A Blog Post Upon Roast Pig

I was reading a discussion of progressive economics at Progressive Historians and was stopped dead in my tracks by a quote from Henry George

There is a delusion resulting from the tendency to confound the accidental with the essential—a delusion which the law writers have done their best to extend, and political economists generally have acquiesced in, rather than endeavored to expose—that private property in land is necessary to the proper use of land, and that to make land common property would be to destroy civilization and revert to barbarism.

This delusion may be likened to the idea which, according to Charles Lamb, so long prevailed among the Chinese after the savor of roast pork had been accidentally discovered by the burning down of Ho-ti’s hut—that to cook a pig it was necessary to set fire to a house.

I love the analogy, but the reference to it being a long-standing Chinese belief seemed absurd, the kind of offhand “aren’t these exotic people a useful way to demonstrate irrationality” storytelling which was so popular at one time.

It wasn’t too hard to find the original essay by Charles Lamb, a critical figure in English letters who I’m fairly sure I’ve never heard of: “A Dissertation Upon Roast Pork.” The essay begins

MANKIND, says a Chinese manuscript, which my friend M. was obliging enough to read and explain to me, for the first seventy thousand ages ate their meat raw, clawing or biting it from the living animal, just as they do in Abyssinia to this day. This period is not obscurely hinted at by their great Confucius in the second chapter of his Mundane Mutations, where he designates a kind of golden age by the term Cho-fang, literally the Cooks’ holiday. The manuscript goes on to say, that the art of roasting, or rather broiling (which I take to be the elder brother) was accidentally discovered in the manner following.

He then goes on to tell the story of the “swine-herd Ho-ti” whose “lubberly” son Bo-Bo burns down the shed and then accidentally tastes the crackling skin. Then his father returns

The truth at length broke into his slow understanding, that it was the pig that smelt so, and the pig that tasted so delicious; and, surrendering himself up to the new-born pleasure, he fell to tearing up whole handfuls of the scorched skin with the flesh next it, and was cramming it down his throat in his beastly fashion, when his sire entered amid the smoking rafters, armed with retributory cudgel, and finding how affairs stood, began to rain blows upon the young rogue’s shoulders, as thick as hail-stones, which Bo-bo heeded not any more than if they had been flies. The tickling pleasure, which he experienced in his lower regions, had rendered him quite callous to any inconveniences he might feel in those remote quarters.1

His father is eventually converted, but they are loathe to share their secret, for fear of being thought “a couple of abominable wretches.” “Nevertheless, strange stories got about. It was observed that Ho-ti’s cottage was burnt down now more frequently than ever.” Eventually they are discovered, brought to trial, but the jury and judge are all converted to this new pleasure.

I actually spent some time reading through the early parts of the Classic of History looking to see if there was, in fact, anything remotely resembling this. The conclusion of the story is so clearly non-Chinese, though, that I didn’t spend a lot of time on it:

The judge, who was a shrewd fellow, winked at the manifest iniquity of the decision: and, when the court was dismissed, went privily, and bought up all the pigs that could be had for love or money. In a few days his Lordship’s town house was observed to be on fire. The thing took wing, and now there was nothing to be seen but fires in every direction. Fuel and pigs grew enormously dear all over the district. The insurance offices one and all shut up shop. People built slighter and slighter every day, until it was feared that the very science of architecture would in no long time be lost to the world. Thus this custom of firing houses continued, till in process of time, says my manuscript, a sage arose, like our Locke, who made a discovery, that the flesh of swine, or indeed of any other animal, might be cooked (burnt, as they called it) without the necessity of consuming a whole house to dress it. Then first began the rude form of a gridiron. Roasting by the string, or spit, came in a century or two later, I forget in whose dynasty. By such slow degrees, concludes the manuscript, do the most useful, and seemingly the most obvious arts, make their way among man-kind.

I’m not going to waste my time or yours by actually listing the anachronisms and absurdities of this. Although I’m certainly open to evidence to the contrary, I’m going to conclude that Lamb fabricated the anecdote, fairly secure in the knowledge that his audience was familiar only with the general tone of Chinese traditions. He then goes on to discuss his own preferences in pork products, including a deep distaste for onions as flavoring, and to reminisce about a spice cake.

From such beginnings arose our tradition of essay-writing. I should go easier on my students when they make stuff up, pass on urban legends and hoary zombie errors, go off on tangents and pass off their personal preferences as some kind of learned judgement; they’re just walking in the footsteps of their literary forefathers.

  1. The “tickling pleasure, which he experienced in his lower regions” is, I think, a happy stomach.  


  1. Is this pig with or without lipstick?

    Pigs seem to be one of the recurring themes of this blog, so I’ve added a “pig” category. Just click the little link under the title, and you’ll see them all

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