This Little Piggy Went to America*

*(These articles use the term ‘America’ as synonymous with the American continent, and not just another equivalent of U.S.A. When possible, we will use the term U.S. or U.S. Latinos when being specific to the U.S.A.)

One of the greatest food exchanges in human history occurred after 1492, the year Christopher Columbus made his first voyage to the Caribbean. The food exchange   included leafy vegetables, vegetable roots, spices, condiments, and livestock, but perhaps one of the most impactful of food items in the culinary treasure troves traveling westbound was the pig. The Spanish speaking cultures’ love for this chubby creature is reflected in the different terms they have for it: cochino, marrano, chancho, puerco, just to name a few.

The pig is the oldest of the domesticated animals, even older than cattle, and was probably domesticated first in China. Images of the hog were stamped on Roman coins, and during the Muslim, Jews and Christian presence between 711 and 1492 in Spain, some of the more devout Christians would kill, clean, cook, and eat the pork in public to prove their “purity” as Christians, a rather theatrical way of differentiating themselves from Muslims and Jews, who for the most part abstained from consuming pork.

The Iberian pig (Iberia refers to the peninsula shared by Spain and Portugal) was later introduced to the Antilles during Columbus’ second voyage and accompanied Spanish explorers from Hernán Cortés, to Francisco Pizarro managed to sack Mexico and Perú, respectively, using a steady supply of pork. Even the American South owes its pork BBQ specialties to the Spanish explorer, Hernando de Soto, long considered the father of the American pork industry.

Spaniards not only consumed the meat and skin, but created oil, candles, and that good old-fashioned lard that so many of our grandparents used in their provincial cooking. (We have to remember that the consumption of lard for these generations usually was accompanied by hard physical labor; certainly a far cry from our chair-bound jobs  and the overall sedentary lifestyle that is so much a part of modern society, the main culprits contributing to obesity and poor health). The use of lard for cooking was certainly abundant during tough voyages and explorations, and although Spaniards probably preferred to use olive oil, cultivating the olive fruit was not easy in the tropical areas of America. Lard, however, was readily available since the pig adapted fairly well to the new environment. So contrary to popular misconceptions about Mexican food being historically a greasy cuisine, it was the Spaniards who introduced greasy food to the indigenous people who had never fried  anything in lard or oil!

Whatever your perception is of the pig, you can not deny its role in contributing to the  diversity of dishes and treats in all the continents. Its tender white meat lends itself to use in Asian cuisine flavoring rice and noodle dishes, and the French term, ‘charcuterie’, refers to products made with, although not limited to, pork, such as patés, sausages, bacon, and ham, meats traditionally sold in delis. And, then there are the diverse cuisines of the Americas: Mexican carnitas and puerco en salsa verde or chile colorado, Colombian chicharrones, and Cuban lechón (young suckling pig). There is also the diversity of BBQ pork dishes in Nashville, Memphis, and Texas. So, this fall, like the Spaniards who celebrated the arrival of fall with pork from the pig that was fattened during the spring and summer seasons, let’s toast to the oinkster and start this season enjoying that other succulent white meat!

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