I Would Rather Be Herod’s Pig: The History of a Taboo

The story of how pigs became the world’s most divisive meal.

Mark Essig | Lesser Beasts: A Snout-to-Tail History of the Humble Pig | Basic Books | May 2015 | 20 minutes (5,293 words)

Below is an excerpt from Lesser Beasts, by Mark Essig, as recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky

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Built in about 2550 bc, the Great Pyramid of Giza stands 455 feet tall and comprises some 2.3 million blocks of stone weighing about 13 billion pounds in aggregate. Archaeologists still argue over whether those stones were moved into place using levers, sledges, or oil-slicked ramps. Whatever the technical method, building the pyramids involved a feat of social engineering just as impressive as the mechanical: Egyptian authorities had to feed a workforce of thousands of people for decades at a time.

The builders of the Great Pyramid called upon the resources of the entire Nile Valley to support this effort. The royal house sent orders to the heads of villages, who in turn sent men to the Giza site, along with grain and livestock to feed them. Workers drank beer, a muddy beverage fermented from grain and consumed more for nutrition than for pleasure. They ate heavy loaves of wheat and barley, supplemented with beef, mutton, and goat. One archaeologist analyzed some 300,000 bones at the pyramid complex and found that nearly all the animals eaten were young and male. This proved that Giza was a provisioned site, with animals raised elsewhere and the juvenile males—not needed for breeding—marched to slaughter at the pyramids.

One village that provided livestock was Kom el-Hisn, located in the Nile delta about seventy-five miles downriver from the temple complex. Villagers at Kom el-Hisn raised cattle but ate very little beef: only the bones of worn-out breeding cows and sick calves have been uncovered there. Instead, the villagers ate pork: for every four cattle bones archaeologists unearthed at Kom el-Hisn, they found one hundred pig bones. It seems that the residents kept herds of pigs that foraged in the Nile delta marshes and scavenged trash on streets. Although Egypt’s rulers demanded cattle from Kom el-Hisn, along with goats and sheep from other settlements, the villagers’ pigs were spared.

The reasons for this had to do with climate and biology. Animals destined for Giza had to walk hundreds of miles through an arid landscape, feeding on grass and leaves along the way. Well suited for such a journey, cows, goats, and sheep were herded to Giza by the thousands. Pigs, however, would not have found the food or shade they needed along the way. The state couldn’t move pigs around, so it ignored them.

This pattern appeared throughout the Near East: officials developed complex food-provisioning systems that depended on the long-distance movement of cows, sheep, and goats. Pigs didn’t fit into such schemes. But despite—or perhaps because of—their lack of usefulness to bureaucrats, pigs didn’t disappear. Instead, they stuck to their original role as scavengers. People on the fringes of society with little or no access to state-supplied food embraced them as a source of meat. Priests and bureaucrats, who dined on lamb and beef, came to despise pigs. Only the poor ate pork.

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For its first 4,000 years, agriculture remained a modest affair. The farmers of the Near East lived in mud-brick huts in villages ranging in size from a few dozen to a few thousand people—places like Kom el-Hisn, which did not change much from one century to the next.

The pace of change picked up about 5500 bc. That’s when people in Mesopotamia—the lands around the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in present-day Syria and Iraq—developed irrigation agriculture. A thousand years after that, the plow appeared. The first true cities, with tens of thousands of residents and complex social organizations, appeared about 3500 bc. The Mesopotamians invented writing—first pictographs and later the more abstract cuneiform—and built the first monumental temples, called ziggurats, to worship their gods. Across the Red Sea, Egypt got a slightly later start but achieved more lasting success. By about 3000 bc, Egyptian rulers had unified a ribbon of land stretching for six hundred miles along the Nile. Scribes created a hieroglyphic writing system about this same time, and laborers were put to work on pyramids.

Culture depends on agriculture, and in Egypt and Mesopotamia the two flourished together. Both empires emerged from desert landscapes along rivers. No one had settled these areas earlier because there wasn’t enough rain for farming, but irrigation allowed farmers to exploit the rich soil deposited by seasonal floods. That soil produced crops in great abundance, which meant some members of society could give up agricultural work and devote themselves to making crafts (pottery, baskets, bricks, tools, weapons), building temples, keeping records, fighting battles, and serving the gods. “A human being is primarily a bag for putting food into,” George Orwell once wrote. “The other functions and faculties may be more godlike, but in point of time they come afterwards.” Only when farmers grew enough food to fill the bellies of bureaucrats, priests, and soldiers could these elites go about the business of creating what we call civilization.

Mesopotamia and Egypt built centralized economies and strictly controlled the distribution of grains, dairy products, and meat to the population. The city of Puzrish-Dagan, for example, served as an administrative center for Mesopotamia’s Third Dynasty of Ur, which lasted from 2112 to 2004 bc. Surviving records show that the ruling dynasty requisitioned tens of thousands of animals from outlying areas. One archaeologist tabulated the records from this economic center, tracing the flow of more than 10,000 animals that arrived from the provinces and were then distributed throughout the urban center. The temple claimed lambs and kids, and soldiers ate cattle and older sheep. The records make no mention of pigs. As in Egypt, they existed but held no interest to the state.

Villagers in both Mesopotamia and Egypt kept pigs purely on their own initiative. Throughout the Near East, pigs could be found wherever there was water. Towns near natural pig habitats—along the Jordan River, for instance—kept the most pigs because the animals could supplement urban scavenging with foraging in the woods and marshes. Towns in drier areas kept fewer pigs. Nomadic pastoralists, on the move for much of the year, kept none. Archaeologists have plotted on maps the areas that received enough rainfall to allow farming without irrigation. All villages within those areas showed evidence of pig remains. In other words, if it was biologically possible to raise pigs, people raised pigs.

There were variations within this broad pattern. At Tell Halif, a small site on the edge of the Negev desert in what is now southern Israel, the archaeological record shows dramatic swings in the reliance on pork: pigs account for more than 20 percent of animal bones in garbage heaps dating to 3000 bc. That figure plunges to less than 5 percent five hundred years later, rises again to 20 percent by 1500 bc, and finally drops once more to less than 5 percent by 1000 bc. Changes in rainfall levels cannot explain those swings. It seems that the true reason was political: periods of highest pig use correspond with times of weakest state control. Halif was located along a major trade route; when the political situation was stable, the town likely became integrated within a regional economy, and a steady supply of sheep and goats flowed through. When the ruling dynasties descended into chaos—as they did rather frequently—the town had to fend for itself. That’s when the villagers turned to pigs.

Greek pig statuette, probably a votive offering. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Greek pig statuette, probably a votive offering. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The rise of strong states discouraged pig raising in another way as well: by changing the landscape. As populations grew, they put increased pressure on the land. Farmers felled oaks to make way for olive groves and drained marshes to plant crops. The land, often poorly managed, deteriorated from forest to cropland to pastureland to desert, with each successive stage providing less habitat for pigs. By the time desert scrub prevailed, only sheep and goats could survive. As pigs lost habitat, they likely began to raid crops in the field, threatening the food supply and thereby earning a spot on the state’s hit list.

Pigs didn’t fit into the new political and agricultural order. As time marched on, they began to disappear. At many archaeological sites, pig bones remain common up through about 2000 bc, then dwindle away. A thousand years later, few people raised pigs in any quantity.

In a few spots, however, pigs persisted. They remained important for sites like Tell Halif that were on the margins of empire, far from the urban centers. And pigs became crucial to the marginal people living within those urban centers. Careful sifting of debris from streets has turned up shed milk teeth—baby teeth—of piglets, evidence that pigs were living and breeding among the homes of the world’s first great cities. But not everyone in those cities partook in equal measures. Archaeologists tend to find pig bones in the areas of cities where the common people lived. In elite areas, they find more cattle and sheep bones.

Some of the most compelling evidence of this pattern comes from the temple complex at Giza. At the official barracks, temple laborers ate provisioned beef driven there from far-flung villages. Nearby, however, another settlement grew up. This neighborhood, haphazardly constructed, most likely housed those who provided services to temple workers and bureaucrats—grinding wheat, baking bread, brewing beer. These people were not part of the official workforce and therefore did not receive food directly from the rulers. Instead they hunted, foraged, and traded for their food, or they raised it themselves. And what they raised was pigs. Although absent from the residences of official workers, pigs are common in this self-supporting area. Pork offered these common people what we would call food security: a source of meat under their own control.

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Poor people ate pork because it was the only meat they had. The elite refrained from eating it because they had access to other sources of meat. In time, though, the ruling classes began to actively avoid pork. The Greek historian Herodotus, in the fifth century bc, reported that an upper-class Egyptian man, after accidentally brushing against a pig, rushed into the Nile fully clothed to cleanse himself.

By the start of the Iron Age, about 1200 bc, elites in the Near East had begun to see pigs as polluting, a view that arose in part from the habits of urban pigs. Though cities had grown large, sanitation systems had not kept pace. Residents threw garbage into the streets or piled it in heaps outside their doors. This waste included spoiled food, dead animals, and human excrement. Information about ancient sewage disposal is scant; one of the few references is found in Jewish scripture. “You shall have a stick,” Moses tells his people in Deuteronomy, “and when you sit down outside, you shall dig a hole with it, and turn back and cover up your excrement. Because the Lord your God walks in the midst of your camp, . . . therefore your camp must be holy, that he may not see anything indecent among you, and turn away from you.”

Evidence suggests that the Lord God saw quite a few indecencies among the Israelites and their neighbors. Sewer systems didn’t exist. A few elite homes and temples had pit latrines, but mostly people practiced what today is known as open defecation: they relieved themselves in fields or streets, and they didn’t bring a stick. This is where pigs enter the picture.

Pigs eat shit. In many villages around the world today, pigs linger around peoples’ usual defecation spots awaiting a meal. Some English pigs in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had the same habit. In China, archaeologists discovered a terra cotta sculpture, dating to about 200 ad, showing a pig in a sty, with a round, roofed building just above it. The structure was originally identified as a grain silo for storing pig feed, but the model in fact depicted a combination pigsty-outhouse: people sat on an elevated perch and made deposits to the hungry pig below. The practice was widespread—the same Chinese character designates both “pigsty” and “outhouse”—and has survived into the present on Korea’s Cheju Island. In the 1960s more than 90 percent of farmers on the island used a pigsty-privy in their subsistence-farming regimen, and they insisted the arrangement produced the sweetest pork in the world.

The pigsty-privy apparently did not exist in the ancient Near East, but pigs discovered this food source on their own. Tapeworm eggs have been found in fossilized pig feces from ancient Egypt. Since these eggs are produced only by adult tapeworms living in human guts, it appears that human feces formed part of Egyptian pigs’ rations. In Aristophanes’ play Peace, dating to the fifth century bc, a character notes that a “pig or a dog will . . . pounce upon our excrement.”

This particular dining habit did not improve the pig’s reputation. Just as troubling was the pig’s taste for carrion, including human corpses when available. Eating human flesh and eating excrement are nearly universal human taboos, and eating animals that eat those substances carried a transitive taint. “The pig is impure,” a Babylonian text asserted, because it “makes the streets stink . . . [and] besmirches the houses.” An Assyrian text from the 670s bc contains these curses: “May dogs and swine eat your flesh,” and “May dogs and swine drag your corpses to and fro on the squares of Ashur.”

