A DISSERTATION UPON ROAST PIG
By Charles Lamb
A DISSERTATION UPON ROAST PIG, from Essays of Elia, by Charles Lamb.
Charles Lamb （1775-1834）, English essayist and humorist. This essay was first published in the London Magazine, September, 1822. It is considered to be his best narrative essay.
The story is not original with Lamb but is found in many places in literature. Porphyry （233-304）, Greek scholar and Neoplatonist, has this story in his De abstinentin, IV, 15. Lamb may have gotten it from Manning （as he says）. The Chinese dressing is of course largely Lamb’s invention. Lamb is said to have received several gifts of pigs after the publication of the essay, and in a letter dated “Twelfth Day, ’23” he thanks a farmer and his wife for such a gift.
Mankind, says a Chinese manuscript, which my friend M. was obliging enough to read and explain to me, for the first seventy thousand ages ate their meat raw, clawing or biting it from the living animal, just as they do in Abyssinia to this day. This period is not obscurely hinted at by their great Confucius in the second chapter of his Mundane Mutations, where he designates a kind of golden age by the term Cho-fang, literally the Cook’s holiday. The manuscript goes on to say, that the art of roasting or rather broiling （which I take to be the elder brother） was accidentally discovered in the manner following. The swineherd, Ho-ti, having gone out into the woods one morning, as his manner was, to collect mast for his hogs, left his cottage in the care of his eldest son Bo-bo, a great lubberly boy, who being fond of playing with fire, as youngsters of his age commonly are, let some sparks escape into a bundle of straw, which, kindling quickly, spread the conflagration over every part of their poor mansion, till it was reduced to ashes. Together with the cottage （a sorry antediluvian makeshift of a building, you may think it）, what was of much more importance, a fine litter of new-farrowed pigs, no less than nine in number, perished. China pigs have been esteemed a luxury all over the East from the remotest periods that we read of. Bo-bo was in the utmost consternation, as you may think, not so much for the sake of the tenement, which his father and he could easily build up again with a few dry branches, and the labour of an hour or two, at any time, as for the loss of the pigs. While he was thinking what he should say to his father, and wringing his hands over the smoking remnants of one of those untimely sufferers, an odor 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 firebrand. 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 burned his fingers, and to cool them he applied them in his booby fashion to his mouth. Some of the crumbs of the scorched skin had come away from 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! Again he felt and fumbled at the pig. It did not burn him so much now, still he licked his fingers from a sort of habit. The truth at length broke into his slow understanding, that it was the pig that smelt so, and the pig that tasted so delicious; and surrendering himself up to the new-born pleasure, he fell to tearing up whole handfuls of the scorched skin with the flesh next it, and was cramming it down his throat in his beastly fashion, when his sire entered amid the smoking rafters, armed with retributory cudgel, and finding how affairs stood, began to rain blows upon the young rogue’s shoulders, as thick as hailstones, which Bo-bo heeded not any more than if they had been flies. The tickling pleasure, which he experienced in his lower regions, had rendered him quite callous to any inconveniences he might feel in those remote quarters. His father might lay on, but he could not beat him from his pig, till he had fairly made an end of it, when, becoming a little more sensible of his situation, something like the following dialogue ensued.
“You graceless whelp, what have you got there devouring? Is it not enough that you have burned me down three houses with your dog’s tricks, and be hanged to you! but you must be eating fire, and I know not what—what have you got there, I say?”
“O, father, the pig, the pig! do come and taste how nice the burnt pig eats.”
The ears of Ho-ti tingled with horror. He cursed his son, and he cursed himself that ever he should beget a son that should eat burnt pig.
Bo-bo, whose scent was wonderfully sharpened since morning, soon raked out another pig, and fairly rending it asunder, thrust the lesser half by main force into the fists of Ho-ti, still shouting out “Eat, eat, eat the burnt pig, father, only taste—O Lord!”—with suchlike barbarous ejaculations, cramming all the while as if he would choke.
Ho-ti trembled in every joint while he grasped the abominable thing, wavering whether he should not put his son to death for an unnatural young monster, when the crackling scorching his fingers, as it had done his son’s, and applying the same remedy to them, he in his turn tasted some of its flavour, which, make what sour mouths he would for a pretence, proved not altogether displeasing to him. In conclusion （for the manuscript here is a little tedious） both father and son fairly sat down to the mess, and never left off till they had dispatched all that remained of the litter.
Bo-bo was strictly enjoined not to let the secret escape, for the neighbors would certainly have stoned them for a couple of abominable wretches, who could think of improving upon the good meat which God had sent them. Nevertheless, strange stories got about. It was observed that Ho-ti’s cottage was burned down now more frequently than ever. Nothing but fires from this time forward. Some would break out in broad day, others in the night-time. As often as the sow farrowed, so sure was the house of Ho-ti to be in a blaze; and Ho-ti himself, which was the more remarkable, instead of chastising his son, seemed to grow more indulgent to him than ever. At length they were closely watched, the terrible mystery discovered, and father and son summoned to take their trial at Peking, then an inconsiderable assize town. Evidence was given, the obnoxious food itself produced in court, and verdict about to be pronounced, when the foreman of the jury begged that some of the burnt pig, of which the culprits stood accused, might be handed into the box. He handled it, and they all handled it, and burning their fingers, as Bo-bo and his father had done before them, and nature prompting to each of them the same remedy, against the face of all the facts, and the clearest charge which judge had ever given, —to the surprise of the whole court, townsfolk, strangers, reporters, and all present—without leaving the box, or any manner of consultation whatever, they brought in a simultaneous verdict of Not Guilty.
