Sunday 6 May 2012

How to Roast a Pig - by Burning the House Down!

Well, it is Sunday, the day when many people enjoy a traditional roast dinner and I have been reading Charles Lamb’s A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig, which tells how a rather gormless ancient Chinese lad discovered roast pork – by accidently burning his house down, with the pigs in it, then licking his fingers to soothe the pain when he burnt them as he touched one of the bodies!

Lamb, who claims to have read about this in an old manuscript, says that until that point people  ate their meat raw, clawing or biting it from the living animal, but while Bo-bo, the son of a swine-herd (he is a ‘great lubberly boy, which is a fantastic description I think) is wringing his hands over the smoking remnants of the family house:

... an odour assailed his nostrils, unlike any scent which he had before experienced. What could it proceed from?--not from the burnt cottage--he had smelt 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 fire-brand. 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 burnt his fingers, and to cool them he applied them in his booby fashion to his mouth. Some of the crums 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_!

The pig that tasted so delicious he gorges himself on handfuls of scorched skin and fesh, to the horror of his father, who considers that eating burnt pig is most unnatural. Bo-bo persuades his father to try this new food, and the older man is equally enthusiastic, but warns that their roast pork must remain a secret – otherwise, he fears, their neighbours may stone them for thinking they can improve on the meat provided by God. Eventually, of course, the story gets out because people notice that the cottage burns down more frequently than ever. There was ‘nothing but fires from this time forward’, says Lamb.

There is a court case, and things look grim, but the foreman of the jury wants to take a look at the cooked pig, so he handles it, burns his fingers, licks them... and the rest, to coin a phrase, is history. Soon everyone is setting fire to their home at regular intervals – until they realise they can roast a pig without destroying the house in the process.
I was going to including a picture of a whole roast pig with
this post, but it looked so revolting I've used this picture of young
Tamworth pigs, from Wikipedia.

In the second part of this essay Lamb discusses the best method of cooking pig, which should always be young, and should never be served with onions.

There is no flavour comparable, I will contend, to that of the crisp, tawny, well-watched, not over-roasted, _crackling_, as it is well called--the very teeth are invited to their share of the pleasure at this banquet in overcoming the coy, brittle resistance--with the adhesive oleaginous--O call it not fat--but an indefinable sweetness growing up to it--the tender blossoming of fat--fat cropped in the bud--taken in the shoot--in the first innocence--the cream and quintessence of the child-pig's yet pure food--the lean, no lean, but a kind of animal manna--or, rather, fat and lean (if it must be so) so blended and running into each other, that both together make but one ambrosian result, or common substance.

Lamb is best known for his essays, on a variety of subjects: chimney sweeps, Quakers, weddings, witches, newspapers, actors – you name it, he wrote about it. But he also
wrote novels, short stories and plays, as well as essays and newspaper articles, frequently using the pseudonym Elia. His poetry has not stood the test of time, but His Tales from Shakespeare, written for children in collaboration with his sister Mary, became a classic, while his retelling of The Adventures of Ulysses is as stirring a version of Homer’s tale as you are likely to find. He is very verbose (too much so for modern taste I suspect), but once you get used his style he is great fun, with a strong sense of humour and a lively curiosity in the world around him and a desire for social and political reform.

He was born in 1775, and went to school with the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Later he worked as a clerk for the East India Company, but he wrote for journals and newspapers, and knew many of the great 18th century writers.

Both he and his sister Mary had mental problems, and in 1796 she stabbed their mother o death. Lamb became responsible for her safety and for a time Lamb paid for her to be kept secure in a private madhouse, but she was released ino his care and they shared a house, working together on many literary projects until his death in 1834.

A Dissertion Upon Roast Pig and other works by Charles Lamb are available onine at

This was posted for the Essay Reading Challenge being run by CarrieK at Books and Movies here. 


  1. I've been meaning to read Charles Lamb forever! I love this review - thanks so much for participating. :) I added a link on the main challenge page.

  2. Thanyou! DO read him - Roast Pig is one of te best to start with .. and I rather like his Ulysses.. and I have an old copy (19th century) of his Tales from Shakespeare, with are well worth looking at - evry enjoyable I always think