State Street Scribe
by Jeff Wing
When the invitation arrived we were excited by one of its particulars. The hosts, our dear old friends the Smiteepupps (names have been changed to guard privacy and amuse the author) would be offering roast pig as the culinary hood ornament on their labor day yard party. “Whoa,” I thought on reading this part of the invitation. “A roast pig!” I’d seen this on television—either Magnum P.I. or Hawaii 5-O—and knew it to be a particularly festive ceremony with polynesian overtones—grass skirts, stately palms swaying in fragrant island breezes, one or two daiquiri-clutching guests in floral shirts knocked brutally senseless by plummeting coconut—it’s all part of the island idyll.
Here on the mainland, roast pig—and the somewhat technical ceremony surrounding the pig’s humiliation—is likewise a big deal; summoning a sense of unharnessed celebration and compelling all the physical trappings of communal levity—dancing with the arms raised, whooping, making the “hang loose” hand gesture, and bending at the waist/laughing with a hand on a fellow celebrant’s shoulder. This “bent at the waist and laughing with hand on friend’s shoulder” signifies both fellowship and the need for physical support on account of the incapacitating joy and hilarity. Roast pig inspires this happy madness.
Roast pig liberates the buttoned-down spirit, and for thousands of years has been the centerpiece of many a gilded celebration around this nutty planet of ours—another unlikely unifying tradition of our charmed, anthropologically bewildered human family. We’re an amazingly varied species inhabiting this big blue marvelous marble. Yes, we are very occasionally prone to fighting, venality, and petty theft, but some things—like a hot buried pig—join our hearts in a transcendent unity. Or as a pig might express it —”…there isn’t any remote corner of this Hog-forsaken planet where these ravenous jackasses don’t want to flay and bury me in hot rocks.” The “Human Family” song sounds less musical in pig-talk.
Arrival and Mingling
We arrived at the Smiteepupps’ Santa Barbara home on a sun-drenched mid afternoon and proceeded immediately to mingle with dear pals, my adorable ex-girlfriend (wife) avidly making the rounds with the genuinely radiant affection for which she is known and loved, while I moved machine-like into the happy hubbub like an only half-enchanted mannequin. I dimly recall a time when I was possessed of the social graces, but that was back when actor David Soul of “Starsky and Hutch” had a soft-rock hit on the radio. Back in those days I would offer hugs to people, tell them I loved them, freely share my innermost feelings and laugh with unrestrained frivolity.
I’m still a terrifically fun person to be with, but you wouldn’t mistake me for that hugging thing, with his too-tight corduroy shorts, tucked-in polo shirt and full head of hair. I guess I’ve traded loquacity for opacity. I love my friends more than I can capably express, and that neatly sums it up. So I found a seat on the Smiteepupps’ sundeck, began ineptly jawboning, occasionally hoisting a glass full of Dr. Pepper to my murmuring yap. To any casual observer glancing over from across the room I surely appeared conversational and normal, gesturing and gabbing—while to the immediate trapped recipient of my empty chatter I was a muttering jailer, fixing my correspondent to the spot with howlingly empty gibberish. Paaaaartaay!
Wondrous Meat Wagon
When I saw that our friend Tammy was showing around a “pre-burial” photo of today’s pig for the curious, I jumped out of my seat to have a look at this post-future curiosity; a digital iPhone pic of a flayed pig. What I saw shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did, this garish image of an animal with legs and a head, body cavity handily emptied of its ghoulish clockworks. What surprised me was how much of this thing was made of simple meat once you took out the machinery; the breathing bags, the digestion bag, the bile-producing organs, the vascular plumbing. All that complicated junk had been removed and there was still a lot of pig there. It was recognizably a pig, with a medium-sized divot scooped out of its underside.
I realized, and not for the first time, what physical proportion of an animal is plain, edible flesh, and what proportion is an overly designed, ultimately dispensable motor for moving the flesh from place to place as it awaits fulfillment of its primary role in the toothy Circle of Life®. It’s as if all this life is principally designed around consumption by all the other life. This is an epiphany of the sort that causes the Hallmark Card Corporation to blanch and stammer—and in the late sixties/early seventies would have seen Charlton Heston hollering through his considerable underbite in the final reel of a sci-fi epic. “We’re all made out of meeeaattt!” His knotted neckerchief bobbing.
Tammy had showed us the iPhone pig photo because the pig itself had long since been sealed away in a sort of driveway oven that mimics the whole polynesian pig burial, but without the banana leaves, hot rocks, and burly bare-chested men in floral ankle-length skirts. From the sundeck where we’d all gathered I could see the sealed box down there on its little stilts. Of course I imagined Tammy’s pig inside, cooking and cooking and freaking cooking some more, the heat unimaginably intense. Roasting!
The pig began to haunt me. I’ve always been claustrophobic and partial to pleasantly cool environs, so this roasting pig packed into a hellbox aroused in me empathies that had me shakily gulping Dr. Pepper® like a sonofagun. Soon I found I couldn’t escape the pig. It followed me around an already jittery Labor Day gathering the way the audible word “knife” might tenaciously follow a guilt-addled Hitchcock character. Hot Pig in a Box! Hot Pig in a Box! HOT PIG IN A BOX! Begone, pig!!! [Jeff, did you say something? Nuh uh!]
Finally the time had arrived to free the roasted pig. The guys who had prepped and sealed and roasted the pig now went down the deck stairs like tribal overseers, removed the top of the hotbox and, using some sort of pig-extracting contraption, lifted the pig out and set in on a tarp-covered picnic table,where it lay there unadorned. I daintily viewed all this from my perch on the sun deck, compulsively sipping my Dr. Pepper® to cover my panic.
My friends skittered down the steps, surrounding the pig and cooing and examining this splayed animal taking up the whole of the picnic table, its miraculous symmetry and crazily detailed carapace but fleeting impressions quickly overwritten by the profusion of crackling pork that was now the pig’s powerful central feature. The structural engineering of this once-sentient animal played tuneless second fiddle to the suddenly overwhelming fact of its being an oblong slab of roasted meat in the midst of its hungry conquerors.
Even from my hesitant vantage on the sun deck, part of me longed to spring over the wooden rail like a squealing spider monkey and tear into the thing. I took the deck steps instead, managing to effect an insouciance that betrayed none of my feverish internal pig-monologue.
When I got to the table and timidly pushed through my friends I saw a prop from a horror-movie, a set-decorator’s visual cue. Eyeless and grinning, this William Golding nightmare had come to our happy gathering with its cockeyed hoofs and bristly ears and frank reminder of the momentary animal hierarchies. “Have a piece of skin!” someone said enthusiastically, and handed me a charred flap of tissue, which I ate. It tasted nothing like the bagged pork rinds we enjoy with our cocktails. When I looked down at the huge subservient thing, where the roasted skin had peeled away there was no magic; just grey, striated, juicy pork, such as you see on a dinner plate, but here swaddling a former animal. I am no Peter Singer, no militant animal rights soldier charging into a factory farm to free the doomed, blank-faced chickens there. But for goodness sake.