Lisa Hanawalt, “Hot Dog Taste Test”(2016) & Sy Montgomery, “The Good Good Pig: The Extraordinary Life of Christopher Hogwood” (2006,2007)

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Is food something that needs to be de-mythologized? It’s one of those things people either think about a lot, or don’t really think about much – it’s such an essential part of life, it’s easy to either take it for granted and cram whatever’s nearby into your mouth, or you turn it into something you obsess about, revelling in specifics and obscurities, to the point where you seem to be in another universe from every other eater on earth. It often feels like all the ideas of nutrition and food-as-art have created these weird class distinctions in an essential activity. I would imagine one of the reasons Lisa Hanawalt received the article assignments that form the majority of this book (following chef Wylie Dufresne, trying New York’s street food one last time, going through multiple Las Vegas buffets) is because she has a real skill at straddling that line, knowledgeable and interested in the complexities and varieties in chef and foodie culture, but more than willing to indulge in the simpler pleasures of more common items. There’s an art to food, but that doesn’t mean only artistic food is the only kind worthwhile – Hanawalt recognizes that food is comforting, but also how food and the process of eating is absurd and just another part of our basic biological functions (food and its counterpart, doof, are closer than we’d like to think), and it’s also a cultural and familial touchstone that brings people together (which is the core of the “Argentina Travel Diary” segment.) There’s too much to food to just ignore but a few of its facets – here we even get some food-inspired horror in “Caballos Con Carne”, which explores the strange relationship between us meat eaters and other animals – it’s both funny and exhaustive in its observations, a hundred or more different ways to look at and appreciate your eating habits.

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Look at some of the spreads in the book – a Lisa Hanawalt spread is always a good thing, with a thousand visual jokes all hiding in different corners, rendered in appropriately smeared water colours that can bring out the best and worst in every piece – you can see many of those ideas in one place, elaborate and ornate and silly and disgusting in equal measures. Food becomes part of everything: design, body horror, ritual, communication, corporate logos, a personality test. Not every piece in the book is about food, but the topic seems to permeate every page, on the book’s mind at all times even when it drifts off to other places. Of course, many of the other sections of Hot Dog Taste Test deal with just other aspects of a normal life – happiness, death, family, that sort of thing – which coalesces quite well with food, all fundamental aspects of existence. Like the food itself that appears on these pages, there seems to be a desire to mix all these different ideas together, to serve them up in unexpected and beautiful ways – they are all part of one greater, very messy meal.

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As a companion to the previous Sy Montgomery book I read, The Good Good Pig offers a similar meditation on human-animal relationships – but while The Soul Of An Octopus focuses on a wild and strange intelligence, this one is definitely more domestic in many different ways. This is also a book about small time life, the idea of going somewhere to free yourself from urban sprawl and crowds, only to have the small population crowd around you as the local flavour – the legacy of Montgomery’s adopted pig, Christopher Hogwood, was to allow her to form relationships with neighbours and other citizens of Hancock, New Hampshire, sometimes by accident (creating a vivid cast of recurring personalities, as she would later do in Soul Of An Octopus as well.) The author openly describes how she has always felt more kinship with animals than people, but at several points in this, animals help bridge the gaps and force her to be a bit more outgoing.

The book presents the small town as the place where everyone knows everyone, everyone kicks in to help (in this case, feeding Christopher scraps), confirming that the ideas of community can actually amount to something – these are the virtues of the small town experience you hear about often. Having an escape artist pig makes Montgomery and her husband “exceptional”, but this brings them closer to others – the interesting contrast Montgomery provides is in her own family life, which appears in many major points in the book, where being eccentric or doing something not in line with expectations is not nearly as accepted. This is sometimes seen as another small town “value”, but it simmers beneath the surface – Montgomery can talk to her mother about her pig, but not her Jewish husband. The book doesn’t delve into that connection – she came from a military family, so not particularly representative of the small town experience – but in a broader sense it does present two different paths those close-knit communities can take: they can become an open community, or a closed community. The author uses both her life with a pig and her career as a way to demonstrate of the open community, emphasizing the different backgrounds of all her friends and neighbours, learning about other cultures (and especially their particular relationships with local animals, such as the stories about the river dolphins in Brazil), and keeping in touch with her associates in other countries. In these cases, too, animal life (especially Christopher, whose fame spreads far beyond New Hampshire) becomes a way to understand others and form connections – with the animals, and with the people, all communities becoming open communities.

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