Last week, A Girl and Her Pig, the long-anticipated cookbook from April Bloomfield and food writer J.J. Goode, arrived to a chorus of gushing approval. Its publication afforded the public and media yet another chance to drool vicariously over the chef’s lusty, often porcine creations. And its cover photo of Bloomfield, smiling mildly with a pearly pink pig carcass slung over her shoulders, provided yet another opportunity to ponder what it means, exactly, when chefs feel the urge to accessorize with dead animals.
It’s not like this is new. In 2008, Ryan Skeen, newly anointed as one of New York’s hottest young chefs of the moment, was snapped sitting cross-legged next to the slack body of a hog. Skeen looked pretty satisfied; the pig looked as if it hadn’t been consulted. The following year, the New York Times published its “rock star butchers” story, which, with its numerous photos of stoic young men doing things to animal carcasses, may have been the closest thing animal accessorizing has had to a viral moment.
In 2010, the celebrated Portland chef Naomi Pomeroy (left) incited controversy when she was photographed for Newsweek cradling a dead pig to her chest in a pose that was almost strangely maternal. Dead pigs have also shown up slung over the shoulders of Boston chef Jamie Bissonnette (who is, interestingly, a former vegetarian) and Bev Eggleston, the farmer and sustainable agriculture champion. Nose-to-tail savant Fergus Henderson has repeatedly been pictured holding hog heads, both whole and dissected. Chris Cosentino once did a variation on the theme by posing with a handful of internal organs. And Joshua Applestone, the co-owner of Fleisher’s Meats in New York, upped the ante when he was photographed for GQ standing among a whole rack of dead hogs with a look on his face that all but asked, “Who’s your daddy now?”
Reactions to these kinds of photos can typically be lumped under “cool vs. cruel,” with the latter position overwhelmingly adopted by the herbivore crowd. Last month in California, Oakland-based East Bay Express found itself in a world of hurt with vegan and vegetarian readers after illustrating a story about pasture-raised meat with a cover photo of a smiling young man holding a dismembered pig’s head.
On one hand, the appeal of posing with a carcass is obvious. For men, it conveys a bountiful harvest of testosterone, a surfeit of mad, sweaty, muscle-bound working-man skillz. In other words, a big carcass implies a big dick. Nowhere is this metaphor more obvious than in the photo that haunts the Internet of Anthony Bourdain, starkly naked save for a meaty, strategically placed femur bone that he grips like a giant erection. He looks quite pleased with himself.
By that logic, you could say that women pose with dead animals to demonstrate that their balls are just as big as the boys’, though that of course is problematic in ways both too obvious and too complicated to go into here. It bears pointing out, though, that in the photos of both Bloomfield and Pomeroy, the dead pigs are presented in an almost tender fashion: Pomeroy holds hers to her chest like a child, while Bloomfield’s faint, beatific smile and the pig’s closed eyes make it appear that the chef is just carrying her drowsy friend to its bed of hay.
Many chefs (including Pomeroy) have argued that the point of showing carcasses is to make people aware of where their food comes from: If you can’t bear a photo of a dead pig, you shouldn’t be eating pork. And yet almost all of these photos are so heavily stylized, so completely bloodless, as to render the corpses as only slightly more arresting than the sight of a limited-edition Vuitton shoulder bag. Take away the blood and guts and gore, and you’re left with a fantasy of painless, guiltless death and a chef’s godlike ability to turn nature into an exquisite form of nurture.