One of the great, if not the greatest, essayists in the English language was Charles Lamb, born in London in 1775. Lamb published his “Essays of Elia” in 1823. Of all of his essays, one of my favorites is “A Dissertation on Roast Pig.” Lamb’s essay would not be appealing to vegetarians and vegans and neither will this column.
Many of us in western Kentucky are proud of our expertise in the preparation of meat by the process of grilling or roasting. We know all about the barbecue or the barbeque or the bar-b-q, if not how to properly spell it. We are connoisseurs of the art. In “A Dissertation on Roast Pig,” however, Lamb gives his version of the first instance of roasting pig in world history.
According to an ancient Chinese manuscript, “the art of roasting, or rather broiling … was accidentally discovered” by Bo-bo, the son of the “swine-herd” Ho-ti. Before Bo-bo’s discovery, folks “for the first seventy thousand ages ate their meat raw, clawing or biting it from the living animal.” Bo-bo accidentally discovered a better way when playing with fire in his father’s absence he “let some sparks escape into a bundle of straw, which kindling quickly, spread the conflagration over every part of their poor mansion, till it was reduced to ashes.”
Along with the burned house, “a fine litter of new-farrowed pigs, no less than nine in number, perished.” Bo-bo, of course, was “in utmost consternation,” not so much for the house “as for the loss of the pigs.” According to Lamb, while Bo-bo “was thinking what he should say to his father, and wringing his hands over the smoking remnants of one of those untimely sufferers, an odour assailed his nostrils, unlike any scent which he had before experienced.” Many of us have experienced that delectable scent of roasting pig.
Lamb wrote that along with the scent, Bo-bo experienced “premonitory moistening” of “his nether lip.” Bo-bo “knew not what to think,” and “he next stooped down to feel the pig,” to see if there were any signs of life in it. “He burnt his fingers, and to cool them he applied them . . . to his mouth. Some of the crumbs of the scorched skin had come away with his fingers, and for the first time in his life (in the world’s life indeed, for before him no man had known it) he tasted—crackling!”
“The truth at length broke into his slow understanding, that it was the pig that smelt so, and the pig that tasted so delicious; and, surrendering himself up to the newborn pleasure, he fell to tearing up whole handfuls of the scorched skin with the flesh next, and was cramming it down his throat in his beastly fashion, when his sire entered amid the smoking rafters.”
“O, father,” cried Bo-bo, “the pig, the pig, do come and taste how nice the burnt pig eats.” You know the rest of the story. When the father “tasted of its flavour … (for the manuscript here is a little tedious) both father and son sat down to the mess, and never left off till they had dispatched all that remained of the litter.”
According to Lamb, “Bo-bo was strictly enjoined not to let the secret escape, for the neighbours would certainly have stoned them for a couple of abominable wretches, who could think of improving upon the good meat which God had sent them.” But improve on it they did. And the word got out, or as Lamb put it, “strange stories got about.”
The word did indeed get out, “strange stories got about,” and today, right here in western Kentucky, we can partake of the culinary delight of roast pig enjoyed by Bo-bo and Ho-ti so many years ago. Now, where can we find it in Murray?
Duane Bolin is Professor Emeritus of History at Murray State University. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. n