The judge, who was a shrewd fellow, winked at the manifest iniquity of the decision; and, when the court was dismissed, went privily, and bought up all the pigs that could be had for love or money. In a few days his Lordship’s townhouse was observed to be on fire. The thing took wing, and now there was nothing to be seen but fires in every direction. Fuel and pigs grew enormously dear all over the district. The insurance offices one and all shut up shop. People built slighter and slighter every day, until it was feared that the very science of architecture would in no long time be lost to the world. Thus this custom of firing houses continued, till in process of time, says my manuscript, a sage arose, like our Locke, who made a discovery, that the flesh of swine, or indeed of any other animal, might be cooked (burned, as they called it) without the necessity of consuming a whole house to dress it. Then first began the rude form of a gridiron. Roasting by the string, or spit came in a century or two later, I forget in whose dynasty. By such slow degrees, concludes the manuscript, do the most useful and seemingly the most obvious arts, make their way among mankind.
manuscript, composition written by hand, as an ancient book.
my friend M., Thomas Manning, an Orientalist, an Eastern traveler and linguist. Lamb was introduced to him by Lloyd in 1799, and a lifetime friendship resulted.
obliging, helpful; civil; kind.
raw, not cooked; in the natural state.
Abyssinia,in East Africa. In Bruce’s Travels in Abyssinia（Chap. VII） there is an account of the cutting of steaks from a live cow which was afterwards driven on to the evening encampment.
not obscurely hinted at, very plainly referred to; clearly mentioned.
Confucius， 孔夫子，our greatest sage （551-478 B.C.）
Mundane Mutations, Lamb’s equivalent for 易经．
designates, names; indicates by name.
golden age, an era of perfect happiness, a period of great prosperity and progress or of the flowering of civilization.
literally, following the “letter” or the exact words; giving a strict construction or translation.
roasting, cooking by exposure to radiant heat before a fire or in an oven, open or close.
broiling, cooking by direct exposure to heat over a fire. Meat is roasted before the fire on a spit; it is broiled over a flame on a gridiron.
the elder brother. Lamb says that people learned to broil first, and to roast afterwards. Hence broiling is the elder brother.
swineherd, keeper of swine or pigs.
as his manner was, as was his usual practice.
mast, any kind of nut, used collectively, especially as food for pigs.
lubberly, clumsy and awkward.
youngsters, young boys; lads.
kindling, catching on fire; igniting.
conflagration, fire, especially a large destructive fire.
mansion, house; abode; dwelling place. To avoid repeating the word cottage, Lamb resorts to other words like mansion, tenement, makeshift of a building. It is also humorous to turn a cottage into a mansion.
reduced to ashes, burned completely down to the ground till nothing was left of the house but the ashes.
sorry, shabby; wretched; very mean sort of.
antediluvian, of the period before the Deluge or Great Flood; hence, old, out-of-date, antiquated.
makeshift of a building, temporary building; any sort of house.
fine litter, excellent group; a number of good pigs brought forth at a birth.
new-farrowed, new-born. To farrow （to bring forth young） is used only of sows.
perished, were killed; died.
esteemed a luxury, looked upon as something very special and desirable; valued or prized as especially delicious and tasteful.
from the remotest periods that we read of, from the most ancient time; from the very beginning of history.
utmost consternation, extreme paralyzing sense of calamity; absolute dismay; greatest fear of punishment.
wringing his hands, writhing and twisting his hands, not knowing what to do.
smoking remnants, what was left of the pig but which was still giving forth smoke, still burning.
one of those untimely sufferers, one of those pigs which have met death before their time, before they ought to die.
assailed his nostrils, was carried to his nose. He smelt the odor of burnt pig and the smell was something strange to him.
accident, unexpected trouble; unintentional act.
negligence, carelessness due to bad habit; lack or want of proper care.
firebrand, properly, a piece of burning wood, but here, a boy who through carelessness sets fire to objects.
premonitory moistening, a slight wetting of his lower lip which suggested or warned him of the coming of more. When we smell something fragrant or strong, our saliva starts to flow.
nether, lower; under.
booby fashion, awkward, clumsy, stupid fashion.
crumbs, small pieces.
crackling, the well-browned, crisp skin of roast pork.
slow, stupid; dull.
surrendering himself, abandoning himself; indulging himself excessively.
cramming, eating greedily by shoving and forcing the food down his throat.
beastly fashion, crude, clumsy, greedy fashion, like a wild beast.
retributory cudgel, short thick stick to be used in punishing the lad.
rain, let fall like rain; beat without stopping.
rogue, rascal; a good-for-nothing person.
hailstones, small roundish masses of ice precipitated from the clouds.
heeded not, did not pay any more attention to than; did not notice.
tickling pleasure, which he experienced in his lower regions, the satisfaction that he felt in his belly; the enjoyment that was his as he ate the roast pork.
callous, indifferent and unfeeling, because his attention was directed elsewhere.
inconveniences, discomfort; pain.
those remote quarters, his shoulders. His shoulders were at some distance from his belly, and at that moment, he was more interested in feeding his belly than he was in paying attention to anything that was happening to other parts of his anatomy.
lay on, continue to beat him; keep on beating him.
becoming a little more sensible of his situation, feeling the pain now and realizing that his father was beating him.
dialogue, conversation between two persons.
graceless whelp, shameless dog, depraved “puppy” or “cub,” used in contempt. The father was comparing his son to a dog.
burned me down three houses. Me is equivalent to to my sorrow, a Latin construction which Lamb often uses.
be hanged to you! an imprecation or spoken curse, invoking or calling down evil upon the person addressed; in this case, wishing the other person the ill fortune of being hanged.
ears tingled with horror. When we hear something horrible, our ears feel a prickling or stinging sensation.
beget, give birth to.
scent, sense of smell.
sharpened, make keen; so developed that he could now smell out quickly.
raked out, drew out; pulled out from among the débris or wreckage.
rending it asunder, tearing it apart; pulling the pig to pieces.
main force, force exerted to the full; sheer strength.
barbarous ejaculations, harsh-sounding exclamations.
abominable, detestable; loathsome.
wavering, undecided; uncertain; not having made up one’s mind.
applying the same remedy, that is, putting his fingers into his mouth.
make what sour mouths he would for a pretence, no matter how much he pretended to be displeased.
tedious, tiresome; wearisome to read.
dispatched, eaten up; consumed.
enjoined, commanded; prohibited; forbidden.
stoned, killed by throwing stones at them.
improving upon the good meat, cooking the natural flesh.
chastising, punishing; beating.
indulgent, disposed to please or favor; not so inclined to punish.
trial, law court’s investigation of and decision in a cause.
an inconsiderable assize town, a small town where was held a court of assize, the periodical sessions of the judges of the higher courts in every county of England.
evidence, that which is legally submitted to a competent tribunal as a means of ascertaining the truth of any alleged matter of fact under investigation before it.
obnoxious, evil or harmful; objectionable.
verdict, decision; judgment; the finding or judgment of the jury on the matter submitted in trial.
pronounced, passed; given.
foreman of the jury. The jury is the body of men or women sworn to give a true answer, or verdict, on some matter submitted to them, especially such a body legally chosen to inquire into any matter of fact, and to render a verdict according to the evidence. The number of jurors ranges from 12 to 23. The chairman of the jury is called the foreman.
culprits, persons accused of, or arraigned for, a crime in court.
box, the place where the jurors sit.
against the face of all the facts, acting contrary to all the evidence given.
the clearest charge. Before allowing the jury to leave the court to go to a secret room to confer over the case, the judge usually summarizes the whole case from the evidence submitted and charges the jury to deliberate carefully over the case, sometimes even suggesting very strongly what verdict is expected.
reporters, newspaper representatives.
simultaneous verdict. The usual practice calls for the jurors to retire to another room and there consult together over the verdict. Such consultations may last for hours; some have lasted for days. In this particular instance, the jurors remained where they sat, and without consulting among one another they returned a judgment, a verdict; of Not Guilty. They thus freed both father and son from the accusation of guilt.
winked at, seemed to overlook; pretended not to see; did not pay attention to.
manifest iniquity, the great injustice that was so evident; the miscarry of justice that was so clearly shown.
privily, privately; secretly without letting others know.
his Lordship’s, the judge’s. Judges are addressed by the title of Lords.
took wing, spread; became known to all.
enormously dear, very expensive; tremendously costly.
insurance offices, business concerns that, for a stipulated consideration, a sum of money called the premium, undertake to indemnify or guarantee another person against loss. According to Lamb, the insurance offices had to stop doing business.
sage, a profoundly wise man.
Locke, John （1632-1704）, the English philosopher, who wrote the “Essay Concerning Human Understanding.”
consuming, burning; setting afire.
dress, prepare. You dress a chicken by taking off all of its feathers and cleaning up its insides.
rude form, primitive, very simple, coarse form.
gridiron, a barred metal utensil for broiling food over coals.
spit, slender, pointed rod to hold roasting meat.
- Point out the elements of humor in the title and the first three sentences.
- How did Bo-bo happen to set fire to the cottage?
- How did Bo-bo discover that roast pig is good to eat?
- Why was Ho-ti filled with horror at the sight of his son eating pig? 5. How did Ho-ti become converted to pig eating?
- Why did Ho-ti want the new food kept a secret?
- How was their secret finally discovered?
- Why were Ho-ti and Bo-bo found not guilty?
- How did the custom of eating roast pig spread?
- When did the burning of houses stop?