PJP Food History Series: The History of Pork

Last time on our Food History Series, Chef Patterson Watkins explored the history of chicken. This week she tackles pork. Keep an eye out for the food she will tackle next on her deep dives into the history of various foods we eat every day.

The origins of the food we eat has always fascinated me… How long have these edibles been on our great big planet? Who was the first to cultivate, domesticate and turn it into delicious food?

Pork has a fascinating history. It had humble beginnings, 23 million years ago and has since become one of the most widely consumed meats in the world.

The Beginning

PJP Food History Series: The History of Pork

The Oligocene was the epoch marking the rise of our modern mammals. The Eurasian boar, Sus Scrofa, roamed the developing globe from Africa to Asia. Our earliest ancestors began hunting the wild boar as far back as 35,000BCE. We learned this when we discovered boar drawn in pictures on cave walls and in bone fragments at archaeological sites.

As humans began traveling and settling further outside the African continent, early agriculture and animal domestication took root. As far back as 11,000 BCE, the area now known as China had first begun domesticating the wild boar in small family farm holds. The popularity of this animal grew and by 4500 BCE everyone in Europe and Asia were capturing and raising boars.

Pork Takes Over

PJP Food History Series: The History of Pork

Ancient humans celebrated and coveted Sus scrofa domesticus. It became customary to bury Terra cotta pigs with deceased family members in Asia long before the Terra Cotta Warriors. Pigs graced the faces of coins in ancient Rome and banners with boars were flown high above noble castles in Europe. It was the Norman Conquest of England that introduced the term ‘pork’ into our lexicon. As trade routes flourished so did the culinary landscape. Salted legs from Spain and Italy became Iberian Jamon and Prosciutto. We see the development of varieties of Saucisson, dried cured sausages, pates, and rillettes from France. Marco Polo even brought many spices and recipes from the far east.

When Columbus sailed to North America European settlers introduced pork to the new world. Domesticated pigs became part of the mass settlement. The term Buccaneer derives from native Arawak for cooking pork over wood. This is how BBQ was born.

American Pork

PJP Food History Series: The History of Pork

After the American Revolution we saw a boom in industry. In less than 100 years, modest family farms gave way to larger farms. Then larger farms became factory farms. Cincinnati and Chicago were the largest slaughterhouse hubs, feeding pork to the masses via steamboats and railroads. In the late 1870’s, Armour & Co. (yep, the hotdog company) installed the first chiller plant. This changed the process of packing and aging meat in salt to using ice instead. Manufacturers developed rail cars outfitted with ice block refrigeration. With that development, they were able to distribute fresh pork into cities.

The turn of the century population boom placed oppressive pressure on manufacturers and pork producers. Meatpacking plants became a hot bed of poor food handling. Pest infestation, rotting meat, and poisonous chemicals were just the tip of the iceberg. Upton Sinclair’s breakout novel The Jungle shed light on these horrendous conditions and became the catalyst for food protection and sanitation standards. This prompted The Pure Foods Movement, a government mandate to clean up the stockyards and slaughterhouses and promote ‘true’ unadulterated meat.

Modern Pork

PJP Food History Series: The History of Pork

During the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s the U.S. became the number one producer of pork. The U.S. came to the aid of many starving European nations during WWII, shipping over 1 billion pounds of pork overseas. Much of which was packed in a new shelf life extension product-canned ham.

The post-war 50’s showed the movement of pork production out of Chicago and Cincinnati to the mid-west and the south with steady, momentous growth. Today, over 109 million metric tons of pork are consumed annually worldwide. 23 billion pounds are produced by US companies. The top pig producing states are Iowa, North Carolina, and Minnesota. China, one of the largest consumers of pork, purchased Smithfield Pork for $4.7 billion to keep up with national demand. It is estimated that 90% of all pork produced in North Carolina is shipped internationally.

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Patterson Watkins

Patterson Watkins

Professional Chef/Recipe Development/Nutrition Expert/Food Photography

Patterson Watkins is a freelance recipe developer and industry consultant. She has dedicated over 15 years to food service management, encompassing restaurants and corporate dining. Patterson’s work has been featured in Taste of Home, Better Homes and Gardens, American Lifestyle and Urban Outfitters. For more information about Patterson and her work please visit pattersonwatkins.com.