting the provenance of our provender—stuff from the farmers’ market—whenever I can. The cherry tomatoes and mustard greens from Elaine Mohr. Sweet corn from Darrell Parks. The leeks and beets and sweet potatoes from the Weiches. Apples from Rhonda and Raad. One day I bought a quart jar of honey from a vendor whom I didn’t recognize and I asked him where the bees lived. “Right here,” he answered. No, really, exactly where, I wanted to know.
“I mean, right here,” he assured me. “The hives are about five blocks south of where we’re standing now.” And I instantly knew: the old neighborhood that abuts the levy, where a packed-gravel bike path curves between the river and the city. Six or seven blocks, I’d have guessed… But call it five. Call it good.
Once I watched bees swarming in a tree on campus—maybe 15 blocks away. A student had come into the classroom where I taught poetry writing bursting with the news—there were bees going crazy outside, he said—so we all trooped out to have a look. In a flowering crabapple hung a buzzing, jiggling, fat stalactite with bees dripping off the bottom like a winged suggestion of honey. Later I heard that a local beekeeper had come to collect the swarm. What if this very jar derived from the writhing knot of pollinators that, briefly, had intersected lives with a roomful of poets? I love the possibility.
The land grant university where I teach was the nation’s first college established under the Morrill Act of 1862; its original mission was to bring “a liberal and practical education” to the sons and daughters of working people—farmers, mostly—in the brand new state of Kansas. Our classroom was located one floor above the old dissection hall, where prospective veterinary students, more than a century ago, would watch their teacher cut up a horse, taking notes. One of my students took a picture of the swarm on her cell phone to take back inside, where a woman with an allergy to bee stings waited for our return.
This evening’s pork has less than a hundred miles of fossil fuel activity associated with its aromatic flesh. Even the animal’s feed is local—mostly local, anyway. The piglet was suckled with its mother’s milk, of course, and then weaned with a coarse mixture of ground soybeans and wheat. Darrell raises a fair amount of this hog feed himself, though he sometimes does need to supplement it with purchased organic feed. One day in late August I drove out to his farm—a 20-mile round trip—to deliver our payment check and take a look at his operation. “Sure,” he’d told me when I asked if I could visit. So I did.
The Parks family has farmed this part of Kansas for generations. They first homesteaded an area by the Kaw River known locally as Hunter’s Island. That place name dates to the 1903 flood which changed the river course and left a portion of low-lying land, owned then by the Hunter family, in an ox-bow of the former water channel. But in the 19th century the area was called Moehlman’s Bottoms, where a largely German-immigrant farming community sprang up. The current Parks property was purchased in the 1930s by Darrell’s father, and Darrell and his wife have worked it since the 1970s. After majoring in—I’m not making this up—parks management and conservation in college and a brief stint working out of state, Darrell and his wife Donna returned to farm.
The day I chose to visit their place was hammeringly hot. Darrell drove up sweating in a decades-old John Deere tractor while I stood sniffing the dry breeze suspiciously. But dry cottonwood leaves and dust were what I smelled—not manure. Then, under those whispering cottonwoods, I was touring the premises. Darrell is what was once called bean-pole thin. Soft-spoken and seemingly a little shy at first, he warmed up quickly as we moved from shade to sun to shade again, as he described his operation. The pigs were housed in various little groups scattered across the landscape. One shelter, three walls and a sloped roof, looked a lot like the Garth Williams illustration of Wilbur the pig’s home, only larger. The piglets danced away on their delicate feet when I squatted down by their feed and spoke to them as if they were puppies. Two boars were housed nearby in a cinder-block shed, in separate rooms because of their aggression, but they, too, had open air—a fenced pen where they took turns lolling and snorting.
“You know, they do have tusks, and if they were together they might spend five hours or so staring at each other, then tussling, and you might have to go in with a two-by-four and separate them. It’s calmer this way,” Darrell grinned. And calmly, we walked out into the full sun where individual sheds housed pregnant or nursing sows. These were supremely simple structures, framed construction with a thick layer of insulation batting between the two-by-fours, roofed with an arc of corrugated tin. As we strolled through this pig village, some of the sows thundered and thudded from their sheds, wanting nothing to do with us. Some of the piglets trotted back inside. I liked that the animals had some choice in the matter—they could bolt or hide, whichever felt more comfortable.
