Friday, October 26

Kitchen to Classroom: Let's Hear it for the Hog!

Photo by Alfred T. Palmer, 1943, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
A weekly dispatch from our postdoctoral fellow, Angela Jill Cooley.

After last week's symposium, I couldn't resist one more nod to barbecue scholarship.

In “‘How ‘bout a Hand for the Hog’: The Enduring Nature of the Swine as a Cultural Symbol,” historian S. Jonathan Bass of Samford University traces the importance of the pig from the antebellum South through the current day. Although popular culture often depicts the hog as a static symbol, Bass explains how this culinary staple remained important in the region because it adapted well to changing economic and social conditions.

Before the Civil War, according to Bass, Southerners raised hogs because the animal remained fairly self-sufficient, foraging for nuts and grains in the Southern landscape. The low maintenance cost and comparatively high yield of cultivating pork allowed the region’s yeoman farmers to depend upon the hog for their subsistence.

The Civil War, Bass explains, served as a turning point in the region’s pork history. Not only did the hog population decline during the war (dropping by more than 800,000 hogs in South Carolina, according to Bass), but also the “closing of the Southern range” in the decades that followed the war changed the way Southerners raised hogs as well as the composition of the hog itself. Bass explains that “pen-fed hog meat” contains a higher concentration of fat than its free-range predecessors.

According to Bass, Southerners and their pigs adapted well to modern culture. The nation’s first self-service grocery store, founded in Memphis, paid homage to the iconic fare with the name Piggly Wiggly. Southerners who had once socialized over annual hog killings now gathered at local barbecue joints—Dreamland in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for ribs, or down the road in Bessemer at Bob Sykes for chopped pork shoulder. Regardless, Bass concludes, “the hog as a symbol of Southern culture persists…in the region’s continued obsession with pork consumption.”

Citation: S. Jonathan Bass, “‘How ‘bout a Hand for the Hog: The Enduring Nature of the Swine as a Cultural Symbol in the South,” 1, no. 3 Southern Cultures (Spring 1995): 301-320.