2019: Pork for the New Year

Any way you slice it, using pork for seasoning adds a sublime flavor to time honored traditional Southern Soul food dishes like black-eyed peas and collard greens.

But did you know that the establishment of pigs in American cuisine has had a very long culinary history?

Wild Boar

For the most part, wild pigs (also known as wild hogs, wild boar, or feral swine) are an Old World species and are not native to the Americas. The first wild pigs in the United States originated solely from domestic stock brought to North America initially by early Spanish explorers and settlers. Many years later, Eurasian wild boar were introduced into parts of the United States for hunting purposes. In areas where domestic pigs and Eurasian wild boar were found together in the wild, interbreeding occurred. Today, many hybrid populations exist throughout the wild pig’s range.

The existence of the pig dates back 40 million years to fossils which indicate that wild porcine animals roamed forests and swamps in Europe and Asia. Remains of the earliest known North American peccary, Perchoerus, are from late Eocene sediments dating from 37 million years ago in North America. But , for the sake of this discussion, domesticated pig that holds our interest.

Pigs were domesticated in China around 49,00 BC, although some experts claim that between 7,000 to 60,000 BC pigs were fully domesticated in Western Asia and by 15,00BC, they were being raised in Europe. The Ancient Romans have been credited for improving breeding and spread pork production throughout their vast empire.

Before 10,000 BC, Jewish religious law and dietary rules banned the eating of pork before, based on a belief that pigs were unclean since they ate waste, and there was the fear of disease. Early Christians also shunned pork, however, by 50 AD those dietary restrictions were relaxed. In practices of Islam, the prophet Muhammad also banned the consumption of pork, resulting in a severe decline in the pig population of the Middle East and Western Asia. Europe, being principally Christian, embraced the pig: Swine ate anything, reproduced prodigiously, and their meat was easily preserved. By the 1500’s in Europe, the Celtic people in the north were breeding large-bodied, well-muscled pigs, while in Southern Europe, the Iberians had developed smaller-framed, lard-type pigs. All of the pigs of this time period were dark-colored.

Historical records document the voyages of Christopher Columbus on behalf of King Ferdinand V and Queen Isabella II of Spain in 1492. Columbus mission was to sail west to explore the Atlantic Ocean. Columbus set sail with 87 men and in three small ships named Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria. What he “discovered” was the Western Hemisphere and christened the this new territory, the New World , claiming it for Spain. Subsequently, colonization of the New World under the Crown of Castile was initiated under the royal authority and first accomplished by the Spanish conquistadors. The Americas were incorporated into the Spanish Empire The crown created civil and religious structures to administer the region. The motivations for colonial expansion were trade and the spread of the Catholic faith through indigenous conversions.

Beginning with the 1492 arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Western Hemisphere and the continued control of vast territories for over three centuries, the Spanish Empire would expand across the Caribbean Islands, half of South America, most of Central America and much of North America (including present day Florida and the Southwestern and Pacific Coastal regions of the United States). It is estimated that during the colonial period (1492–1832), a total of 1.86 million Spaniards settled in the Americas. In contrast, the outcome for indigenous populations was much worse, with an estimated 8 million deaths following the initial conquest through enslavement and contact with old world diseases.

Upon his return to the New World, at Queen Isabella’s insistence, Columbus took eight pigs on his voyage to Cuba in 1493. Because swine could survive the voyage with minimal care, they supplied an emergency food source if needed, and those that escaped provided meat for hunting on return trips. Europeans considered this lack of proper animals for work and consumption unacceptable. Thus, the first contingent of horses, dogs, pigs, cows, sheep, and goats arrived with Columbus’ second voyage in 1493. The arrival of these hoofed immigrants would fundamentally alter Indigenous ways of life forever. Many of the indigenous tribes eventually began to use horses to transform their hunting and gathering into a highly effective and mobile practice. And so the Columbian Exchange had begun.


The term, “Columbian Exchange” , was first used in 1972 by historian Alfred W. Crosby in his environmental history book The Columbian Exchange. It was rapidly adopted by other historians and journalists and has become widely known in the literature of economics and other disciplines. The Columbian Exchange refers to the exchange of diseases, ideas, food crops, and populations between the New World and the Old World following the second voyage to the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1493. The Old World, which included Europe and the entire Eastern Hemisphere gained from the Columbian Exchange in a number of ways. The discoveries of new supplies natural resources, like metals such as gold and silver are perhaps the best known. But the Old World also gained new staple crops, such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, maize, and cassava. Less calorie-intensive foods, such as tomatoes, chili peppers, cacao, peanuts, and pineapples were also introduced, and are now culinary centerpieces in many Old World countries, namely Italy, Greece, and other Mediterranean countries (tomatoes), India and Korea (chili peppers), Hungary (paprika, made from chili peppers), and Malaysia and Thailand (chili peppers, peanuts, and pineapples).

Moreover, the changes in agriculture significantly altered and changed global populations. The cultivation of financially lucrative crops like tobacco and sugar in the Americas, along with the devastation of native populations that also were enslaved and died from disease, resulted in a demand for labor that was met with the abduction and forced movement and enslavement of over 12 million Africans during the 15th to 19th centuries (Lovejoy, 2000; Manning, 1990).

slave trade


The Triangle Trade


But did you know that in the early 1540s Spanish conquistador and explorer Hernando de Soto and his men traversed the Gulf Coast and officially introduced fifteen hogs to the American South. At the time, the consumption of pork was a Christian duty for every Spanish-speaking Catholic. In fact, during the Spanish Inquisition, it became obligatory to have pork simmering in a cauldron or chorizo sausages hanging from the rafters as proof of the household’s faith.

In addition, at the time of Spanish Conquest of the New World, Spain was facing internal divisions of its own. To put this period of Spanish colonialism into the proper context, it will take a moment to review Spanish history.

The Reconquista is the term used describe the period in the Spanish history of the Iberian Peninsula of about 780 years, between the Umayyad conquest of Hispania in 711 and the fall of the Nasrid kingdom of Granada to the expanding Christian kingdoms in 1491. The completed conquest of Granada was the in context of the Spanish voyages of discovery and conquest and giving Columbus got royal support in Granada in 1492, months after its conquest), and the Americas—the “New World”—ushered in the era of the Spanish and Portuguese colonial empires.


Traditional historiography has marked the beginning of the Reconquista with the Battle of Covadonga (718 or 722), the first known victory in Iberia by Christian military forces since the 711 military intervention in Iberia of combined Arab-Berber forces. In that small battle, a group led by the nobleman Pelagius defeated a Muslim patrol in the mountains of northern Iberia and established the independent Christian Kingdom of Asturias. It ended with the conquest of the Emirate of Granada, the last Muslim state in the peninsula, in 1491.

The Spanish Inquisition established in 1478 was — officially known as The Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition and established by Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile. It was intended to maintain Catholic orthodoxy in their kingdoms and to replace the Medieval Inquisition, which was under Papal control. It became the most substantive of the three different manifestations of the wider Catholic Inquisition along with the Roman Inquisition and Portuguese Inquisition. The “Spanish Inquisition” may be defined broadly, operating in Spain and in all Spanish colonies and territories, which included the Canary Islands, the Spanish Netherlands, the Kingdom of Naples, and all Spanish possessions in North, Central, and South America.

The Inquisition was originally intended primarily to identify heretics among those who converted from Judaism and Islam to Catholicism. Subsequently, the Holy Inquisition Against Depraved Heresy was established in 1481. After 1491, the entire peninsula was controlled by Christian rulers. The conquest was also about the regulation of the faith of newly converted Catholics was intensified by issuing of several royal decrees including the Alhambra Decree (1492) which expelled Jews who would not convert to Christianity from Castile and Aragon, and a series of edicts issued between 1499 and 1526 which forced the conversions of the Muslims in Spain Catholicism or leave Castile.

Tomas de Torquemada (1420-1498)

The Holy Inquisition Against Depraved Heresy was primarily directed against conversos, former Jews, who were accused of religious heresy and political subversion through secret Jewish practice. To establish such practice, the Inquisition trials under the direction of Grand Inquisitor Tomás de Torquemada (1420 –1498), who, perhaps not surprisingly, was also of converso origin, took testimony about the accused’s alleged Jewish activities — many of them, as it happens, culinary in nature. One Inquisition list of Jewish food practices, as noted by David Gitlitz and Linda Kay Davidson in their book, “A Drizzle of Honey: The Lives and Recipes of Spain’s Secret Jews” (1999).

