In Edinburgh, Me and the Pig

Pork Sandwich

We are all supposed to know where our food comes from, aren’t we. We’re supposed to have a healthy appreciation for the labor of unseen farmers and the science of hybridization and the ticking mechanisms of megaproduction and the living, breathing creatures we kill every year by the millions and millions.

I imagine Jaime Oliver saying this to me with his arms crossed, wearing something stupid like an acid-washed jean jacket and Raybans. Talking in that charmingly lispy way, like he has six too many teeth in his mouth or maybe four not enough. In this culiary fantasy land, Mark Bittman is there too, scowling and shaking his head in frenetic agreement a few feet away. He doesn’t speak. He doesn’t need to.

And I can imagine what they would have said, rolling their eyes, counting the swift and significant—if hardly detectable, at first—stretching of my poor, bloated carbon footprint while I bit into an enormous roast pork sandwich yesterday in a shop on a curving Edinburgh street once known for being its belly of sin, its street of prostitutes and drunks and petty crime.

Count me in good company, then, because the sandwich was good. It wasn’t perfect, mind you, like the mind-blowing pork sandwich—I have no idea where they hide all of its flavor; it’s literally pork on a piece of bread and nothing else—at Porchetta in New York City. I had to add salt to this one, and if the onion relish I requested was on it somewhere, I couldn’t taste it. But it was wonderfully sloppy and satisfying after two hours of pacing around Edinburgh on a walking tour led by a genial Australian.

Here’s the thing, though. The pig from whence this sandwich came? It was in the window of the shop. After you order, you will literally watch as a teenager pulls the meat out of the pig and put it on a piece of bread, as she meticulously pulls up the quarter-inch wedges of crispy skin and adds it to the top.

And That Was Lunch

And this is good, right? This is exactly what all the local-is-best, organic, pro-food-education folks love, allegedly. (The swine in the window is touted as local, as uniquely Scottish.) If that’s not knowing where your food comes from, I’m not sure what is.

But here’s my problem. I don’t care.

I am in no way moved by a dead carcass in the window of a shop. It doesn’t make me want to eat less meat. It doesn’t make me have any greater or lesser appreciation of the foodmaking process. It does not make me think of our precious environment and its rapidly depleting resources. Mostly it just reminded me that pork is, most of the time, pretty delicious, and that I really like eating it.

David Foster Wallace wrote an essay about a lobster cookoff in Maine, about how there is real science proving that lobsters feel pain as they die. That maybe carnivores are callous, vaguely sociopathic, and that vegetarians are the only truly compassionate ones among us.

Well, I clearly fail at being compassionate, because I had no qualms about eating that sandwich while sitting within 10 feet of the animal it was just carved from. In fact, I expected everyone on our tour group to feel similarly. I expected to fight off my fellow tourists, to wait in a New York City-style line around the block, when our tour guide happily endorsed the pork sandwich shop, which is called Oink. This is, of course, my favorite kind of food shop—the shop that does one thing, and does it really well.

My friends think I love cupcakes. I actually don’t. I like them, but what I really love is a shop that gets really, really good at a single dish, that has a specialty. In a New York City that’s turning more and more into a string of high-rise glass apartments and Best Buy stores, this is the realest, small-scale, authentic cuisine in the city, whether it’s cupcakes or cheeseburgers or Vietnamese Spam sandwiches, or a slab of pork on a bun. This, to me, is the real food of New York City.

So why wouldn’t people be fighting each other for a pork sandwich on a sleepy downtown street in Scotland? Some were grossed out. (I watched the faces go by the window. Some guffawed. Others snapped photos and made faces.) But most of my tour group opted for panini sandwiches and cardboard tankards of chicken soup at the juice bar down the way. How this is different from my pig is unclear, except this: I could see mine sitting there. He was even smiling a little.

Clearly I am a poor example of culinary responsibility. But maybe wanting to know, knowing, and than eating anyway is preferable—if only subtly—to choosing the food that is chopped up, put in a box, and indecipherable from the thing it was. Or maybe, when I think of Jaime and Mark, throwing up their hands, groaning their inevitable, “Oh God”s, when I think of David Foster Wallace sitting out there in the cosmos, chuckling to himself, it’s not.

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