I do love me some pork. I was raised on pig—pork chops, ham, bacon, sausage and livermush. One of my earliest memories is of watching hog killing as I peered through the wavy window glass of my grandparent’s house. I heard the rifle’s sharp crack and saw steam roil from the hog’s opened carcass into the cold morning air as it hung from the tall, old tree, legs outstretched as in supplication.
Boiling water scalded loose the hog’s bristles, and sharp knives flashed and scraped the flesh until it was white and clean. Once I started school I wasn’t witness to the slaughter, but I knew what the day’s work had entailed when I got off the school bus and found a washtub filled with a giant hog’s head and a large, reddish purple liver sitting on the kitchen floor. Time to make livermush!
My grandfather stopped raising hogs after my grandmother died. Daddy tried keeping a hog in a make-shift lot at the bottom of our backyard, but his hams started “souring at the bone,” and the last hog was one that kept escaping. Too many times, we came home from church in our Sunday best only to engage in fruitless and muddy pursuits. Uncle Roy was the last one in the neighborhood to keep a hog. He liked to see just how big a hog would get.
Despite my ties to hog raising, I didn’t learn about barbecued pork until I was almost a teenager. My family went to a church fund-raiser barbeque in nearby Newton, N.C. The sauce-less meat was served on a paper plate with sweet mayonnaise-based slaw and potato chips, no bun, no hushpuppies. Oh, man! Was it good! Thus began a lifetime romance with pork barbecue, cooked dry and served plain. The closest facsimile I’ve found is Little Pigs in Asheville, N.C.
My love for barbecue pork does not, however, preclude my love for other forms of pork. I’m mighty partial to bacon. My mother-in-law really knew how to cook pork. Nearly 50 years ago the sizzling of beaten eggs poured into an inch deep pool of bacon grease in her #5 Griswold cast iron frying pan would bring me running to the table. I still use the pan, which belonged to my mother-in-law’s grandparents, and its surface remains shiny black and slick as Teflon. A piece of “streaky lean” was the secret to my mother-in-law’s green beans that had been carefully picked early in the day, washed, strung, and broken. After a piece of streaky lean was “fried out” in the pressure cooker, she would add the beans and a little water and cook them for 30 minutes, as the little weight atop the pressure cooker cheerily rocked. The beans, shriveled, shrunken and shiny with grease, could no longer be called “green.” At mealtime, they were reheated in the Griswold skillet until they achieved a sublime state of tenderness. I have tried to recreate these beans, to no avail, although I can taste them still. Her pork chops, dredged in flour with salt and pepper and fried in the same skillet, were culinary works of art. When sufficiently browned, each chop individually was wrapped in aluminum foil and baked in the oven on low heat for 30 minutes. They were melt-in-your-mouth and suck-on-the-bone tender and flavorful.
Fat back is, as its name implies, salted fat from the back of a hog. It is sold in hunks, and when cut into strips 1/4-inch thick and fried out until crispy, becomes the basis for white gravy served over cold biscuits (or toast). Aunt Dora, my mama’s sister, says she often carried a fat back biscuit in a lard pail to school for her lunch. Mama used fatback to flavor her beans—green, pinto, black-eyed, crowder—but her go-to fat was shortening. After trying for years to duplicate them, my sister finally conceded that shortening was the key to Mama’s light and crispy-around-the-edges potato pancakes and fried apple pies.
In addition to the beans shiny with pork fat, a typical meal might consist of “soupy” taters, sliced maters, and a cake of cornbread. Other options from the garden (depending on what was “coming on”) might include cabbage (either as slaw or “stewed”), fried okra, fried squash, and pickled beets. My daddy is mighty partial to “killed” lettuce: sliced new onions and the first tender leaves of lettuce wilted with hot bacon grease. Although called a “cake,” the cornbread, baked in the ubiquitous cast iron skillet, was not the namby-pamby kind made with flour and eggs, but a straightforward concoction of cornmeal, buttermilk, and baking soda. Mama’s mother, Bina, who lived to be 92, ate the same meal every evening: half a small cake of cornmeal crumbled into a glass of milk and eaten with a spoon along with a raw, white onion she ate like an apple.
There are pork parts with which I am not familiar (hog jowls, chitlins) or for which I have not developed a taste (pickled pigs feet, pork rinds), but I remember that my daddy’s daddy loved pigs feet, and I think my sister some years ago confessed to liking fried pork rinds. My only format for eating that most mysteriously named and bland of pork products, Canadian bacon, is in a McDonald’s Egg McMuffin. I enjoy a bologna and cheese sandwich with lettuce and the season’s first tomatoes. Several family members love livermush, but certain weak-stomached in-laws won’t allow it in the house, which leads to subterfuge and plain old sneaking around in order to eat it. At least these pork products speak to their true nature. A recent edition of “This American Life” on National Public Radio noted that pork processors don’t let anything go to waste, even the blood and parts that can be marketed as something else, including unspeakable bits, chewy and circular, that become “calamari.”
We didn’t eat much beef when I was growing up. Cows were for producing milk and butter. A Sunday roast was usually the only time we ate beef. It was placed in the oven while we went to church just up the road and served in well-done glory. My mother-in-law didn’t drive and had to be chauffeured in her almost sacred weekly pilgrimage in search of “a little piece of meat.” I don’t remember anybody cooking a pork roast when I was growing up, but now even Aunt Dora puts one in the crock pot with a packet of barbecue spices.
Everybody had a garden. Daddy did the garden, and Mama did the canning. We spent most summers in the backyard shade peeling washtubs full of peaches and tomatoes and breaking beans. Daddy’s mother didn’t quit canning each season until she had processed more than 100 quarts of beans. Pickled beets were the worst; it took days for the purple to wear off one’s hands. Chow chow, a relish of cabbage and green pepper, was very labor intensive. Daddy loved to pick blackberries. He didn’t mind the chiggers and buzzing June bugs. Mama loved to make blackberry jelly. Her mother loved to make apple butter. They welcomed the time spent patiently stirring a large pot of an ever-thickening concoction. Preparing food for their families was an expression of love. A couple of decades ago, when my son was a wet-behind-the ears, fledgling cook, he dared to declare to a kitchen full of women that every single one of his female relatives licked the stirring spoon of whatever they were cooking and then put it back in the pot! The accusation was promptly and vigorously denied.
Things have changed. One of my granddaughters is a vegetarian, and my son really doesn’t like porkchops. He had an organic blueberry and garlic farm a few years ago, but now he only has a few fruit trees that he has to pick clean to keep the bears away. Daddy grows a few tomato plants from Walmart on a trellis in the backyard, and my garden is limited to okra, tomatoes, and beans grown along a fence in a subdivision in Fletcher, N.C. My niece, a sometimes vegetarian, and her husband are the only ones who keep a real garden, meticulously planned to attract beneficial insects and eliminate chemical pesticide or fertilizer use. But no matter what’s on the table or where it came from, we still begin our meals together with a familiar request: “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let these gifts to us be blessed.”