Thursday, May 01, 2008

Pepys' Porke.

May 1 ...

My old friend Samuel Pepys gives me my story today, as he has done so often in the past. It was common in his time to give and receive spontaneous ‘gifts’ of food – and there are frequent mentions in his diary of the exchange of such things as haunches of venison, swans, fruit, and barrels of oysters and sturgeon. On this day in 1663 he was slightly puzzled by a gift of pork:

“This day Capt. Grove sent me a side of porke, which was the oddest present, sure, that ever made to any man; and the next, I remember I told my wife, I believe would be a pound of candles or a shoulder of mutton. But the fellow doth it in kindness and is one I am beholding to.”

I don’t know why Sam thought a present of pork was odd. Perhaps for a slightly snobby recipient it was too close to the food of peasants? On the other hand, oysters were pretty ordinary fare at that time, but Sam often gave or received quanitities of them as gifts.

Pork is quite a problematic meat. The world seems to be divided between pork lovers (and eaters) and pork haters (or avoiders). Obvious avoiders are those of the Jewish and Moslem faiths for whom pork-avoidance is a religious tenet, but there have also been some Christian groups who have eschewed it. One of the founders of the Seventh Day Adventist Church was a ‘health reformer’ called Ellen White. She promoted vegetarianism as an ethical principle – but she really had it in for ‘swines flesh’, which she said ‘has produced scrofula, leprosy, and cancerous humors’.

A life without pork would be incomprehensible in many peasant cultures where a pig is the absolute backbone of the domestic economy - because even a poor household can support an animal that will not only rear itself on household scraps and foraging, but whose meat is easily and wonderfully preserved as sausage and bacon.

The digestibility and nutritional value of pork has been hotly debated by ‘experts’ throughout recorded history. The ancient Greek physician Galen, whose theories dominated Western medical thought for many centuries, thought that pork flesh was the closest to human flesh (thus legitimising the use of such things as mummified bodies for medicinal purposes right up until into the nineteenth century). The Pacific Islanders familiar to Robert Louis Stevenson referred to the human body (when used for culinary purposes) as ‘long pig’ – and they were surely not familiar with Galen, so presumably got the idea independently, and based it on its flavour?

The aesthetic paradox of the life of the pig and the value of its meat was summed up beautifully in 1745 by Louis LĂ©mery in his comprehensive Treatise of All Sorts of Foods: Both Animal and Vegetable:

“Every Body knows, that an Hog is a nasty, filthy Creature, that delights in Mire and Ordure ; but its Flesh, as well as its other Parts, have a good Taste, and are much used for Food.”

Sadly, Sam Pepys does not indicate in his diary how his pork gift was dressed for the table. A well-known cookbook of his time was The Accomplisht Cook (1660), by Robert May, and it gives an overview of roast pork that shows us just how long sage and apple have been traditional accompaniments.

To roast Pork with the Sauces belonging to it.
Take a chine of pork, draw it with sage on both sides, being first spitted, then roast it; thus you may do of any other joynt, whether Chine, Loin, Rack, Breast, or Spare-rib, or Harslet* of a bacon-hog, being salted a night or two.
1. Gravy [i.e meat juices], chopped sage, and onions boild together with some pepper.
2. Mustard, vinegar, and pepper.
3. Apples pared, quartered, and boild in fair water, with some sugar and butter.
4. Gravy, onions, vinegar, and pepper.

*The ‘harslet’ (or haslet) is a less recogniseable treat in these offal-negative times. It refers to the entrails or viscera of an animal - particularly a pig, – as well as to a sort of meatloaf made from these tidbits. If you use oatmeal in the ‘meatloaf’, I guess it is pretty much the same as haggis, only without the bagpipes. Here is a recipe for you, in case you are offal-positive.

Pigs’ Harslet.
Wash and dry some liver, sweetbreads, and fat and lean bits of pork, beating the latter with a rolling-pin to make it tender: season with pepper, salt, sage, and a little onion shred fine; when mixed, put all into a cawl, and fasten it up tight with a needle and thread. Roast it on a hanging jack, or by a string.
Serve with a sauce of port-wine and water, and mustard, just boiled up, and put into a dish. Or serve in slices, with parsley, for a fry.
[A New System of Domestic Cookery: Formed Upon Principles of Economy ... Maria Eliza Ketelby Rundell, 1824]

Tomorrow’s Story ..

Luncheon with the Royals.

Quotation for the Day …

As for bread, I count that for nothin'. We always have bread and potatoes enough; but I hold a family to be in a desperate way when the mother can see the bottom of the pork barrel. Give me children that's raised on good sound pork afore all the game in the country. Game's good as a relish and so's bread; but pork is the staff of life. . . . My children I calkerlate to bring up on pork with just as much bread and butter as they want. James Fenimore Cooper, The Chainbearer, 1845.


Liz + Louka said...

My guess is that pork was a bit of a condescending gift - like when Emma Woodhouse sent a hind-quarter to the Bates family - for someone who couldn't even manage to keep their own pig? Though I don't imagine Pepys kept a pig himself.

I always found Mr Woodhouse's ideas on wholesome ways to eat pork rather odd: roast is bad, but fried steaks are good.

The Old Foodie said...

Hello Liz (or are you the 'Louka' half of the equation?). I wonder if a gift of pork was also unusual because unlike many other food gifts (such as venison), pork could be easily preserved as ham or sausage etc, so the need to give away whatever could not be used fairly quickly simply did not apply?