It was one of those incomparable early June days you get in the far north: bright sunlight drenched the heathery Orcadian hillsides and the choppy blue waters of the Wide Firth. Driving at speed along the road from Kirkwall to Finstown, I kept taking sidelong glances at the island of Gairsay to the north. Twenty years ago when I lived in Orkney I was friendly with a local builder, Simon, who told me that a single family occupied the old farmhouse on Gairsay: a paterfamilias, a matriarch, and their hardy brood of six or seven offspring. Simon said that the Gairsay islander was so tough that when one of his children fell ill he’d rowed them across five miles of the firth to the doctor’s surgery in Finstown – and this in midwinter. But Orkney is for most of the time a bleak place, where men are men, while skate – on account of the supposed resemblance between theirs and human female genitals – are terrified.
Anyway, I was thinking about all this when I saw the mobile snack bar by the roadside, blazoned across its battered panels the slogan: “Pulled Beef Rolls”. Blimey! I thought to myself – the beef bit is fair enough; after all Orkney is prime Aberdeen Angus farmland, but the pulled part . . . I had not thought to see this particular culinary modifier this far north so soon. Why, if pulling is going to become de rigueur in the northern isles, it can’t be long before we see “pulled skate” advertised – a frightening prospect indeed. One thing you’re unlikely to see on an Orcadian menu is lobster – because this incomparable legacy is crated up and flown to Paris as soon as it’s pulled from the creels.
Besides, when the whole “pulled pork” shtick got going I decided wilfully to ignore it. I’ve chomped my way through the 1980s and 90s, I’ve had my food marinated and drizzled upon, seared and transmogrified into foam; I just don’t need another bog-ordinary dish gussied up by being subjected to some process at once occult and prosaic. The very alliterative character of pulled pork suggested to me something bogus and contrived; after all, what do you do when you’re sold a pig in a poke if not disgustedly pull the cat meat out?
Pulled pork sounded to me like an idiom rather than an actual dish. Yet there it was, spreading like trichinosis; initially pulled pork was advertised on the hand-chalked blackboards in gastropubs, but soon enough it was being yanked down the social scale: pulled pork became available in cafés and from stalls – other meats started to be similarly dragged about; the Orkney pulled beef was only an inevitable consequence of the whole rending, tearing, drawn-out epidemic.
It wasn’t until I was in Manchester a few days later that I finally gave up and tried to find out what this “pulling” actually consisted in. I was with my 16-year-old, eating at an upmarket pizza joint called Dough (Doh!) in the Northern Quarter. He ordered a pulled pork pizza and I asked the waiter what this stuff actually was. The answer came back that it’s a slow-cooking method that allows the meat to become so tender it can be pulled apart. This was all right as far as it went – but it made me worry about the participle. Surely, given it’s in the simple past, the “pulled” in “pulled pork” implies that the action of pulling has already occurred – and indeed this was the case: the pork on the boy’s pizza did seem entirely macerated. But it prompts the question: what is pulled pork to be called before it’s been pulled? Pre-pulled? Pullable?
With barbecued crispy duck – the dish pulled pork most obviously resembles – the shredding of the meat isn’t included in the name of the dish, and this strikes me as far sounder, because the involvement of a participle cannot help but make us think of the gustatory act as a process. So, if there’s to be pulled pork, there must inevitably also be regurgitated pork, excreted pork and putrescing pork.
Back in the Smoke, I continued my researches. The consensus soon emerged that “pulling” was really a bit of a con. The method gained its ascription in the south-eastern United States – down there in the swamps and bayous where men are men, and often have to pull alligators off their pork before they can pull it in turn; tougher cuts of pork such as the shoulder have to be cooked. The slow-roasting or barbecuing method thus evolved as a function of economic constraints.
In this respect, “pulled pork” bears close affinities with both Spudulike and young men wearing their trousers down round their hips so their underwear balloons above their waistbands. Spudulike because this is another example of how a staple food is spuriously valorised in order to increase its mark-up; and visible knickers because pulled pork is also . . . a load of pants hiding in plain view.
Apparently eateries are now passing off any old bony scrapings or pan-sizzled gunk as being “pulled”. But this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone; in our febrile food culture the race to the bottom of the trough is almost always the crazed rout of Gadarene swine. No, despite the arrival of such swill in Orkney, the fact remains that you’re more likely to survive such fads in the farther-flung portions of the world, places where pulling on them is what you do to oars rather than meats.