Going Whole Hog: Communal Feasting and Whole-Animal Eating
Community events that are held over the sharing of food foster kinship and inclusivity. They are acts of labor that take the cooperation of an entire village. And they conclude in the ritual feasting over one common dish, the ingestion of a common purpose.
Historically, a prepared animal has taken center stage (and table) during times of feast and celebration. In some cases, this is due to the timing of the seasons, necessity and preparation for winter months. In others, it is more about tradition or a symbol of gratitude. In our modern lives, we rarely, if ever, have the opportunity (or space!) to process and cook a whole animal like a pig. But if you live near farmers who raise animals sustainably, you may be able to participate in a modern day version of whole-animal feasting by participating in a whole-animal share. In all of these cases, communal feasting and whole-animal eating can be a powerful way to put the focus on sustainable meat eating.
Pig roasts have a long global heritage, from Puerto Rico to the Philippines to the Deep South of the United States. Pig roasts are legendary for being events that gather friends and neighbors to celebrate over a shared meal, and to signify the start or end to a growing season. Often acting as a means for creating change in a community, pig roasts are even held to promote causes and charitable organizations. They frequently include live music, and almost always include beer.
When my partner and I — predominantly plant-based eaters — made the declaration that we were considering throwing a pig roast for our wedding, we baffled our friends and neighbors. This is a complicated contradiction, and one that incited confusion (and even ire). For some, the sight of a recently-alive pig being slowly roasted is a traumatic one. Perhaps equally unsettling is the slow process by which both barbecuer and diners take on an almost universally primal behavior as the pig nears readiness, raising questions about dominance and civilization. Yet, pig roasts align perfectly with the less meat/better meat philosophy. What better time than a celebration of unity to seek out better-raised meat and indulge as a community in one beast divided among many?
Consider how a pig roast changes our relationship with meat eating. Due to the logistics of finding a whole hog, the chef will likely know where the pig has been sourced from and may even have a relationship with the hog farmer. These relationships encourage the purchase of a sustainable and well-treated animal. A whole hog isn’t cheap, making it apt for a celebratory event but also meaning thought and care will go into the decision to purchase one. The preparation of a roasted pig is labor intensive, taking constant attention and many hours in front of a blazing fire, which only heightens the reward.
One suggested rule of thumb for those who eat meat is that if you’re not squeamish about the idea of slaughtering an animal, you can eat it. That ethical question is one left for the ages, but it sheds a certain light on the honesty of a pig roast. A pig roast is a gift and sacrifice to a community, and when done sustainably, can be a prideful expression of togetherness. The choice to roast a whole hog, when done conscientiously, is much more an act of respect to the life of the animal than simply, say, purchasing burgers at the local supermarket.
The tradition of the clambake goes back before colonialism and is said to have been a custom practiced by the Wampanoag tribe. While technically a meal sharing many small animals, these celebrations share the community-oriented traits of strictly single-animal meals. Held typically in high summer, the Native Americans would use the collection of clams as a means for coming together to celebrate honored tribespeople and the changing of seasons. Today, clambakes have morphed into informal celebrations held on the beach, typically in coastal New England.
The ritual of clam-baking involves a community effort to gather seaweed and clams at low tide (as well as lobsters, mussels and corn — other summer mainstays). And even if you don’t harvest your own clams, when commercially fished, there is generally little bycatch involved in the harvest of clams, making them one of the most sustainable forms of seafood. And since they filter the water they inhabit, clams benefit their natural environments. This makes the ritual of clam baking, whether recreationally harvested or commercially, a sustainable form of community animal eating.
To have a clam bake, a circular hole is dug in the sand and then lined with seaweed. Fire is then built on top of rocks, which are layered with seaweed, the clams, and more seaweed. After several hours of steaming between hot coals and wet seaweed, the whole thing is dug up and a feast is served on the beach.
While the conveniences of the local lobster pound or supermarket have in many ways replaced the original camaraderie involved in clam gathering, it can’t beat the revelry of digging a hole and preparing a meal as a team. Inviting a whole neighborhood to feast on clams under a night sky remains a summertime annual tradition in New England, often going back decades and including multiple generations. Feeding is the most primary act of nurturing, and to do so with an entire community promotes the acceptance and inclusivity of a town and culture.
Animal shares have been gaining in popularity in recent years, and take a different approach to the idea of communal eating. These arrangements are more akin to other Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) models. In all CSAs, consumers pay a farmer upfront, enabling the farmer to purchase supplies and pay workers to grow crops or raise animals. The farmers then provide each supporter with a portion of the harvest. In a cow share, for instance, a family would pay upfront for some portion of the cow. Members might receive milk throughout the year, and when the cow is slaughtered at the end of the season, they will get a portion of the meat from that cow. Some shares even offer the added benefit of farm-made sausages or ground meats.
As with a pig roast, making the choice to go in on an animal allows consumers to support a local farmer, which helps those farmers cover their costs and allows them to raise their animals responsibly. The supporters become much more aware of what it takes to raise these animals, as farmers often send out updates through the season. Because families will typically commit to a half or quarter of an animal, they also get a variety of cuts and thus learn more about cuts of meat that they may not typically purchase at the supermarket — and how the meat we eat is related to the animals we farm. In many cases, participating in an animal share can be much cheaper than purchasing individual cuts of pasture-raised meat, which can be expensive. The only downsides are that participants must pony up the money in a chunk and must have enough freezer space to hold all of the meat they receive.
Like pig roasts and clambakes, deciding to go in on an animal share is a community choice — individuals or families participate together in dividing up a shared beast, taking care to understand the complexities of animal raising, slaughter and preparation.
Pig roasts, clambakes and animal shares all encompass the pleasure of preparation and consumption that celebrate togetherness. Not only the joy in eating itself, these practices point also to the hardship and care of animal raising, the communal duty of food gathering and the joy of dining as a group. Eating one beast – or many, in the case of clams – allows us to show gratitude for an animal’s sacrifice and demonstrate conscientious meat eating.