Retro animal aesthetics return; the dirigible pig is back. Bricks of Neese’s Extra Sage, Hot, and Country Pork Sausage, packed in the supermarket cooler trumpet the family brand in a large red banner above the legend “Southern Style.” The pig engraved on the label balances on impossibly short legs – legs so dainty that they drive thoughts of ham from the imagination. The Neese’s pig is a pig that is all about body – a mountain of culinary possibilities – with no regard for porcine intellect or mobility. The Neese’s pig portrait hearkens back to the rural fairs and agricultural competitions of the 1800s when the ideal hog on the trotter challenged the limits of even the most extreme Reubenesque body beautiful. These were pigs that couldn’t be and never were – and yet they persist, visualized standing stiff legged, proud snouted, anticipating the butcher’s knife and culinary resurrection. These are sturdy, thoughtful pigs, corn-fed to the brink of corporeal fantasy. The question: “Why this pig now?” Desire (perhaps lust) of a certain sort I suspect as I reach for a brick of Extra Sage.
Agricultural newspapers circulated with tornadic ferocity throughout the rural America of the 1800s. Correspondents submitted passionate meditations on rutabagas, manure, hay rakes, and horses. Recipes for ink made from figs appeared alongside columns on the judging standards for sweet potatoes. Engravings of seasonal cornucopia marked the months; plans for houses promised efficiency and convenience. Swine were a favored subject, depicted with an erotic yet tasteful fascination for fat and flesh. These were a lover’s pigs, round and roly-poly, zaftig and seductive. “There are two purposes for which pigs may be fattened,” wrote one farmer in 1845, “The one is to yield pork, which may be used either fresh, salted, or pickled, and the other is to produce bacon, which is prepared by salting and drying the flesh.” What of sausage? Or, liver mush or scrapple (labeled by one contemporary as “the apotheosis of the pig.”
The Neese’s pig descends from a long pictorial genealogy that seeks to visualize the “tender, juicy, and lean” through images of the happy, portly, and docile. There was, of course, the bad pig! Wretched, wracked, and malevolent, the primitive “other” threatened, a rangy, mean-spirited swine dangerous, defiant, beyond the reach farmyard civility. Ill bred creatures named Alligator and Landpike with “long peaked snouts, coarse heads, thin chests and narrow shoulders, sharp backs, slab sides, steep rumps, and meager diminutive hams, big legs, clumped feet, with the hide of a rhinoceros, and the hair and bristles of a porcupine, and as thick and shaggy as a bear’s.” These were not the pigs of the kitchen-as-boudoir, but creatures of arguably wild and satanic disposition – and not particularly tasty. And, their tails were not curly!
The German-language edition of the American Agriculturalistestimated in 1868 that there were at least thirty-four million pigs in the United States – a number just about equal to the human population. The most prized and coveted of the porcine nation look pretty much the same as the Neese’s “Southern Style” Country Sausage mascot. These were pigs content with their lot or perhaps just oblivious to fate or maybe simply resigned to an entrée afterlife. In their graphic stillness they pose puffed and plump, emblems of gastronomic erotica – some seemingly smile come hither; others sneer with disdain. Contemplating the Neese’s sausage brick, frost misted deep in its refrigerated display, I hunger for the greater truths in advertising – longing for the beautiful, impossible pig rendered on the label, sizzling, mottled pink and white in an iron skillet, then browned and crispy and gone.