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Lesser Beasts: A Snout-to-Tail History of the Humble Pig

4.13  ·  Rating details ·  690 ratings  ·  124 reviews
Unlike other barnyard animals, which pull plows, give eggs or milk, or grow wool, a pig produces only one thing: meat. Incredibly efficient at converting almost any organic matter into nourishing, delectable protein, swine are nothing short of a gastronomic godsend—yet their flesh is banned in many cultures, and the animals themselves are maligned as filthy, lazy brutes.

Hardcover, 310 pages
Published May 5th 2015 by Basic Books (first published January 1st 2015)
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Jul 27, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nature, microhistory, food
Homer: Are you saying you’re never going to eat any animal again? What about bacon?

Lisa: No.

Homer: Ham?

Lisa: No.

Homer: Pork chops?

Lisa: Dad, those all come from the same animal.

Homer: Yeah, right, Lisa. A wonderful, magical animal.

- from The Simpsons, Season Seven, Episode Five, “Lisa the Vegetarian” (1995)

“The 10,000-year history of the domestic pig is a tale of both love and loathing. A prodigious producer of meat – chubby bulwark against human malnutrition, centerpiece of medieval feasting
The dog and pig domesticated themselves. In the distant past, wild pigs came into early human settlements and stayed. Pre-Christian European societies loved the pig. Move into the desert areas and the pig was shunned. In England there were penalties for destroying oak trees as acorns made the best pig food.

What I found most interesting was the early European explorers would drop a boar and sow on an uninhabited island to make it into a future food supply stop. The Spanish conquistadores introduc
Feb 12, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, science
Early candidate for one of the best books I read in 2020.

A fascinating book on the history of the pigs and their love-hate relationship with human beings since the beginning of recorded human history. Mr. Essig tells a truly captivating story of how the pigs came to domesticate themselves, like the wolves, and provided essential public services for early human settlements. Furthermore, the book also touches on the various reasons why various cultures throughout the history have had, to say the l
Lisa Kelsey
Aug 05, 2015 rated it really liked it
I enjoy reading these "micro-histories" and since this one involved an animal--one that you can eat, it combines two of my greatest interests. I was fascinated with the story of how pigs were domesticated and co-evolved with humans in some ways similarly to dogs. Because of their nature however, pigs are unique among domesticated farm animals. Essig does a great job of describing just why that is, much of it having to do with the fact that they are omnivorous--and pretty smart.

I learned a lot o
Apr 14, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, food, nonfiction
This has to be one of the best and most engaging books I've read this year. It was well-written, and flowed in a logical and easy to read way. The information was well researched and drawn from a variety of sources. The author managed do this while putting his unique spin on the book and without making the book dry, which so often happens with cultural histories. I have already recommended this book to family and friends and will continue to do so.
Mar 31, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: on-deck
These single-topic books like Salt: A World History are hit or miss. This one's a hit. It stays interesting from beginning to end by not getting bogged down anywhere too long. It concludes with a middle of the road recommendation for where to go from where we are now with industrial pig farming. ...more
Jun 03, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, nonfiction, 2017
Look, I picked this book up for the most superficial of reasons: I liked the cover. But since I am trying to broaden my reading, this was seemed a good fit. And wow. I was so pleasantly surprised by how accessible and honest-to-god enjoyable this was to read. Essig has a wonderful, conversational style that made reading this a true joy.

Essig does highlight the religious angle, but he teases out the more interesting relationships between pork and social class and personal freedom. When lower cla
Rolando Beramendi
Mar 21, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I am a "Porketarian", and Mark's book makes me love the Pig even more. His research is so thorough and his narrative is so personal, I felt I was sitting with him or listening to him speak to us as he did at Zingerman's Camp Bacon two years ago. I strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in history, anthropology and animal husbandry. He made me quite aware that rich farmers and big corporations are feeding the poor people, while small farmers sell theirs at farmers markets for four time ...more
Apr 07, 2019 rated it really liked it
Learned from and enjoyed reading Essig ... would liked to have traveled, briefly, generations ago, with pigs on hill country roads.