In an effort to expel Spanish Muslims, as well as Jewish people, from Spain, King Ferdinand V and Queen Isabella I relaunched what was known as the Reconquista, the re-conquest of Spain, the coincided with the Spanish Inquisition.

As a strong Spanish identity formed around the idea of the Reconquista, food became a powerful symbol of Spanish culture. For instance, consider “pork”: Among Muslim, Jewish, and Catholic people, only Catholics could eat “pork,” since for Muslim and Jewish people, the consumption of “pork” was forbidden. During the re-conquest, as individuals were being forced to prove that they were pureblooded Spaniards, they would often be offered “pork” to eat. Any refusal to consume “pork” would be taken as a sign that such people were not true Catholic Spaniards and would subsequently be expelled from Spain, persecuted, or even killed. According to modern estimates, around 150,000 were prosecuted for various offenses during the three centuries of duration of the Inquisition, out of which between 3,000 and 5,000 were executed.

For the most part, it is interesting to note how food was used as a weapon during the Inquisition.The Inquisition was not definitively abolished until 1834, during the reign of Isabella II, after a period of declining influence in the preceding century. Since the mid-19th century, the idea of a ‘re-conquest’ took hold in Spain associated with its rising nationalism and colonialism.

Hernado de Soto ( c. 1500-1542

The second introduction of pork into the New World came with Spanish explorer and conquistador, Hernando de Soto (c. 1500 – 1542). De Soto was involved in expeditions in Nicaragua and the Yucatan Peninsula, and played an important role in Pizarro’s conquest of the Inca Empire in Peru, but is best known for leading the first Spanish and European expedition deep into the territory of the modern-day United States (through Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and most likely Arkansas). He is the first European documented as having crossed the Mississippi River. Many food historians claim de Soto to be the true “father of the American pork industry.” He brought America’s first 13 pigs to Tampa Bay, Florida, in 1539. As the herds grew, explorers used the pigs not only for eating as fresh meat but for salt pork and preserved pork. Indigenous tribes were reportedly so fond of the taste of pork that attacks to acquire it resulted in some of the worst assaults on the expedition. By the time de Soto died three years later, his original herd of 13 pigs had grown to 700 – a very conservative estimate. I am pretty sure that this number did not include the pigs eaten by his troops, those that escaped and became wild pigs (the ancestors of today’s feral pigs), and those given to the American Indians to keep the peace.

And thus, the pork industry in America had begun.

In the centuries following European exploration and colonization of what would become the eastern United States, free-range livestock management practices and escapes from enclosures resulted in the establishment of wild pig populations and promoted their spread.

Hernan Cortes (1485-1547)

On the domesticated front, pig production spread rapidly through the new colonies. The third introduction of pigs in the Americas occurred under the direction of Hernán Cortés (1485 – 1547) a Spanish Conquistador who led an expedition that caused the fall of the Aztec Empire and brought large portions of what is now mainland Mexico under the rule of the King of Castile in the early 16th century. Cortés was part of the generation of Spanish colonizers who began the first phase of the Spanish colonization of the Americas. Cortés introduced hogs to New Mexico in 1600 while English explorer, Sir Walter Raleigh (c. 1552 -1618), brought sows to Jamestown colony in 1607. Within the next decade, semi-wild pigs ravaged New York colonists’ grain fields to the extent that every pig 14 inches in height that was owned by a colonist was required to have a ring in its nose to make it easier to control it. On Manhattan Island, a long solid wall to exclude rampaging pigs was constructed on the northern edge of the colony; it created the name for the area now known as Wall Street. By 1660 the pig population of Pennsylvania Colony numbered in the thousands. By the end of the 1600s, the typical farmer owned four or five pigs, supplying salt pork, ham, and bacon for his table; any surplus was sold as “barreled pork” , that is pork meat preserved in salted brine, and stored in wooden barrels). Finishing pigs before slaughter on corn became popular in Pennsylvania, setting the new standard for fattening before the late fall pork harvest.

