Book review: Everything but the Squeal: Eating the Whole Hog in Northern Spain by John Barlow

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I have become a fan of the genre called “food writing,” but I particularly like it when its humorous, and John Barlow is humorous. He is smart, snarky, and sarcastic, and I found myself laughing out loud.

“No one knows what to say when you tell them you’re a writer. It’s like shaking someone’s hand and farting at the same time.” [pg 132]

Born in Britain but now living in (equally damp and green) Coruña, in the Spanish region called Galicia, which has more in common with Portugal and Ireland than the rest of sunny Spain, the author is married to a devout vegetarian. In spite of this, Barlow is an undaunted carnivore, and furthermore sets out to consume every bit of the pig that is eaten in his pork-loving adopted home – which is just about everything from snout to tail.

Over the course of a year, Barlow crisscrosses the region, hopping from one pork-themed festival to the next (I wish I could attend the Exaltación do Chourizo, the Exaltation of the Chorizo), taking his Volvo over death-defying mountain trails to reach isolated villages where old fashioned specialties are still made, interviewing and profiling anyone who could authoritatively discuss pork cookery, doing a heroic amount of eating, and ending with the crescendo of a matanza – a word I had previously associated with hand-netting tuna in Italy – the slaughter of six pigs in a matter of 90 minutes and their butchering over the course of an afternoon in a joint effort by a five-family village.

Among his interviews are three billed as interviews with famous Galicians: one aging female cousin of Fidel Castro with whom he does not discuss pork, one long-standing senator with whom he does not discuss pork, and one pig with whom he does not discuss pork because the pig was asleep during his visit.

Spoiler: He does not eat the whole pig. He skips out on all sorts of pig parts that are relatively commonly eaten, such as tripe, kidneys, and liver, but he does manage snout, tail, heart, and (surprisingly) brains and bladder.

I read this book in hopes of an in-depth look at why the whole pig was or is consumed in rural places. Such self-sufficiency is touched on from time to time, but not given the thorough going-over I had expected. I did, however, learn a lot about Galicia; why our pig’s hams were not as pink as the store-bought ones (they were too young to have produced much myoglobin, “the protein that lends red meat its attractive hue” [pg 85]); and an interesting theory on the basis for Islamic and Judaic dietary prohibitions on pork (in an arid climate you don’t want to keep a large animal who enthusiastically roots up what few trees and shrubs are left and has the same dietary requirements as you – better to keep small, rough-foraging animals like sheep and goats).

— Amanda

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