Dogs and pigs had first domesticated themselves by scavenging human waste, but now that role made them pariahs. Filthy animals offended the gods and therefore were excluded from holy places. The people of the Near East practiced many different religions, but all agreed that the key sacrificial animals were sheep, goats, and cattle and that pigs were unclean. In Mesopotamia and Egypt, pigs never appear in religious art. The Harris Papyrus, which describes religious offerings made by King Ramses III, includes a detailed list of every desirable item to be found in Egypt and the lands it had conquered, including plants, fruits, spices, minerals, and meat. Pork does not appear on the list. “The pig is not fit for a temple,” a Babylonian text reads, because it is “an offense to all the gods.” A Hittite text declares, “Neither pig nor dog is ever to cross the threshold” of a temple. If anyone served the gods from a dish contaminated by pigs or dogs, “to that one will the gods give excrement and urine to eat and drink.”

From the tomb of Ramses II, depicting how Horus would judge souls in the afterlife, reincarnating the nasty ones as pigs. Via Wikimedia Commons.

From the tomb of Ramses II, depicting how Horus would judge souls in the afterlife, reincarnating the bad ones as pigs. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Many people, for many different reasons, rejected pork in the ancient Near East. Largely arid, it was a land of sheep, goats, and cattle. Nomads didn’t keep pigs because they couldn’t herd them through the desert. Villages in very dry areas didn’t keep pigs because the animals needed a reliable source of water. Priests, rulers, and bureaucrats didn’t eat pork because they had access to sheep and goats from the state-focused central distributing system and considered pigs filthy. Pigs remained important in only one place: nonelite areas of cities, where they ate waste and served as a subsistence food supply for people living on the margins.

This was the situation in the Near East around 1200 bc, when a tribe of people known as the Israelites settled in Canaan, west of the Jordan River in Palestine. Like most of their neighbors, the Israelites rejected pork. Unlike those neighbors, the Israelites came to consider pork avoidance a central element of their identity.

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Scriptural dietary rules grew more significant with time. When the laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy were set down, few people in the Near East were eating pork. Archaeologists find no pig bones at all, or just a scattered few, in settlements from this period. Then, starting in about 300 bc, pig bones begin to appear in great profusion. The Greeks had arrived—and pigs would soon enjoy a renaissance after some nine hundred years of persecution.

Greek rule spelled major changes for the Israelites. The Greek king Alexander the Great had conquered the Persian Empire in 333 bc and taken over all the lands Persia had controlled, including Palestine. Whereas the Persians had worked through local rulers and allowed local peoples to live as they wished, the Greeks forcefully imposed Hellenistic culture on their subjects. In 167 bc the ruler Antiochus IV, a successor to Alexander, invaded Jerusalem and tried to stamp out Judaism, a story recorded in the Books of the Maccabees. The first book relates how Antiochus demanded “that all should be one people, and that each should give up his customs.” Many Jews acquiesced and “sacrificed to idols and profaned the Sabbath.” Worst of all, Antiochus ordered the Jews “to defile the sanctuary, . . . to sacrifice swine and unclean animals, and to leave their sons uncircumcised.”

In the Second Book of the Maccabees, the invaders force pork into the mouth of Eleazer, an elderly Jewish scribe, but he spits it out. His tormenters, old friends who have gone over to the enemy’s side, bring him aside and quietly tell him they will secretly replace the pork with kosher meat so that he can obey God’s law while pretending to obey Antiochus. Again Eleazer refuses: “Many of the young should suppose that Eleazer in his ninetieth year has gone over to an alien religion,” he says. “For the sake of living a brief moment longer, they should be led astray because of me.” His purpose, he explains, is to leave “a noble example of how to die a good death willingly and nobly for the revered and holy laws.” So he goes to the rack and is beaten to death over a mouthful of pork.

In the next chapter of the Second Book of the Maccabees, the pork-related punishments continue. A mother and her seven sons are arrested and told they must eat swine’s flesh, but they too refuse. On the king’s orders, a guard cuts out the tongue of one of the brothers, scalps him, and chops off his hands and feet. Then a large pan is heated over a fire, and the king orders his guards to take the brother, “still breathing, and to fry him in the pan,” which they do. After he is dead, they kill another brother in the same way, and then another, until all seven brothers are dead, at which point Antiochus orders the mother slain as well.

