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

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle