In Yiddish, there are two words for eating: “Essen” is simply to eat, and “fressen” is to eat like a pig.
Keeping pigs has given us the chance to observe fressing up close. Whoever coined the adage about not wanting to see sausage made wasn’t likely going this far back in the process, but he may as well have been. It isn’t pretty.
Pigs eat a lot — and they eat like pigs. They spread their food all over the place; they grunt noisily; and they chew with their mouths open. They climb over each other to reach the food, and fight each other for the last scrap of something delectable.
In one respect, though, pigs get a bum rap. No matter who tells you otherwise, pigs will not eat everything. And even among the things they will eat, they have definite preferences. They are very fond of fish and fish skins. They love eggs, cooked or raw. Any kind of grain — bread, noodles, oatmeal — makes them very happy. They are not, however, overly fond of vegetables.
You’d think that the pig snout would be a blunt eating instrument, but it turns out pigs can use their snouts with remarkable delicacy and discernment. We’ll pile all our scraps into one bowl — fish skins mixed with pizza crusts combined with cucumber peels — in the hopes that the unappetizing peels will get snarfed up with the enticing skins and crusts. But that is not what happens.
We spread the snacks over the length of the long trough (long in the hopes that it prevents food fights, but the pigs all want the same morsel, no matter how many other morsels there are), and the three snouts go in grunting. They push the food (and each other) around, and there is general mayhem. When the smoke clears, the fish skins and pizza crusts are gone, and the cucumber peels — every last one — remain in the trough. It’s uncanny.
Over the next several hours, some of the cucumber peels will disappear, and by the next day, they’re usually all gone. There is at least one thing, though, that they simply won’t eat. They hate cabbage. The couple of times we’ve given it to them, the cabbage has sat in the trough for days until we clean it out and let it get swallowed up by the pen. Ashes to ashes, cabbage to mud.
Watching a pig eat sheds some light on the eating habits of our own species. Animal protein? Yes, please. And simple carbohydrates in the form of bread, pasta and sugar. They, like us, have marked preferences for the fatty and the calorie-dense.
Many years ago, I interviewed an animal nutrition expert who’d been hired to design a diet for a zoo’s orangutans, who had recently gotten terribly fat. He found out that their obesity problem dated to when a local doughnut shop had started donating all its stale doughnuts to the zoo. The orangutans, it seems, had been getting the lion’s share.
Give orangutans leaves and fruits, and they maintain an appropriate weight, even in captivity. Give them donuts — fatty and calorie-dense — and they get fat almost immediately. This diet is as much a problem for humans as it is for orangutans, but it works just fine for animals that are supposed to gain 240 pounds in six months.
We are all of us fressers.
Haspel is a freelance writer, now hunting, fishing and raising her own food in the wilds of Cape Cod. She writes about it at starvingofftheland.com, where she has a 24-hour Stycam focused on her three little pigs.