In this this interview, Dr. Carrie Tippen
talks with J. L. Anderson
about the 2019 book Capitalist Pigs: Pigs, Pork, and Power in America
published by West Virginia University Press. Anderson provides a history of pigs in America from the first arrival on the continent in the Columbian Exchange to the modern agribusiness of pork production, describing how we have “remade” the animal through breeding, feeding, medicating, legislating, and housing hogs. Despite the contemporary association between pork and the American South, Anderson describes how the centers of pork production and consumption have moved throughout American history in response to market changes, technological innovations, and transportation networks. The diet and housing of pigs has also evolved over time from seasonal free-range foraging in wooded areas (or even urban streets) to living in climate-controlled concrete pens and a non-seasonal diet.
Similarly, Anderson describes how the place of pork in the hierarchy of edible meats changes over time. Colonial Americans largely adopted the English meat hierarchy of beef, mutton, and pork, with pork reserved for the working class and enslaved people. Though pork has replaced mutton in popularity, pork has always maintained its reputation as working people’s food. The later chapters of Capitalist Pigs
argue that 20th-century Americans’ fear of fat resulted in a dramatic change in the body shape and biological make-up of the modern hog to invent a leaner “white meat.” Ironically, while the industry provided what it thought the market wanted, consumers didn’t change their pork eating habits that much, as the leaner pork was generally a much less desirable product. Trimming the fat from pork has led to the unexpected desirability of fattier cuts like bacon and pork belly in fine dining and the resurgence in “heritage breeds” of pigs with higher fat content. Anderson concludes by discouraging historians from interpreting the story of hogs in America as a success story of “transcending limits” in science, agriculture, and economics. “In short,” Anderson writes, “the success of pigs, pork, producers, and processors is not the whole story.”
Joe Anderson is Associate Dean of Research, Scholarship and Community Engagement and history professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Dr. Anderson teaches a variety of courses from food and diet to the American Civil War and Reconstruction. Joe’s professional experience as a museum educator and administrator has led to a continuing interest in public history, and his recent projects have focused on the history of rural America, particularly as it relates to technology and the environment in the midcontinent. Joe is the past president of the Agricultural History Society and a member of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.
Carrie Helms Tippen is Assistant Professor of English at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, PA, where she teaches courses in American Literature. Her 2018 book, Inventing Authenticity: How Cookbook Writers Redefine Southern Identity (University of Arkansas Press), examines the rhetorical strategies that writers use to prove the authenticity of their recipes in the narrative headnotes of contemporary cookbooks. Her academic work has been published in Gastronomica, Food and Foodways, American Studies, Southern Quarterly, and Food, Culture, and Society.