In the 1990s, Darrell attended a sustainable agriculture workshop in Myrtle, Missouri and learned how to make these cheap, rough sheds. The host farmer finished his hogs on fescue—those were more accurately pasture pigs than the Parks porkers will be. At first, Darrell tried to plant enough fescue to finish his hogs but the animals rooted around and tore up the turf (no brass rings in their noses, I noticed). And, as he observed mildly, “They get more rain in Missouri.” That they do. But his new methods are serving him—and customers like me—quite well. Whereas he once had to vaccinate his pigs against various diseases and include antibiotics in their feed, with these new methods, he does neither. Now the old farrowing shed, where all the piglets were once massed together, stands empty, and the animals move more freely across their portion of his land. Of course, he does lose pigs occasionally. Recently coyotes snagged three shoats.
I can’t help thinking of the Story of the Three Little Pigs. Darrell’s shelters lack stout doors so his animals are vulnerable to a very old threat—the predator lurking around the periphery of the settlement, just waiting for a chance to strike. How old? Well, pigs were domesticated some 9,000 or 10,000 years ago, and not just once in that chalice of Holocene agriculture, the Fertile Crescent, but several times in different places, suggesting that it wasn’t the domestic stock itself which spread but the knowledge—the technology—of taming that traveled. DNA sequencing of porcine mitochondria reveals that one of these domestications took place somewhere near Germany, a region that is still devoted to pork in the cuisine. My friend Gina told me that when she visited family in Germany she was fed pork at every single meal, including cold cuts for breakfast, which she found pretty hard to take. A chemical engineer, she once spent weeks working in western Kansas on what’s called a digester system to deal with hog farm runoff, a project that soiled her car’s engine and put her off eating any pork, whatsoever, for quite a while.
Darrell and I hopped into his dusty pickup and drove to the cornfields where the Parks pigs put on their final weight before slaughter. A couple of shelter belts where trees still held their dry leaves; the standing stalks of the summer’s corn crop; big, sloppy mud holes where the hogs were making the best of the midday sun. We climbed down from the truck and he turned on a spigot; one of the pigs stepped into the stream of water, mouth open, eyes pinched shut. Water cascaded from the animal’s mouth, pooling in the mud hole at its feet. I could imagine the scene after we left, pigs lolling in the cooling mud while the afternoon sun slid toward the trees in the west.
This idyllic image can be eclipsed by winter weather. A few years ago during a double-whammy ice storm and blizzard that hit in December, Darrell lost ten animals in the finishing pastures and sheds near the river, where there’s considerably less shelter from the wind. As we stood near the parching cornfield, he described how on Christmas day he spent hours trying to haul dry straw to the pigs huddling together in the sheds, their bedding sodden with melted snow. One vehicle stuck in a snow drift so he had difficulty reaching the animals. Since he keeps only about 35 sows through the year—finishing 400 to 500 sale animals—to lose ten at once wasn’t trivial.
“I work for a niche market,” Darrell explained. He sells meat locally through the farmers’ market, at the local co-op, called The People’s Grocery, and he supplies the national brand Organic Prairie. Much of his soybeans, milo, alfalfa, and corn are destined for the Kansas Organic Producers farmers’ cooperative—in the organic market, he might be able to get $17/bushel for corn, compared with $6 to $8 for nonorganic grain. It was clear he tries to keep overhead low. The pickup was the only vehicle I saw on the property that wasn’t old enough to legally drink or run for national office. For a while we tried to jump start a huge-wheeled elder, a truck with a covered bed that looked to me like it drove right out of the 1940s into the day’s sun. But the engine wouldn’t turn over and he gave up. Instead, he told me about his plans.
Next year he wants to move the pigs to another section of the flat, floodplain land and plant corn here where the pigs are mud wallowing and water swallowing. So the constant rotation will continue all over the farm: newly-weaned piglets into their own shed; sows in heat into the breeding pen with the boars; pregnant sows in the gestational huts; sows with nursing litters in the several huts scattered among weeds; and, across the road, fattening animals in the mud baths near the corn. None of the pigs were actually gamboling in the pasture, but they all had access to the outdoors, most were free to move around at least a little, and, as Darrell said, this whole approach is “kinder” to the animals than keeping them massed together on concrete or a in single, cramped building, or simply in a feedlot with hundreds of other hogs.
