The Chinese birthrate, even in the 21st century, ebbs and flows depending on whether babies will be born in a “lucky” year. The Year of the Rabbit, for example, wasn’t a great one for maternity hospitals. The Year of the Pig is generally a promising one, with a suggestion of wealth and prosperity and an easy temperament. With the Chinese economic outlook uncertain and global trade issues unresolved, however, 2019 is not looking like a baby boom, even with one-child regulations loosened.

However uncertain the economic or meteorological climate, we wish you, whatever year you were born in, a time of fruitful work, health, and happiness!

And may we suggest another way to look at the pig. Pigs are such a widely used culinary animal in China that they can be considered the “spiritual leaders of the gastronomic realm.” The ancients held the pig in especially high regard for the purpose of spiritual offerings and rituals.

In Recipes from the Garden of Contentment, the chapter about pork is translated as “Sacrificial Animals (Pork).” Translator and annotator Sean Chen introduces it thus:

The Chinese name for this chapter, tesheng 特牲, means “special sacrificial creature,” and the phrase huang da jiao zhu 廣大教主 literally translates as “the great and wide leader of the sect.” Both phrases indi­cate that the animal in question, the common domes­tic pig, is the chief animal of Chinese gastronomy and used prominently for Daoist worship and ancestor veneration ceremonies (see the recipe for White Sliced Pork below). On special occasions, large pigs are slaughtered and used as sacrifices by placing them at altars where incense is burnt and prayers are made. Following the ceremony, the carcasses are partitioned and given to the worshippers or cooked in a commu­nal celebratory meal. This is still commonly practiced nowadays, and in Taiwan these celebrations are known as da baibai 大拜拜 (or great worship ceremony).

The first recipe is called “Two Ways of Preparing Pig’s Head.” Chen’s footnote is a good example of the modern perspective he brings to a 18th-century book:

Washing a pig’s head is messy business—even more so than the trotters. You have to burn off the bristles, then scrub out all the mucus and dirt located inside and around every nook and cranny of the ears, mouth, gums, eyes, and snout. Some people simplify the overall task by using Coca-Cola instead of water, which does an impressive job due to the phosphoric acid in the drink. The pig’s head noted here is quite heavy, and has likely not yet been deboned.

Experts from around the world write:

“This new translation of Yuan Mei’s legendary book is cause for celebration, not only because the complete text is finally available in English, but because Sean Chen so beautifully captures the author’s lyricism, humor, and opinionated pronouncements. Reading this book is like sitting down to a meal with a charming dinner partner whose interests range from culinary technique to aesthetics to the nature of hospitality, though flavor always remains foremost for him. This volume shares the delights and concerns of one of the world’s most artful gastronomes, and in the process offers a fascinating look at eighteenth-century Chinese culture.” —Darra Goldstein, founding editor of Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture

“The Suiyuan Shidan is a classic and two centuries later it still sparkles with Yuan’s irascible charm, his epic passion for food, and his near-religious devotion to the pleasures of the senses.” —Nicole Mones, author of the novel The Last Chinese Chef

“Food historians rejoice: at last, a complete translation of the 18th century classic of Chinese gastronomy. The recipes range from exotic to homey and comforting and most can be cooked in an ordinary kitchen. Yuan Mei also offers sage advice on choosing ingredients, how to combine flavors and introduces techniques that will be unfamiliar in the West; in many respects he is the Brillat-Savarin of Chinese cuisine and is equally opinionated and funny.” —Ken Albala, author of Three World Cuisines and Noodle Soup: Recipes, Techniques, Obsession