Although these episodes occurred hundreds of years after the laws of Leviticus were laid down, they comprise only the second recorded instance of pork eating among the Jews. The first occurs in the book of Isaiah, when God expresses his fury at a few people who have eaten “swine’s flesh, and broth of abominable things.” They have done so in secret, hidden away in gardens and graveyards, and their sin is known only to God. It is a matter between the Lord and his people, and God promises to destroy the offenders.

In Maccabees, the situation is public. Infuriated by the Jews’ desire to remain a separate people, Antiochus has outlawed the most visible symbol of their difference: their refusal to share a table with their neighbors. Here eating pork is not simply a matter of ritual purity, of remaining holy in order to keep the temple pure. It has become, instead, the key to cultural identity. The Books of the Maccabees provided a model of what it meant to be Jewish: even in the face of death, a Jew must refuse pork in order to remain true to his people.

Pork eating hadn’t carried much significance as a marker of Jewish identity before the Greek conquest of Persia because most others in the region didn’t eat pork either. Since the Israelites’ return from exile in Egypt, abstaining from pork simply had been one way that they remained pure in order to preserve their relationship with God. Now, however, it also became a way that they drew boundaries between themselves and those they lived among. Indeed, when pork-eating Greeks ruled over the Jews, refusing pork became a key element of what it meant to be Jewish. You are what you eat, the saying goes, but the Jews were what they didn’t eat.

The Jews rebelled against Antiochus and in 142 bc won control of Palestine and reconsecrated the Temple, an event commemorated in the celebration of Chanukah. Their independence lasted less than a century: in 63 bc the Romans conquered Jerusalem, and the Jews once more fell under the rule of pork eaters. Unlike the Greeks, the Romans responded to Jewish pork avoidance not with violence but with puzzlement and feeble jokes. Juvenal, the Roman satirist of the first century ad, noted that in Palestine “a long-established clemency suffers pigs to attain old age” because Jews “do not differentiate between human and pigs’ flesh.” It was said that Caesar Augustus, after hearing that King Herod of Judea had executed one of his own children, joked that he would “rather be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.”

There was a reason Jewish dining habits attracted attention: Romans loved pork with a passion matched by few people before or since. They developed the most sophisticated farming and breeding techniques that the world had ever seen and created elaborate—occasionally obscene—recipes to prepare pork for their lavish feasts. Such ostentatious pork consumption would only reinforce the divisions between Jews and Romans, and it would eventually establish pork as the meat of choice in the religion the Romans would help disseminate throughout Europe: Christianity.

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An enormous pig, belly up, is wheeled into a banquet room in one scene of Federico Fellini’s Satyricon. Trimalchio, the host, accuses the cook of roasting the animal without first gutting it and orders him whipped as punishment. The guests call for mercy, so Trimalchio demands, “Gut it here, now,” whereupon the cook swings an enormous sword and slashes the pig’s belly. The guests recoil in horror, but the steaming mass that pours forth is not the pig’s viscera but cooked meat. “Thrushes, fatted hens, bird gizzards!” one character calls out. “Sausage ropes, tender plucked doves, snails, livers, ham, offal!” The dispute with the cook has been all in fun. The guests applaud, then grab hunks of meat and begin to gorge themselves.

Fellini’s film, released in 1969, stays true to its source material, a work by Petronius written not long after the death of Christ. In depicting Roman dining, Petronius satirized but did not exaggerate: there was no need to embellish the extravagant reality. The dish portrayed in the film, a medley of meats hidden within a whole hog, was known as porcus Troianus, or “Trojan pig,” a nod to another great act of concealment. Petronius also describes a whole roast pig served with hunks of meat carved into the shape of piglets and placed along its belly, “as if at suck, to show it was a sow we had before us.” Another feast featured what appeared to be a goose and a variety of fish, all carved from pork. “I declare my cook made it every bit out of a pig,” the host exclaims. “Give the word, he’ll make you a fish of the paunch, a wood-pigeon of the lard, a turtle-dove of the forehand, and a hen of the hind leg!” Why he should do so is left unexplained.

