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

Davide Restivo at Wikimedia Commons
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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.