Ep. #18 What taste is made of: Brad Weiss talks pig farming and the meaning of food in America

“Livestock are essential to our lives. We live in a world that is saturated with livestock, and not just with the food that we eat, but with the lives that we live and in the other byproducts that come through livestock production.”

Brad Weiss, head of the anthropology department at the College of William and MaryiTunes Button (via NiftyButtons.com) and author of the book “Real Pigs: shifting values in the field of local pork,” talks to our own Simon Theobald about the intersections of American farming with big industry, animal life, and international social movements. In this funny and accessible conversation, they talk through the process of building a research Subscribe on Androidproject where you are located, instead of traveling to a distant “field;” how taste arises out of relationships and ideas, as much as from the food in your mouth; and how it feels to know the name and personality of the animal you’re eating.


“We were up in northern California, we were in a little bookstore, and they had a whole bookshelf – this is 2007 – they had a whole section of the bookstore, several shelves, devoted to what they called ‘local food,’ and I had literally never heard of local food, I was like ‘what does that mean?'”

“North Carolina has a cuisine that is very strongly associated with pork. Up to the middle of the 20th century, 19th century, foodways of North Carolina for those who would describe them that way, the pig is really central to all sorts of seasonal cooking.”

“Every last aspect of the pig gets used, the fat gets used for greasing pans, and lard is just the main fat that one would use instead of butter, instead of olive oil… it’s a cuisine of economising.”

“I knew that to study local food, or the slow food movement, which is an international movement, to do that would be beyond the grasp of any one ethnographer. But I thought, if I’m in North Carolina, I could look at pigs… pig production was seen as an icon of that [slow food] movement.”

“I would say that pigs had their own characteristic qualities that made them identifiable and recognisable, and they had their own way of thinking about the world and expressing themselves, certainly expressing themselves, and I guess definitely I came to know that, and appreciate that. Which didn’t stop me eating some of those pigs.”

“In no simple sense do I think that it’s self-evident that one should or should not eat meat. I do claim, that I think there is some value in supporting farmers who are attempting to create a system of livestock management, and therefore meat production, that is distinctly humane, that is working with animals, that is working to transform environments and landscapes and they need support.”

“The kind of production that I am working in, in particular, this kind of system of small-scale what’s called ‘pasture raised pork,’ which is to say pigs that are raised outdoors, emerged in the shadows of the industrialisation of animals which is really legion in the United States, and it is here in Australia as well.”

“This niche [of local farming] represents less than 5% of meat production in the United States…”

“It has a certain kind of moral cachet, it was a certain kind of hipster cachet as well, what it doesn’t have is the real economic viability.”

“Farmers would say… eat less meat, but only eat good meat.”

“Part of what that entails [making local pigs] is creating the idea that to be local is somehow significant and important… What makes something local is having a community who is interested in making something local.”

“Locality is… it’s not about a spatial plot, as though you can just sort of map the universe and say, ‘this place is equidistant from this other place… so that makes it a place.’ No. It’s about these values. It’s about the way the social relationships are meaningfully acted upon to create relationships that are important and significant to the people who, and they may not even live in that place… It’s not necessarily that you’re from that locality, but it is that you have an idea that place matters.”

“Most Americans have no notion that they are living on indigenous land wherever they are in the United States, that there are indigenous peoples that once resided in those places.”

“You can say that what you’re doing is just like what people used to be doing. And you can really value the kind of things people used to be doing, and you can really seek out input from people who once did those things. But the people who once did those things don’t do those things any more, and they don’t have access to the land in the way they once did, and they’re not about to get access to that land.”

“There are people who I know who do actually come from families who have been farming for a very long time including pig farming for a very long time, but they’re the last people to say something like “we have this family recipe…”

“Terroir is the notion that agricultural products are in some respect an expression of this term place, the particular places that they come from… One thing is clear though, is that terroir did not become a category that people recognised until about 100 years ago.”

“So taste is not simply something that is in the thing, let alone in the thing because it emerges out of a particular kind of place. But taste is a little bit like place itself. It comes out of a commitment to recognising that there is something important about thinking about how food is located in a particular context, and then you can experience that, and you can learn how to come to experience that.”

“You cannot help but taste in the context of memory, in the context of social interaction.”


“The Green Pill,” June 11, 2018. The Ezra Klein Show, featuring Ezra Klein and Melanie Joy: https://www.vox.com/2018/6/11/17442558/ezra-klein-show-book-melanie-joy-vegan-vegetarian-carnism-amazon

“Ugly Delicious,” David Chang’s show on Netflix: https://www.netflix.com/au/title/80170368

Paxson, Heather (2012). The life of cheese: Crafting food and value in america (1st ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Weiss, Brad (2016). Real Pigs: Shifting Values in the Field of Local Pork, Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina.

Weiss, Brad, 2009, Street Dreams and Hip Hop Barbershops: Global fantasy in urban Tanzania, Indiana University Press, Bloomington.

Weiss, Brad, 2003, Sacred Trees, Bitter Harvest: Globalising Coffee in Northwest Tanzania, Heinemann, Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Weiss, Brad, 1996, The Making and Unmaking of the Haya Lived World: Consumption, Commoditization, and Everyday Practice, Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina.

This anthropology podcast is supported by the Australian Anthropological Society, the schools of Culture, History, and Language and Archaeology and Anthropology at Australian National University, and the Australian Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, and is produced in collaboration with the American Anthropological Association.

Music by Pete Dabro: dabro1.bandcamp.com

Show notes by Ian Pollock

Image: Pigs at Keenbell farm, USDA 20110506-RD-LSC-1387, accessed via Flickr


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