(Does this guy look familar? Then keep it to yourselves, please.)
The world’s most famous cookbook, the Old Testament, is pretty darn specific about what animals the chosen people could and could not eat. This was quite a list, as can be seen in the book of Deuteronomy;
3 Do not eat any detestable thing. 4 These are the animals you may eat: the ox, the sheep, the goat, 5 the deer, the gazelle, the roe deer, the wild goat, the ibex, the antelope and the mountain sheep. [a] 6 You may eat any animal that has a split hoof divided in two and that chews the cud. 7 However, of those that chew the cud or that have a split hoof completely divided you may not eat the camel, the rabbit or the coney. [b] Although they chew the cud, they do not have a split hoof; they are ceremonially unclean for you. 8 The pig is also unclean; although it has a split hoof, it does not chew the cud. You are not to eat their meat or touch their carcasses.
9 Of all the creatures living in the water, you may eat any that has fins and scales. 10 But anything that does not have fins and scales you may not eat; for you it is unclean.
11 You may eat any clean bird. 12 But these you may not eat: the eagle, the vulture, the black vulture, 13 the red kite, the black kite, any kind of falcon, 14 any kind of raven, 15 the horned owl, the screech owl, the gull, any kind of hawk, 16 the little owl, the great owl, the white owl, 17 the desert owl, the osprey, the cormorant, 18 the stork, any kind of heron, the hoopoe and the bat.
19 All flying insects that swarm are unclean to you; do not eat them. 20 But any winged creature that is clean you may eat.
And Leviticus adds a few more to the untouchable smörgåsbord:
20 ” ‘All flying insects that walk on all fours are to be detestable to you. 21 There are, however, some winged creatures that walk on all fours that you may eat: those that have jointed legs for hopping on the ground. 22 Of these you may eat any kind of locust, katydid, cricket or grasshopper. 23 But all other winged creatures that have four legs you are to detest.
29’Of the animals that move about on the ground, these are unclean for you: the weasel, the rat, any kind of great lizard, 30 the gecko, the monitor lizard, the wall lizard, the skink and the chameleon. 31 Of all those that move along the ground, these are unclean for you.
(Why kidney stew, canned salmon and menudo weren’t considered destable is one of God’s mysteries.)
Most of the Mosaic laws were guidelines to help this fledgling people maintain their sense of civility as well as their good health. The proscribed animals are almost all carrion eaters or animals that ate these carrion eaters. Long before anyone had ever thought of animal hygiene or nutritional safety, the Jews had a system in place that would protect them from most of the parasites and poisons that plagued the remainder of the primitive world, even to this day.
Unless one is a practicing Jew or Muslim, most of these animals are no longer on the naughty list. We can thank Peter for sharing a dream he had in which all kinds of animals, including reptiles, were presented to him as acceptable fare. (I wonder what he ate before going to bed that night?) Most of these creatures the typical Westerner would never deign to eat, even with divine invitation. (Insects and reptiles are considered quite tasty throughout most of the world.) Those scrumptious bottom dwellers and carrion eaters we have developed a taste for (shrimp, oysters, crabs, lobsters, clams, crayfish and catfish) pose relatively little health problems (with the exception of oysters and crabs pulled from polluted waters.) One of the scale-less fish, however, is the shark. What’s so dangerous about shark?
So the stigma has been lifted from most of these animals. Except for one, arguably the most nutritious and tasty animal on the list. The king of meats, our own smooth pygmy buffalo, good from the snout to the tail – the pig, Sus Scrofa. Hams, bacon, chops, ribs, cracklin’, loin, roasts – succulent pork is the most versatile and adaptable of all the animal flesh that the human carnivore consumes.
Up until recently, if one was served pork it was usually overcooked, as everyone was well aware of the nasty parasite that might be found embedded in it’s muscle, Trichinosis. As described in Wikipedia:
Trichinosis, also called trichinellosis, or trichiniasis, is a parasitic disease caused by eating raw or undercooked pork and wild game products infected with the larvae of a species of roundworm Trichinella spiralis, commonly called the trichina worm. The few cases in the United States are mostly the result of eating undercooked game (an acceptably clean or kosher animal!)or home reared pigs. It is most common in the developing world and where pigs are commonly fed raw garbage.
Today we are fortunate to be able to enjoy pork cooked medium rare, tender, moist and much more flavorful than beef or chicken. And much leaner than both of those as well. Of course, the residents of Europe, Central and South America and our own Southern states have been serving up delicious renderings of our porcine friend for some time now and when they are finished there is little of him left unconsumed.
But I have been consistently plagued by people who refuse to eat the most minuscule piece of pig, claiming that it is dirty and unclean. Now, these gustatorial complainers do not hail from the Jewish or Muslim camps, but there is nevertheless an almost religious fervor in their denunciation of pork. After determining that it is not a dearly held religious custom that generates this response, I will usually endeavor to educate them on the silliness of their fears. (I am not constrained by any unnecessary political correctness. Culinary ignorance is not protected by the Constitution.)
I explain that pork is completely safe, even when served rare but definitely (since time immemorial) when cooked well done. The parasite is not even present when the pigs are fed properly and for over 40 years all commercially raised hogs have enjoyed a very safe and healthy diet. Not only do these malcontents refuse to be edified, they will often resort to insults, referring to our tasty friend as ‘swine’ (as if that was a more derogatory term than ‘pig’). It is difficult for me to not take offense as well, since I am a devoted fan of said ‘swine’, in all it’s various culinary manifestations.
These folk, as I’ve said, seem to have no religious reservations (the vast majority seem to be Protestant) but they almost always hail from a Northeastern urban background (no Southerner or farm raised Amercian would look down his nose at slow cooked pork shoulder or braised and broiled loin ribs). Upon further interrogation, some will grudgingly admit to a penchant for catfish, crabs and shrimp, all formerly proscribed by the Bible and arguably much more ‘unclean’ than our piggy friends. (Many that I have met, though they may not smoke pork, will smoke cigarettes. So much for the X factor.)
From where does this misguided nutritional vigilantism spring forth? Over the years I have discovered a pattern. I mentioned that the vast majority of these folk were Protestant. More specifically, they tend to belong to conservative denominations that strive on taking the words found within the Bible very literally. Like most literalists, they tend to ‘proof text’ scripture, clinging tightly to some passages, conveniently forgetting others. Taking the Biblical injunction against pork seriously (the one dietary law that for some reason has overshadowed all others in the public eye) they take fair pride in not fouling the pristine temple of their bodies with this beast that God has chosen to loathe.
Their loss. Can someone please pass the barbecue?