A whole roasted pig is commonly served with an apple in its mouth. Despite claims that the apple is there to keep the mouth open and let gases escape from the pig’s body as it roasts, it turns out that “it’s purely aesthetic,” says Steven Raichlen, host of Primal Grill on PBS and author of The Barbecue! Bible. “It may be, in the process of roasting without the apple, that the jaws would tighten into a ghastly grimace. The apple can soften the look.”
Raichlen says that the custom goes back at least 800 years, and may have its origins in how pigs were traditionally raised. In the fall, they would have been fattened on apples, so putting the fruit in the roasted pig’s mouth would have been “a way to portray the life and death cycle.” (The pig would be “eating” the apple in both life and death.) Other than that, he says, “a pig snout is not the most beautiful thing to look at,” and an apple is a way to dress it up.
You can eat the apple, but don’t be surprised if it’s raw: Most recipes call for roasting the pig with a ball of foil in its mouth as a placeholder and then swapping in the fruit right before service. Joy of Cooking says you can also use a lemon or lime.
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