Of course there is the matter of killing them and eating them.
But since I believe meat really is an important part of a hominid diet, for me the question is how to meet my need more responsibly, with a sense of both the future and the past. And I consider Darrell a kind of craftsman—his sweet corn is reputed to be the tastiest one can buy in our town and each of these pigs represents hours of careful, deliberate, even individual care, as well as considerable knowledge—and, I think, wisdom, too.
Cooking is an ancient craft. Richard Wrangham argues that cooking—not hunting, per se—is what made us human: it’s how we domesticated ourselves, starting 1.8 million years ago, when Homo erectus first learned to keep and control fire. Even before that, the habiline branch of the primate family tree were butchers, cutting meat from animal carcasses, probably sometimes battering the meat to tenderize it and release its protein more readily and so reducing the energy costs of digestion. Today our remaining chimpanzee cousins use the simplest of tools, hammerstones, to process nutmeats, and archaeological remains show the kinds of cut marks and smashed bones that are like shadows cast by our ancestors at the very threshold of the kitchen. But hearths marked with burned stone and earth: that’s the indication that they—we—had crossed over. Our hominid forbears had begun the alchemy of cuisine.
Can we imagine them, long before the clustered company of villages, before any of our ancestors ventured beyond the shores of Africa? Wrangham suggests fire’s first role in our ancestors’ lives wasn’t primarily warmth; flames meant safety from predators, and in the circle of firelight a group of hominids might gather to share the day’s food, warmed by the presence of one another’s company and by the cooked meat in their bellies as much as by the fire itself. Under the vast scatter of starlight, they might groom one another in the flickering light, murmuring and crooning, fashioning invisible bonds of kinship and care while the load of fuel burned down to dull coals. The first cooks would not have tolerated disruption or aggression. “[W]ild-eyed and intemperate bullies who disturbed the peace,” he reasons, “…were ostracized by a coalition of the calm.” And while the emotional archetypes of comfort food and meal-sharing began changing the shape of the hominid psyche, our ancestors’ bodies also showed the changes that are hallmarks of domestication.
Helen M. Leach points to the way human physique changed from the upper Paleolithic age, reflecting the very sorts of change one would expect from domestication. Smaller body size, shortening of the skull’s facial region, reduction in sexual dimorphism, increasing variation in hair structure or color, increasing of subcutaneous fat storage, extended breeding seasons, retention of juvenile behaviors into adulthood, reduction in intraspecific aggression and increased docility…. These are some of the attributes that have changed among human beings as well as among deliberately domesticated species, suggesting that it is intellectually productive to reconsider how we may have domesticated ourselves. And it’s worth recalling, I think, that the roots of the verb lie beneath a roof: inside the domus, the domesticates are held together by the rhythms of sleeping and cooking and eating—and, in colder climates of course, by the heat of the hearth.
I once visited Skara Brae, a tiny stone village of the Neolithic age, nestled into the earth on the largest of the Orkney Islands. The ten houses were mostly subterranean, connected by enclosed passages and outfitted with skeletal furniture: stone box-beds, stone hearths, stone shelving, even stone-lined basins carefully sealed with clay, in which a supply of fish bait could be kept handy or a live catch could be stored until meal preparation. Some of the main rooms had adjoining “cells,” smaller spaces that reminded me of closets. One even had a drainage system—indoor plumbing a lot like the shower in our cheap walkup hotel room in Kirkwall which was, quite literally, a closet slathered with waterproof paint and a drain in the floor.