When Mother worked grocery, she also raised a couple pigs, Maxi and Minnie ... fed them leftover junk food, time expired at food store, the section she stocked. Meat was horrible tasting. Nor did I enjoy herding escaped M&M on a cold snowy night. Think they were relieved to be 'penned.'
Alexis Hall
This is exactly what you'd think it is.

It's a history of the pig. It's quite, err, detailed - although I found the style engaging enough that I didn't actually get bored (at least, not very often. There is an awful lot of information here about pigs). I was particularly into the sections about the cultural history of the pig: why we tend to scorn such an intelligent, adaptable creature.

Things take a slightly more political turn towards the final section of the book because, wow, have we been sh
Apr 11, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Be ready to read a review that waxes effusive but I LOVED this book.

I'm a big fan of nonfiction books, which I know is not everybody's cup of tea. I think it is difficult in a way to review nonfiction books (because, well, they are nonfiction) so the basis of my reviews for this genre of book is 1) how interesting can you make the topic at hand and 2) did I learn anything new.

I have an animal science degree, so I would say I know more about most farm animals than the average. Growing up in the P
Feb 22, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
I listened to this book on Audible. Perfect for those who like to listen to non-fiction. The book is what it purports to be: a history of the pig from earliest times to the present. The book discusses the pig's earliest role in keeping early settlements free from garbage, its as a food source for the poor, the Roman's love of pork, and the role of pigs in settling and feeding America. The author primarily limits his discussion to the role of the pig in the west, although he provides some anecdot ...more
Apr 06, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Pigs thru history

Quite a lot better than expected. Mostly a history of the relations of men and pigs. Then animal cruelty at the end. It seems that pigs have it worse than chicken. So pretty bad. Kinda glad I don't eat much pork.
Jun 23, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This book is legitimately good and its kind of weird that I read it. Pigs are these really cool animals and we probably shouldn't eat them anymore.
Jan 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I always thought pigs were interesting creatures. Now I know they are. it is fascinating to know that Pigs have always been the O.Gs. They been holding humans down for centuries.
Aug 03, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
I don't know that we learn too much from studying history through the lens of the pig. Yet this book was still full of mildly interesting factoids. The pig was more important in early societies, and in early America, than I knew. The book gets less interesting in the second half, when the focus turns to modern American pig farming.

> Cows gestate for nine months and produce one calf; sheep and goats require five months and give birth to one or two offspring. A sow, on the other hand, gestates fo
Jan 21, 2016 rated it really liked it
A good look at the political economy and environmental history of pigs. I learned so much about pigs! And about how closely their fates and ours have entwined.

The book is really strong when it's doing class-aware analysis of pig-eating throughout time. I'm sad to say that I knew so little about the important role that pigs played in traditional farm (and, over time, urban) life as the receptacles for all manner of waste. The book reminded me of the significant differences between pigs and nearl
Dead John Williams
Jul 06, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: reviewed
Dear Pig are you willing to sell for one shilling your ring?

The complete history of the pig. How the pig has fed us, delighted us, assisted us, repelled us, and finally shamed us. Reminded me very much of Cod by Mark Kurlansky in that it is very thorough, well written and engaging from the get go. The pig through the ages and how it has adapted to everything we have asked of it. How it helped us conquer the West and the East and the North and the South. How the pig has marched beside us on our g
Michael Flanagan
Sep 10, 2016 rated it it was amazing
A book on the history of the pigs, how can one resist the powerful pull of such a book? The answer for me was I could not and I was rewarded by one of the best reads of the year for me.

Lesser Beasts is one of those books that is perfect in everyway it is history at its engaging best. By telling the story of the pig Mark Essig also piggy backs the story of the human race in it's telling. By tracking the evolution of the pig and its relationship to humanity it examines, religion, farming practice
Jun 05, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, food
The title says all you need to know about the subject of this book.
Esssig has written an witty, interesting, intelligent and ultimately confronting book on our tasty friends.
While they have been with us for millennia, often in very close quarters, they have been loved and shunned in equal measure. Now, unfortunately, they are largely abused and mistreated due to the industrial production systems which give us cheap pork, at the cost of the the pig's welfare, well-being and 'pigness'.
Though Essi
Aug 21, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Accessible and fascinating history of the pig and pork. A tad repetitious for the first bit - human culture kept repeating itself so it's hard to avoid - but the timeline moves along at a good pace. Lots of interesting tidbits that most readers won't know and a few interesting illustrations accompany the text. This isn't a "morality" book like, say, Foer's Eating Animals or Omnivore's Dilemma, but it certainly will make anyone think about this animal and how we, as a culture, treat it. Very easy ...more
Sep 11, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-2016
I thought this work would be more about cooking and eating pigs(which I like very much) instead there was much more pig Biology then I was expecting, but if you like pig Biology this may be the book for you.
Tosin Adeoti
Sep 20, 2019 rated it liked it
This evening I finished Mark Essig's "Lesser Beasts - A Snout-to-Tail History of the Humble Pig".

Here is an interesting book about the evolution of the relationship between pig as an animal and humans in the Western world. It transverses the period of the appearance of Sus scrofa, the Eurasian wild boar, to the present day hog.

It answers age-long questions about why pigs provoke feelings of disgust, why so many people have rejected pork, and why certain societies have made the animal an object
Edward Sullivan
A fascinating, engaging history of how closely intertwined humans and pigs are in so many ways.
Aug 31, 2018 rated it it was amazing
The pig deserves a biography immensely for all the sacrifices it did for us humans. One of the most interesting human conundrums is the fact that everyone knows the horibble conditions in which pigs are made to exist before they get sliced up. Conditions they wouldn't wish on the theire worst enemies much less on an innocent animal who's probably even more smart than a dog. Yet they still go to the supermarket and buy steak and bacon to cook at dinner. Not just this, besides having no problem ea ...more
Mi Ae Lipe
Aug 26, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
In all the years I've read about food history, I've never been completely satisfied by the typical explanations given for why pigs and pork are taboo in Jewish and Muslim dietary cultures; they seemed too simplistic, especially given pork's relatively easy availability when compared to beef or lamb, which requires pastureland.

So, when I learned about this book, I was intrigued. I'm happy to report that at last, my questions have been adequately answered—and I learned so much more. Mark Essig doe
Ernest Spoon
Jul 20, 2019 rated it really liked it
Family legend has it that age three I watched my grandfather, uncle and father butcher a hog. That evening for dinner, or supper as my maternal grandparents called it, my grandmother prepared pork tenderloins. She admitted to my teenaged aunt, she was worried how I would react to the pork dish she cooked knowing I had witnessed the hog's dismemberment. As related by my aunt to me many, many years later, I hopped up onto my chair at the kitchen table and, with a smile upon my face, said, "Pass th ...more
Zac Stojcevski
Jun 15, 2017 rated it it was amazing
What a fantastic feast for the brain. A charting of our often paralleled history with our porcine cousins and our circuitous (d)evolution. Seeing the cover and the title, I though, yeah - OK... why not it might be an interesting book I flick through. My son read it from cover to cover and could not stop whetting my appetite for it with the facts and interesting historical presentation within. On completion, he shoved it across my desk and exclaimed it was one of the most memorable reads of his l ...more
Jul 20, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, reviewed
I never would have expected this book to make it into my hands, much less fascinate me as much as it did. Not on my 2018 reading list, I picked up this book to research one specific topic that had gained my curiosity. Essig's writing held me captive and I ended up reading it cover to cover. (Would it be too much to say I devoured it?) (Sorry, couldn't resist.) The history of pigs turned out to be quite a tale. Adaptable in a way humans should envy. Alternately revered and jeered, depending on th ...more
Dec 18, 2016 rated it liked it
One question you may have asked yourself about the humble pig is why there should be such strong religious prohibitions for some against eating it. This book answers that question and has many more insights - the (likely) answer being that pigs are omnivorous, and were well known in ancient civilizations for eating feces and carrion, including human corpses. The revulsion toward that activity carried over into religious law. But, the pig is much more than an undiscriminating omnivore: clever, so ...more
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