In cuisine, culture, and mythology, Romans delighted in concealment and disguise, metamorphosis and transformation, and in this they could hardly have been more different from the Jews. The Roman Empire formed a vast, cosmopolitan civilization that embraced and absorbed dozens of cultures. Few identities—whether of meats or of people—remained fixed. Trimalchio, in Satyricon, is a former slave who has won his freedom and then attained great wealth. A man calling himself a Roman citizen might have been born in northern Europe, Africa, or Asia Minor. Jews, by contrast, were dedicated to marrying among themselves, defending their small homeland, and preserving their ancient ways.

The differences between Romans and Jews extended to food. One people defined itself by rejecting pork, the other by embracing it. One called the pig abominable, the other miraculous. One saw the pig as a carrier of pollution, the other as a sign of abundance. Between them, Jews and Romans set the terms that would define the pig throughout the history of the West.

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Pigs were the most common sacrificial animal in both Greece and Rome. They didn’t pollute—they purified. In Greek mythology, after Jason and Medea kill Medea’s brother, the enchantress Circe captures a piglet from “a sow whose dugs yet swelled from the fruit of the womb,” slits its neck, and sprinkles its blood over the hands of the killers to remove the stain of murder. Similarly, a painted vase shows Apollo holding a sacrificed piglet, still dripping blood, over the head of Orestes, who has killed his mother. Priests killed a suckling pig to honor the gods before every public gathering in Athens. Romans killed pigs to seal public agreements, such as contracts and treaties, and to mark important private occasions, such as births and weddings.

A youth preparing a pig's head after the sacrifice. Via Wikimedia Commons.

A youth preparing a pig’s head after the sacrifice. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Although the pig served as an all-purpose sacrificial animal, it carried a more specific meaning as a symbol of fertility. Demeter, Greek goddess of wheat, was honored with pig sacrifices. With her daughter Persephone—who was condemned to spend a third of each year in Hades—Demeter symbolized the circle of life, of death in winter followed by rebirth in spring. At Thesmophoria, the most widespread festival in ancient Greece, priestesses cast piglets into a pit and later retrieved their rotting carcasses and placed them on the altar of Demeter. The rotted pork was then scattered in the fields to ensure a good harvest. In Greece young pigs were known by the terms khoiros and delphax, both of which also could refer to women’s genitalia, and the Latin porcus carried the same dual meaning. Aristophanes makes some horrifying puns on this double meaning in his play Acharnians, where a starving man disguises his two daughters as pigs and sells them in the market. The scholar Varro noted that Romans “call that part which in girls is the mark of their sex porcus” to indicate that they were “mature enough for marriage.”

The use of pigs as fertility symbols traces back to the region’s first farming communities. Just north of Greece in the Balkans, archaeologists have found early Neolithic statues of pigs studded with grains of wheat and barley. Like a seed germinating in the soil, a sow giving birth to many piglets demonstrated the bounty of nature. Sacrificing pigs honored the gods and ensured that the fields, and the people themselves, would enjoy abundant fertility.

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Most people in the ancient world ate vegetarian diets heavy on grains and beans. This was the cheapest way to feed large populations. Rome was different. Although meat was expensive, Rome was rich, and a sizable class of people had enough money to eat it regularly.

