Lesser Beasts

Mark Essig Basic Books, 310 pages, $27.99


A slim book on a weighty topic, “Lesser Beasts” is the most fascinating history of pigs you will ever read. Don’t say you won’t read a history of pigs. That just proves what author Mark Essig knows: Swine are automatically loathed — slandered as unclean, undisciplined, unloved.

Consider these bits of pig history:

• Medieval French courts tried and convicted wayward pigs.

• Hungry, free-ranging colonial pigs helped drive American Indians east by ravaging their crops. They also competed with Indian women, waiting for low tides in order to dig for clams.

• Efficient pork-packing plants set the stage for Henry Ford’s assembly lines.

• In 19th-century America, hogs were driven to market like cattle or sheep. Pig drives actually were bigger and went on longer than the fabled cattle drives. A “swineherd,” however, doesn’t have the same romantic ring as “cowboy” or “shepherd.”

The popularity of pork has waxed and waned. And when it’s scorned, political or social reasons may be to blame: The wealthy view pork as a food for poor people.

He found so much to write about pig history that Essig concentrates on the Western world. But the Chinese love pork, so perhaps another author will pursue “Lesser Beasts in the Far East.”