At Skara Brae we strolled the turf-topped walls and gazed into the now-roofless rooms while, a few hundred yards away, the sea kept up its slow suspiration, and I thought a lot about time. Starting more than 5,000 years ago, that village on the North Sea was occupied for more than six centuries: generation after generation slept and woke and ate, reared within walls that were thickened by castoff household waste—shell and bone fragments, pottery shards, the detritus of simple, do-it-yourself technologies adding insulation against the high-latitude cold. The people were pastoralists and farmers as well as fisher-folk. Their middens trash, as well as high temperature gas chromatography analysis of the pottery, has revealed cattle, sheep, pig, and dogs as the primary livestock and barley as the principal grain. Since I don’t really understand gas chromatography, I imagine it as a patient hunt, back in the sterile air of the lab, for molecular shadow-prints, ghostly traces of long-vanished meals.
In the ancient houses, remnants of large clay pots were discovered, too big to move from room to room and sometimes submerged in the building’s floor—they are a kind of furniture, fixtures like the main rooms’ stone shelving called “dressers” in the archaeological literature. Andrew Jones discusses the conceptual importance of storage within Neolithic domestic space, mapping the various locations for food preparation and storage inside the houses at Skara Brae and elsewhere in the Orcadian world. Those peripheral cells provided initial storage space for unprocessed or partially transformed provender; grinding stones and cooking materials were located at the heart of the house, in the very center of the largest room. This organizational pattern, he argues, pertains to the keeping of the dead as well. In the multi-chambered tombs, the dead were placed in peripheral cysts similar to the storage cells in the houses. Later, disarticulated portions of the departed—such as the skull—were placed on stone shelves, analogous to the dressers so architecturally prominent in the houses. And in one house at Skara Brae, two women were buried beneath the stone frames of bed-boxes, stored away in the long sleep of death.
I visited Maeshowe and Skara Brae in high summer: in the long days of light the surrounding agricultural fields were busy with photosynthesis. But Maeshowe is famous for its winter solstice light show, when—if the weather permits—the setting sun casts a bright shaft through the narrow passageway to the back of the tomb, as if to kindle a hearth there. It’s an ephemeral event—by 4 p.m. local time the sun has set, and the long northern night has settled on the treeless land. Time then to head indoors to talk and eat and sleep.
Barley, Jones says, embodies the principle of temporality: it has a definite growing season which northern farmers must take care to plot against the calendar. However, “The act of storage allows barley to be utilized throughout the year,” Jones continues, “and what is more it recalls particular points in the year such as harvest when the barley was most plentiful. The reuse of stored produce during the year is then a repeated mnemonic act. In precisely the same way as barley is stored in side alcoves and utilized on a daily basis, ancestral remains are stored and utilized on a daily basis.” I think this last “utilization” sounds a little creepy—like a kind of necrophagia. But if we think of heritage as a living resource, something to be carefully maintained and passed on, “[w]e should think of storage as enabling a process of memorialization which allows the dead to be seen as signifiers of an ancestral past,” Jones concludes.
Well, that’s quite a heavy symbolic load to stow inside the basement freezer. Too much, I think, for most days. Still, it’s nice to pause occasionally, like in the moments of gathering dusk, and think about these things. My father tells me that his family often kept a pig in his rural Oklahoma childhood. I remember one winter morning from my own childhood, when he had cooked up a batch of bacon (it was the anonymous kind from the supermarket) and he stood looking at the leftover coffee. Suddenly he was making something called “streaky gravy” from the bacon drippings and the coffee. I remember the scene, but not the taste. At the time, I liked the sound of the words together, streaky gravy, though I didn’t know that side bacon—the stuff most of us simply call bacon—is also named streaky bacon. I like the sound of that, too. The provenance of words always pleases me: the way the aural flakes and shards of morphemes litter our vocabularies with an unconscious past.
Most mornings there’s a little coffee leftover in the pot. And we have that freezer stocked with pig. Probably I will have to try out streaky gravy and see whether the result is worth passing along.
Jones, Andrew. “The World on a Plate: Ceramics, Food Technology and Cosmology in Neolithic Orkney.” World Archaeology 31.1 Food Technology in Its Social Context: Production, Processing and Storage (June 1999): 55-77.
Larson, Greger, Keith Dobney, Umberto Albarella, and Meiying Fang. “Worldwide Phylogeography of Wild Boar Reveals Multiple Centers of Pig Domestication.” Science 307. 5715 (Mar 11, 2005): 1618-21.
Wrangham, Richard. Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. New York: Basic Books, 2010.