Romans ate beef, lamb, and goat, but they preferred pork. Hippocrates, the Greek physician, proclaimed pork the best of all meats, and his Roman successors agreed. There were more Latin words for pork than for any other meat, and the trade became highly specialized: there were distinct terms for sellers of live pigs (suarii), fresh pork (porcinarius), dried pork (confectorarius), and ham (pernarius). According to the Edict of Diocletian, issued in 301 ad, sow’s udder, sow’s womb, and liver of fig-fattened swine commanded the highest prices of any meat, costing twice as much as lamb. Beef sausages sold for just half the price of pork. After the Punic Wars, the percentage of pig bones in Carthage doubled, just as it had in Jerusalem under Roman occupation: Romans kept eating pork even in arid climates such as North Africa and Palestine, where pigs were more difficult to raise.

The richest source on Roman cuisine, a recipe book known as De re coquinaria, or On Cooking, confirms this love of swine. Pork dishes far outnumber those made with other meats. The section called “Quadrupeds” contains four recipes for beef and veal, eleven for lamb, and seventeen for suckling pig. Other sections of the book offer recipes for adult sows and boars and nearly all of their parts, including brain, skin, womb, udder, liver, stomach, kidneys, and lungs. Archeology confirms that Romans carved up pigs more carefully and thoroughly than they did other creatures: pig skulls found in Roman dumps contain far more butchery scars than the skulls of sheep and cows, evidence that butchers excised the tongues, cheeks, and brains of pigs but not those of other beasts.

More than half of the dishes in On Cooking are relatively modest—barley soup with onion and ham bone, for example—and within the means of much of the urban population, but others demanded greater resources. Apicius is credited with inventing the technique of overfeeding a sow with figs in order to enlarge the liver, much as geese were stuffed with grain to create foie gras. In Apicius’s recipe, the fig-fattened pig liver is marinated in liquamen—a fermented fish sauce central to Roman cuisine—wrapped in caul fat, and grilled. The recipe for pig paunch starts with this salutary advice: “Carefully empty out a pig’s stomach.” The cook is then instructed to fill the stomach with a mixture of pork, “three brains that have had their sinews removed,” raw eggs, pine nuts, peppercorns, anise, ginger, rue, and other seasonings. Finally, the stomach is tied at both ends—“leaving a little space so that it does not burst during cooking”—boiled, smoked, boiled some more, and then served.

Some of the more elaborate dishes in On Cooking fall under the heading ofellae, which literally means a morsel of food. In one recipe, a skin-on pork belly is scored on the meat side, marinated for days in a blend of liquamen, pepper, cumin, and other spices, and then roasted. The chunks of meat would then be pulled from the skin, sauced, and served, forming bite-sized pieces that a diner could eat by hand while reclining, the preferred posture for Roman feasts. Another of the luxury dishes involves boiling a ham, removing the skin, scoring the flesh, and coating it with honey, a preparation that would not be out of place at Christmas dinner today.

Romans had a taste for blended milk, blood, and flesh that could make even a Gentile shudder. The Roman poet Martial had this to say about a roasted udder of lactating sow: “You would hardly imagine you were eating cooked sows’ teats, so abundantly do they flow and swell with living milk.” (Elsewhere, after a meal, Martial suffers the glutton’s regret and remarks upon “the unsightly skin of an excavated sow’s udder.”) This preference veered into the bizarrely cruel. Some cooks, Plutarch claimed, stomped and kicked the udders of live pregnant sows and thereby “blended together blood and milk and gore,” which was said to make the dish all the more delicious. The womb of this poor sow was eaten as well, with the dish called vulva eiectitia, or “miscarried womb.”

Seneca, the Stoic philosopher and statesman, decried such dishes as “monstrosities of luxury,” and he was far from the only critic. Roman rulers passed sumptuary laws limiting the amount that could be spent on meals and forbidding the consumption of items including testicles and cheeks. But the wealthy flouted such rules because the social hierarchy couldn’t function without feasts: feasting provided the only way to learn who had grown richer and who had lost money, who was in the emperor’s favor and who had been cast out. To curtail extravagance was to deny the very reason to feast.

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From the book from Lesser Beasts, by Mark Essig, published by Basic Books.