At the end of the 1700s, pioneers started heading west, taking their utilitarian pigs with them. Wooden crates filled with young pigs often hung from the axles of prairie schooner wagons. As western herds increased, processing and packing facilities began to spring up in major cities. Pigs were first commercially slaughtered in Cincinnati, which became known as “Porkopolis”; by the mid-1800s Cincinnati led the nation in pig processing.

porkopolis gp_kahnsworkers-001-e1489519722328

Getting the pigs to market in the 1850s was no small task. Drovers herded their pigs along trails, with the aid of drivers who handled up to 100 pigs each. It is estimated that between 40,000 and 70,000 pigs were driven from Ohio to eastern markets in any given year. A herd could travel 5-8 miles a day and covered total distances up to 700 miles.

Harper's weekly

In 1887 Swift & Company introduced the refrigerated railroad car, chilled by a solution of ice and salt. It should be noted that the technological advancement of mechanical refrigeration would not appear until 1947. The refrigerated railroad car created a revolution in pig farming where slaughterhouses could be centralized near production centers since processed pork meat could be shipped instead of live hogs. Large terminal markets developed in Chicago; Kansas City, Missouri and Sioux City, Iowa. Centralized packing plants were located adjacent to the stockyards. The natural progression was for the pork industry to relocate to the Upper Midwest, where the majority of grain was raised; Corn Belt morphed into Hog Belt. Today Iowa is still the top pork producer in the States.

Even today, Ossabaw ,a direct descendent of the original Iberico black-footed hogs imported by the Spaniards to Savannah, Georgia, some 400 years ago, is still being raised on farms in North Carolina. Their meat has superior taste and texture, with marbling that retains the moisture of the meat.

The first wild pigs in the United States originated solely from domestic stock brought to North America by early European explorers and settlers. Many years later, Eurasian wild boar were introduced into parts of the United States for hunting purposes. In areas where domestic pigs and Eurasian wild boar were found together in the wild, interbreeding occurred. Today, many hybrid populations exist throughout the wild pig’s range.

Pork is considered lucky to eat on New Year’s Day in many cultures. The association was formed centuries ago in Europe when wild boars were caught and killed on the first day of the year – providing the family food for months to follow. Additionally, a pig uses its snout to dig in the ground in a forward direction – symbolizing positive momentum. Strengthening the association of plenty in America, on most farms the first cold snap signified that it was time for the annual hog slaughter. Neighbors gathered to pitch in at each house, and livers, cracklins, and chitterlings were enjoyed immediately. The hog fat was boiled and rendered into lard, and all scraps of meat were ground up for sausages. Sides of bacon, hog jowls, shoulders, and hams were cured in salt for weeks before they were hung in the smokehouse along with sausages, ham hocks, and knuckles. Every part of the hog was used, providing an abundance of pork in the larder for the following year.

Pork has become an essential flavoring ingredient in black-eyed peas and greens, adding a smoky, rich flavor that gives these traditional dishes their soul-satisfying staying power.

And did you know that 2019 is the Year of the Pig on the Chinese Calendar?


The pig is the twelfth in the 12-year cycle of Chinese zodiac sign. The pig represents luck, overall good fortune, wealth, honesty, general prosperity, symbolizing a hard working, a peace-loving person, a truthful, generous, indulgent, patient, reliable, trusting, sincere, giving, sociable person with a large sense of humor and understanding.

Sources and For Further Reading:

Brown, Linda K., and Kay Mussell. 1984. Ethnic and Regional Foodways in the United States. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.
Counihan, Carole, ed. Food in the USA: A Reader. New York: Routledge, 2002. Collection of essays, several of which deal with immigrant foodways, their evolution, and their impact on American cuisine.
Crosby, Alfred W. 1972. The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492.Westport, CT:  Greenwood Publishing Group.
Gitlitz. David and Linda Kay Davidson 1999. A Drizzle of Honey: The Lives and Recipes of Spain’s Secret Jews. New York: St. Martin Press.
Lovejoy, Paul E. 2000. Transformations in Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa, 2nd ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Manning, Patrick. 1990. Slavery and African Life. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.