American exceptionalism was built on hogmeat. When Sherman's bluecoats were marchin' through Georgia, they carried slabs of bacon stuck on their bayonets. For centuries, in the farm belt hogs have been called "mortgage lifters" because of their ability to turn garbage into salable pork chops. The stories don't mention it, but Mike Fink, the legendary keelboatman, was floating kegs of pickled pork down the river to New Orleans.
Yet the hog has never been the icon of American culture that his usefulness deserves. That has been handed over to the cow, as if America was the spiritual cousin of the Hindus or the Masai. Big successes in America have never been called pig barons, and the the romantic example of the asset-free, endlessly roaming working stiff has never been the pigboy. When city slickers strike it rich and aspire to move up in social class, they never call the real estate agent and ask him to find them a nice pig spread.
So it was a red-letter day when RtO was invited to a baby luau next week.
Aside for Mainland readers: The baby luau is a Hawaii custom marking the first birthday of each child. Along with high school graduation, it is the most significant milestone in a Hawaii child's life. Each is marked by a huge meal -- "enough to feed everybody three times" as a radio announced described it recently -- and, at least in the country, by baking a pig in an imu, underground oven.
I have been told that the first birthday was chosen (rather than, say, christening) because in the old days infant mortality was so high that families wanted to celebrate the infant's passage of the most dangerous first year. Maybe. It might also be because, in the old days, a big luau required a lot of food chasing and accumulating, in the sea and the forest. Also, it's a lot of work for everybody, including the mother and mothers of newborns are hardly fit to throw a party for hundreds of people.
A proper kalua pig must be fat and greasy. The modern, svelte hog would come out of the oven dry and inedible. Another signature dish of the imu, laulau (a piece of pork and a piece of butterfish wrapped in taro leaves, then wrapped in ti leaves and steamed), also requires greasy pork -- a lump of pork fat about the size of the pork is included to make it tasty.
Unlike on the Mainland, where hogs are mostly raised in confinement by the hundreds and bred to be lean, in Hawaii pig-farming is small-scale, outdoors, and the pigs are the unmodified sloppy fat descendants of sloppy fat forebears.
But the reason next Saturday's luau for Alyssa is remarkable is that her tutu-kane (grandfather), who has always cooked a 250-pound hog for his many grandchildren, decreed (for reasons unknown but welcome to me) that this time there will be two 250-pounders in the pit.
I have seen that many pigs (and more) go into the imu before; at my younger daughter's high school graduation, the seniors cooked many pigs. But that was for a crowd of hundreds, with dozens of workers to dig and watch the imu. A quarter-ton of greasy, delicious pork for a private family party takes us back to (at least) Territorial days before Hawaiians started moving in to condos.
The absence of progress is wonderful.