The Day We Ate Arnold the Pig

A celebratory feast involving an engaged couple, a bunch of Jews, one Chinese tradition, and some exquisite lines from Pulp Fiction

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It’s not every day that a family of Jews hosts a pig roast, but that is exactly what my sister did at her suburban Washington home Sunday.

Not just any pig roast, mind you, but a whole pig roast, complete with Porky’s head, ears, snout, mouth and teeth. All festively festooned with a red ribbon. It was the centerpiece of the feast, which I had dubbed  pigapalooza.

The occasion was the engagement party of my sister’s eldest daughter. Her fiancé is of Chinese descent, and in that culture, the traditional engagement gift from the groom’s family to the bride’s is a whole roast pig. To the Chinese, the pig is a symbol of prosperity and fertility.

So my sister and her husband — a recovering Catholic and, to my mind, an honorary Jew — arranged for the swine, and the future in-laws, coming in from Tennessee, picked up the tab.

The roasted pig, a 35-pounder, was picked up from a Chinese restaurant, then brought into my sister’s garage and placed on a table. There, the groom’s father proceeded to chop off its head with one swift swing of my brother-in-law’s machete. Talk about a Hallmark moment.

Once the head was off, it became a matter of chopping up the rest of the edible parts of the body into small pieces. The whole thing took about 40 minutes.

Later, when I congratulated the groom’s dad on his skillful pig beheading, he smiled and seemed to take it in stride. He told me it had been 40 years since his last swine slicing. I told him I was impressed with his aim. In another life, he might have been a mohel.

As for eating the pork, I had mixed feelings. With the exception of bacon, which I consider a food group, I am not a huge fan. It’s not so much a religious thing — though if I were offered an Italian hoagie on Rosh Hashonah, I would politely decline — as a matter of personal taste.

Cue one of my favorite scenes in Pulp Fiction. Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel Jackson) are eating breakfast at the diner. Vincent offers Jules some bacon. Jules says he doesn’t eat pork. Vincent asks him why.

Jules: Pigs are filthy animals. I don’t eat filthy animals.

Vincent: Bacon tastes gooood. Pork chops taste gooood.

Jules: Hey, sewer rat may taste like pumpkin pie, but I’d never know ’cause I wouldn’t eat the filthy motherfucker. Pigs sleep and root in shit. That’s a filthy animal. I ain’t eatin’ nothin’ that ain’t got sense enough to disregard its own feces.

Vincent: How about a dog? Dog eats its own feces.

Jules: I don’t eat dog either.

Vincent: Yeah, but do you consider a dog to be a filthy animal?

Jules: I wouldn’t go so far as to call a dog filthy but they’re definitely dirty. But, a dog’s got personality. Personality goes a long way.

Vincent: Ah, so by that rationale, if a pig had a better personality, he would cease to be a filthy animal. Is that true?

Jules: Well, we’d have to be talkin’ about one charming motherfuckin’ pig. I mean he’d have to be ten times more charmin’ than that Arnold on Green Acres, you know what I’m sayin’?

I guess ours was one charming motherfuckin’ pig, judging by the oooohs and aaahs of the assorted family and friends. Not wanting to appear impolite, I took a piece from the buffet and added it to the Chinese spinach and chicken in sesame sauce on my plate. Then I tip-toed out to the back steps. (I wanted privacy, in case my taste test went bad.)

Lo and behold, the meat was tender and juicy and practically melted in my mouth. Still, all I could manage was a few bites. I kept thinking of that head and those ears and that mouth that looked like it was smiling. It unnerved me.

It’s not that I’m a vegetarian. Far from it, in fact. It’s that I can’t eat the flesh of an animal whose face I have seen. It feels too intimate, too intrusive. I don’t like fish served whole, either — something about the eyes. And don’t ask me to throw a live lobster into a pot of boiling water. Like Woody Allen, I don’t speak shellfish.  I like my food very anonymous and very dead. I don’t want to have to check IDs.

Despite my small porcine predicament, the party was a great success. Naturally, my wife and I brought home some leftover pork. I’m sure she and the dogs will enjoy it. Mazel tov.