A Dissertation on Roast Pig, by Charles Lamb
from Essays of Elia
Mankind, says a Chinese manuscript, which my friend M. was obliging
enough to read and explain to me, for the first seventy thousand ages
ate their meat raw, clawing it or biting it from the living animal, just
as they do in Abyssinia to this day. This period is not obscurely hinted
at by their great Confucius [Footnote: Confucius: a celebrated Chinese
philosopher, born about 550 B.C.] in the second chapter of his Mundane
Mutations, where he designates a kind of golden age by the term
Cho-fang, literally the Cooks' holiday.
The manuscript goes on to say, that the art of roasting, or rather
broiling (which I take to be the elder brother) was accidentally
discovered in the manner following. The swineherd, Ho-ti, having gone
out into the woods one morning, as his manner was, to collect mast
[Footnote: Mast-acorns: nuts.] for his hogs, left his cottage in the
care of his eldest son Bo-bo, a great lubberly boy, who being fond of
playing with fire, as younkers [Footnote: Younkers: youngsters.] of his
age commonly are, let some sparks escape into a bundle of straw, which
kindling quickly, spread the conflagration over every part of their poor
mansion, till it was reduced to ashes. Together with the cottage (a
sorry antediluvian makeshift of a building, you may think it), what was
of much more importance, a fine litter of young pigs, no less than nine
in number, perished. China pigs [Footnote: China pigs. What adjective
would we use now?] have been esteemed a luxury all over the East from
the remotest periods that we read of.
Bo-bo was in the utmost consternation, as you may think, not so much for
the sake of the tenement, which his father and he could easily build up
again with a few dry branches, and the labor of an hour or two, at any
time, as for the loss of the pigs. While he was thinking what he should
say to his father, and wringing his hands over the smoking remnants of
one of those untimely sufferers, an odor assailed his nostrils, unlike
any scent which he had before experienced.
What could it proceed from?—not from the burnt cottage—he had smelled
that smell before—indeed this was by no means the first accident of the
kind which had occurred through the negligence of this unlucky young
firebrand. Much less did it resemble that of any known herb, weed, or
flower. A premonitory moistening at the same time overflowed his nether
lip. He knew not what to think.
He next stooped down to feel the pig, if there were any signs of life in
it. He burned his fingers, and to cool them he applied them in his booby
fashion to his mouth. Some of the crumbs of the scorched skin had come
away with his fingers, and for the first time in his life (in the
world's life indeed, for before him no man had known it) he tasted
—crackling! [Footnote: Crackling: the brown crisp rind of roasted
pork.] Again he felt and fumbled at the pig.
It did not burn him so much now, still he licked his fingers from a sort
The truth at length broke into his slow understanding, that it was the
pig that smelt so, and the pig that tasted so delicious; and,
surrendering himself to the newborn pleasure, he fell to tearing whole
handfuls of the scorched skin with the flesh next it, and was cramming
it down his throat in his beastly fashion, when his sire entered amid
the smoking rafters, armed with retributory cudgel, and finding how
affairs stood, began to rain blows upon the young rogue's shoulders, as
thick as hailstones, which Bo-bo heeded not any more than if they had
been flies. The tickling pleasure which he experienced in his lower
regions, had rendered him quite callous to any inconveniences he might
feel in those remote quarters.
His father might lay on, but he could not beat him from his pig, till he
had fairly made an end of it, when, becoming a little more sensible of
his situation, something like the following dialogue ensued:—
"You graceless fellow, what have you got there devouring? Is it not
enough that you have burned down three houses with your dog's tricks,
but you must be eating fire and I know not what—what have you got
there, I say?"
"O father, the pig, the pig, do come and taste how nice the burnt pig
The ears of Ho-ti tingled with horror. He cursed his son, and he cursed
himself that ever he should have a son that should eat burnt pig.
Bo-bo, whose scent was wonderfully sharpened since morning, soon raked
out another pig, and fairly rending it asunder, thrust the lesser half
by main force into the fists of Ho-ti, still shouting out, "Eat, eat,
eat the burnt pig, father, only taste,"—with such like ejaculations,
cramming all the while as if he would choke.
Ho-ti trembled in every joint while he grasped the abominable thing,
wavering whether he should not put his son to death for an unnatural
young monster, when the crackling scorching his fingers, as it had done
his son's, and applying the same remedy to them, he in his turn tasted
some of its flavor, which, make what sour mouths he would for a
pretence, proved not altogether displeasing to him. In conclusion (for
the manuscript here is a little tedious) both father and son fairly sat
down to the mess, and never left off till they despatched all that
remained of the litter.
Bo-bo was strictly enjoined not to let the secret escape, for the
neighbors would certainly have stoned them for a couple of abominable
wretches, who could think of improving upon the good meat God had sent
them. Nevertheless, strange stories got about. It was observed that
Ho-ti's cottage was burned down now more frequently than ever.
Nothing but fires from this time forward. Some would break out in broad
day, others in the night-time. And Ho-ti himself, which was the more
remarkable, instead of chastising his son, seemed to grow more indulgent
to him than ever.
At length they were watched, the terrible mystery discovered, and father
and son summoned to take their trial at Pekin, then an inconsiderable
assize town. [Footnote: Assize town: the place where the court sits to
conduct trials.] Evidence was given, the obnoxious food itself produced
in court, and verdict about to be pronounced, when the foreman of the
jury begged that some of the burnt pig, of which the culprits stood
accused, might be handed into the box.
He handled it, and they all handled it, and burning their fingers, as
Bo-bo and his father had done before them, and nature prompting to each
of them the same remedy, against the face of all the facts, and the
clearest charge which the judge had ever given,—to the surprise of the
whole court, townsfolk, strangers, reporters, and all present—without
leaving the box, or any manner of consultation whatever, they brought in
a simultaneous verdict of Not Guilty.
The judge, who was a shrewd fellow, winked at the manifest iniquity of
the decision; and when the court was dismissed, went privily, and bought
up all the pigs that could be had for love or money. In a few days his
Lordship's town house was observed to be on fire. The thing took wing,
and now there was nothing to be seen but fires in every direction. Fuel
and pigs grew enormously dear all over the district. The insurance
offices one and all shut up shop. People built slighter and slighter
every day, until it was feared that the very science of architecture
would in no long time be lost to the world.
Thus this custom of firing houses continued, till in process of time,
says my manuscript, a sage arose, like our Locke, [Footnote: Locke: John
Locke, a celebrated English philosopher of the seventeenth century.] who
made a discovery, that flesh of swine, or indeed of any other animal,
might be cooked (burnt, as they called it) without the necessity of
consuming a whole house to dress it. Then first began the rude form of a
Roasting by the string, or spit, came in a century or two later, I
forget in whose dynasty. By such slow degrees, concludes the manuscript,
do the most useful, and seemingly the most obvious arts, make their way
[Footnote: In this essay where does the humor lie? Is it in the
absurdity of the story told? In the exaggerations? What stories, of
those you have studied, does this most resemble? Why? Notice how bare
the story is of any description except that which is essential to the
theme. What is the effect of this? Does the author describe the taste of
roast pig sympathetically? Does any article of food arouse your
enthusiasm? If so, try writing an essay on it. Why does the author
introduce such incongruous terms as "foreman of the jury," "jury box,"
Louise de la Ramee