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ESSAY: Where's the Pork?

Is it Wrong to Pray for Pork?

southern pork

I never thought I’d say this, but I’m starting to feel less Southern.

It’s not that I’m married to a woman from New York. It’s not that I work for an international health organization with staff members spread across fifteen countries. It’s not even that I live in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a liberal college town the late Senator Jessie Helms infamously suggested putting a fence around in lieu of building a state zoo. It’s that I can’t eat pork.

There’s no vegetarian conspiracy at work here. When I told my cousin—who lives in a decidedly more rural area of the state than I do—that I couldn’t eat pork, he said, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. You mean you won’t eat pork.” I wish it were that easy, because then it would be something I could just snap the hell out of. A lot of Carolinians seem to have little capacity to understand this. In a way it’s like saying that if it’s not my own fault, if I didn’t choose to stop eating pork, then fate must be at work, or that God must have done this to me. If you want a North Carolinian to question his faith, tell him God won’t let him eat pork chops.

I realize I have some explaining to do. It’s not just pork I can’t eat; I’m allergic to something called alpha-galactose, a carbohydrate present in all mammals. Or at least all non-primate mammals. Say what you want about my rural, public-school education, but when the allergist told me this, I knew precisely what she was talking about. However, I have met some very educated people who have needed a refresher on the definitions of mammals and primates, so here goes: I can’t eat anything with fur except monkeys, which I have no interest in eating and probably can’t readily source in North Carolina anyway, not even at Whole Foods.

What I can eat is anything that flies except bats and anything that swims except marine mammals. I lived and worked in Southeast Asia for a couple of years and I actually ate fruit bat a few times. I won’t miss that one. And I never have and I never would eat a dolphin, or a manatee for that matter, so that’s also a nonissue. For practical purposes what it means is that I can’t eat beef, pork, lamb, venison, or rabbit. The worst part is that I know what these things taste like. I’ve eaten meat my entire life and didn’t develop the allergy until a year ago, when I was already thirty-eight years old—probably from a tick bite, but don’t get me started on that or I’ll consider setting fire to the woods behind my neighborhood.

Unfortunately I can’t just push my luck, decide to eat the odd plate of spare ribs here and there, and deal with the consequences. If the consequences were discomfort, even substantial discomfort, I’d probably put up with them occasionally. The problem is that the reaction is severe. The first two times I experienced this, I had something like the world’s worst case of indigestion in conjunction with full body hives that lasted several hours. The third time, I had those things plus trouble swallowing and breathing.

Let’s not get carried away. I am fully aware of the numerous, terrible things a person can be diagnosed with, and I understand that being allergic to eating pork and beef is pretty benign on the scale of horrible ailments I could have spontaneously developed. I even said it to myself in the doctor’s office the day I found out: No big deal, I’ll be healthier for it. And I really like fish and chicken. I said these things over and over to myself for the first few days after the diagnosis. I even started to believe it myself, until a good friend of mine broke the proverbial spell. “You can’t eat pork?” he said. “You might as well go on and kill yourself right now.”

I’m not suicidal yet, but he was right about one thing. I knew then that I wouldn’t really miss beef that much. Rabbit, lamb, venison? They were never exactly dietary staples for me. But pork? Where I’m from you can’t even cook vegetables properly without it: Who in his right mind would want turnip greens or pinto beans that weren’t cooked in pig fat? And here’s the real rub, the thing that’s getting no easier more than a year after my doctor prescribed this boycott of all things furry: I can’t eat barbecue anymore. The Carolina kind. What outsiders and the uninitiated call pulled pork. It is the one thing I truly miss, that I recall so longingly.

What would my life have been without barbecue? After little-league baseball games, my team always went to the local barbecue joint. Most of the happiest marriages I know of have been kicked off with a post-nuptial pig pickin’. My wife and I had barbecue at our own wedding rehearsal dinner. And when my New York and DC in-laws are in town and start to get antsy, where do I take them? Allen and Son Barbecue, that’s where. Just a few miles down the road from my house.

southern barbecue

Photo courtesy Chip Millard

Smoke it for hours, soak it in vinegar, douse it in hot sauce, cover it with coleslaw, and serve it on a hamburger bun. Hallelujah! But as they say where I’m from, the Lord gives and He takes away. And now I am forsaken.

I have made peace with the situation, for now. I am no scientist, so if I won’t be finding the cure myself, what can I do when it’s out of my hands but give myself over to the fates or, if you prefer, the will of the Almighty? Sure, I’ll pray for world peace and a cure for cancer, but while I’m at it I can also pray that science and grace will come together, find a cure for this newly identified and most wretched curse, and anoint my plate with the meal that is a real North Carolina Communion: a barbecue sandwich with a side of hush puppies and a tall glass of sweet tea. Amen. 

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