I sty: a model with pig nose on the Vivienne Westwood S/S 2015 catwalk. Photo: Getty
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Will Self: I’m doing my best to ignore pulled pork

The very alliterative character of pulled pork suggested to me something bogus and contrived; after all, what do you do when you’re sold a pig in a poke if not disgustedly pull the cat meat out?

It was one of those incomparable early June days you get in the far north: bright sunlight drenched the heathery Orcadian hillsides and the choppy blue waters of the Wide Firth. Driving at speed along the road from Kirkwall to Finstown, I kept taking sidelong glances at the island of Gairsay to the north. Twenty years ago when I lived in Orkney I was friendly with a local builder, Simon, who told me that a single family occupied the old farmhouse on Gairsay: a paterfamilias, a matriarch, and their hardy brood of six or seven offspring. Simon said that the Gairsay islander was so tough that when one of his children fell ill he’d rowed them across five miles of the firth to the doctor’s surgery in Finstown – and this in midwinter. But Orkney is for most of the time a bleak place, where men are men, while skate – on account of the supposed resemblance between theirs and human female genitals – are terrified.

Anyway, I was thinking about all this when I saw the mobile snack bar by the roadside, blazoned across its battered panels the slogan: “Pulled Beef Rolls”. Blimey! I thought to myself – the beef bit is fair enough; after all Orkney is prime Aberdeen Angus farmland, but the pulled part . . . I had not thought to see this particular culinary modifier this far north so soon. Why, if pulling is going to become de rigueur in the northern isles, it can’t be long before we see “pulled skate” advertised – a frightening prospect indeed. One thing you’re unlikely to see on an Orcadian menu is lobster – because this incomparable legacy is crated up and flown to Paris as soon as it’s pulled from the creels.

Besides, when the whole “pulled pork” shtick got going I decided wilfully to ignore it. I’ve chomped my way through the 1980s and ’90s, I’ve had my food marinated and drizzled upon, seared and transmogrified into foam; I just don’t need another bog-ordinary dish gussied up by being subjected to some process at once occult and prosaic. The very alliterative character of pulled pork suggested to me something bogus and contrived; after all, what do you do when you’re sold a pig in a poke if not disgustedly pull the cat meat out?

Pulled pork sounded to me like an idiom rather than an actual dish. Yet there it was, spreading like trichinosis; initially pulled pork was advertised on the hand-chalked blackboards in gastropubs, but soon enough it was being yanked down the social scale: pulled pork became available in cafés and from stalls – other meats started to be similarly dragged about; the Orkney pulled beef was only an inevitable consequence of the whole rending, tearing, drawn-out epidemic.

It wasn’t until I was in Manchester a few days later that I finally gave up and tried to find out what this “pulling” actually consisted in. I was with my 16-year-old, eating at an upmarket pizza joint called Dough (Doh!) in the Northern Quarter. He ordered a pulled pork pizza and I asked the waiter what this stuff actually was. The answer came back that it’s a slow-cooking method that allows the meat to become so tender it can be pulled apart. This was all right as far as it went – but it made me worry about the participle. Surely, given it’s in the simple past, the “pulled” in “pulled pork” implies that the action of pulling has already occurred – and indeed this was the case: the pork on the boy’s pizza did seem entirely macerated. But it prompts the question: what is pulled pork to be called before it’s been pulled? Pre-pulled? Pullable?

With barbecued crispy duck – the dish pulled pork most obviously resembles – the shredding of the meat isn’t included in the name of the dish, and this strikes me as far sounder, because the involvement of a participle cannot help but make us think of the gustatory act as a process. So, if there’s to be pulled pork, there must inevitably also be regurgitated pork, excreted pork and putrescing pork.

Back in the Smoke, I continued my researches. The consensus soon emerged that “pulling” was really a bit of a con. The method gained its ascription in the south-eastern United States – down there in the swamps and bayous where men are men, and often have to pull alligators off their pork before they can pull it in turn; tougher cuts of pork such as the shoulder have to be cooked. The slow-roasting or barbecuing method thus evolved as a function of economic constraints.

In this respect, “pulled pork” bears close affinities with both Spudulike and young men wearing their trousers down round their hips so their underwear balloons above their waistbands. Spudulike because this is another example of how a staple food is spuriously valorised in order to increase its mark-up; and visible knickers because pulled pork is also . . . a load of pants hiding in plain view.

Apparently eateries are now passing off any old bony scrapings or pan-sizzled gunk as being “pulled”. But this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone; in our febrile food culture the race to the bottom of the trough is almost always the crazed rout of Gadarene swine. No, despite the arrival of such swill in Orkney, the fact remains that you’re more likely to survive such fads in the farther-flung portions of the world, places where pulling on them is what you do to oars rather than meats.

Next week: Madness of Crowds

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis