posted by Dave Arnold
We are the “Tech N Stuff” blog. Here is some “N Stuff.”
I have many pig books. Bacon and Hams, by George J. Nicholls, is one of my two favorites of all time (here is the other). It is weird, witty and beautiful – and unavailable today. It was published in 1917 , with a second edition in 1924. Google books hasn’t scanned it yet (Google take note!). But don’t despair. Below I will provide some of the book’s best stuff. You’ll feel like you’ve read it.
Back in 2004 I was organizing an exhibition about American country hams –how great they are, how we should eat more of them, etc, etc. I read every book on pigs or ham in the New York Public Library system. Every single one (here is a 700K pdf of the show). Nicholls’ “Bacon and Hams” jumped out as something special –the frontispiece of the book had a spectacular fold-out. At the time the book was written, fold-out anatomical charts were a popular feature in medical books. Nicholls decided to do one of the pig. Brilliant. I’ve scanned it and converted it to a Flash animation for your enjoyment:
Just after the frontispiece is this striking photo:
Wow. I immediately stopped what I was doing, went on www.bookfinder.com, and located a perfect copy for 20 dollars. Sadly, you will not find that deal today.
Who was George J. Nicholls? I could find very little. According to the title page, George J. Nicholls C.C., F.R.C.I., F.G.I. was the director of the provisions company George Bowles, Nicholls & Co.; Trustee, Member of Council, Chairman of Finance Committee, and honorary Examiner to the Institute of Certified Grocers; Chairman of Committee of the London Provision Exchange; Past Chairman of the Wholesale Produce Merchants’ Association, London; Past-President of the National Federation of Produce Merchants; Member of Committee, Provision Section, London Chamber of Commerce. He also had three sons –only two of whom joined the family bacon business. How could such an august personage leave such a small trace in history?
“Bacon and Hams” could have been merely a 104 page technical trade book; in Nicholls’ hands it became a paean to the pig. The book grew out of a series of lectures Nicholls gave on the ins and outs of the bacon biz. It displays his love of curing pork, picking out swine, and learning how the industry worked across the world. It begins by quoting Professor Oxholm, court physician to the King of Denmark:
There is no better breakfast than bacon, especially when cured and smoked, and cooked in the delicious English way… the ideal breakfast for the masses, adults as well as children, is a couple of rashers of fat bacon and a slice or two of crisp toast spread with bacon dripping.
And, indeed, the very suggestion is appetizing and forms a fitting opening to this book of Bacon. All men have an interest in bacon, with the exception, perhaps, of the Jew and the vegetarian; and the man of little imagination, but of sound appetitive instincts, who had bacon and eggs for breakfast one morning, and varied monotony by ordering eggs and bacon the next, was more than justified by the almost unanimous vote of the community –the pig, with some assistance from the hen, is the true autocrat of the breakfast table!
Well, he forgot Muslims; but otherwise I couldn’t agree more. Here are some choice tidbits from the rest of the book:
How to bone:
Nicholls got his good buddy, Mr Alfred W. Childs, M. G. I. to contribute an appendix on the Boning of Fore-Hocks and Gammons. It is nearly impenetrable but I still love it. It is the most scientifically phrased butcher’s manual I have ever seen. It is written for a surgeon. The diagrams are wonderful:
What is Bacon?
When we say bacon we mean the cured belly of the pig. Back in Nicholls’ day, a bacon was the cured whole side of the pig. The favored way to trim a bacon hog was called the Wiltshire Cut. Here it is:
Common Pigs of England (in 1917):
Nicholls lists the most common pigs in England and for which locales they are best suited. Some current heritage favorites are in there, like Tamworth and Berkshire.
Just a Great Photo:
Times Have Changed:
Nicholls Tours the Armour Plant in the Chicago Stockyards:
Nicholls gives a fantastic account of the Chicago stockyards, complete with pictures, just a couple of years after Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle came out.
He describes the killing floor of the factory, and the large hoist ironically dubbed “The Wheel of Fortune,” by the slaughterhouse workers:
The sound animal has not long to wait for his turn, and is driven along a narrow passage untill he arrives at a great wooden wheel, described in jocular vein as the “wheel of fortune.” By means of this he is hoisted, after being shackled by a chain round the hind leg, to a bar down which he slides to the hog butcher, who expertly sticks him in the throat.
Here it is:
Finally, an image of a then new-fangled hog-scraping machine:
Thanks for reading. Tell me if you’d like to see more reviews of obscure books.