Discover the many wonders of pork

Published 11:59 pm Friday, November 27, 2009

As I was walking my dog in the crisp air of the early morning this past week, I remarked to my husband “It’s hog killin’ time.” As a child we shot and killed our hogs on Thanksgiving weekend in Tennessee. We had always had a frost by then and the weather would be cool. Although here in the deep South, we may well not have had a frost by this time.

From early times hog killing in the South took place during the first spell of cold weather that seemed likely to last for several days. Often this was a community event. Chitterlings, livers, knuckles, brains and other edible parts that could not be preserved in the pre- freezer South had to be eaten quickly. The fat was boiled in a large kettle and rendered into lard. Cracklings, the remains of the rendering process, are eaten as is or cooked into cornbread – cracklin’ bread. Scraps of leaner meat were ground into sausage.

Hams, shoulders, jowls, and sides of bacon could be cured to last indefinitely.

I wasn’t big on eating chittlins but I was fond of cracklings. I have noticed even now they are often sold at food fairs in nearby Louisiana and on a trip to town last week there was a handmade sign at the garage just off the square – “Fresh Cracklins.” We made sausage at home and my father cured hams. He would do several; sell some. Even after I married, getting one of his hams was special. Unfortunately he died young and those hams were no more.

It is the Spanish who are credited with bringing pigs to the South. Hernando De Soto brought 13 pigs to Florida in the 1530’s. And the English brought them to Virginia in 1607. In the early days hogs roamed free, eating nuts in the woods and garbage in the streets. Gardens and crops were fenced to keep out roaming animals. Only early in the 20th century did state legislatures pass laws requiring fenced lands for livestock, ending the free-range grazing of hogs. Thus began the confinement system to the hog’s and our detriment, I think.

Wendell Murphy, a vocational agriculture teacher in North Carolina, developed the system to its fullest with his Murphy Family Farms (now owned by Smithfield Farms). The system created a nightmare of pollution, with massive amounts of urine and feces waste, stagnant in large lagoons. North Carolina is now the second-largest pork-producing state. I unfortunately remember when I lived in North Carolina the damage caused by ruptures in the hog lagoons during heavy rains or hurricanes.

Lard is rarely used now but it makes the best biscuits. My mother’s Yankee relatives would ask why her fried chicken was so good. Lard! – Not Crisco (nor any other modern oil). Lard! And I love Frank Stitt’s cornbread, the secret of which is bacon drippings.

Sausage can be made at home even today. Few cookbooks give recipes. This one is from a 1938 University of Kentucky College of Agriculture circular.

“Get from the butcher (since you are probably not killing your own hog) 2 ¼ lbs of lean fresh pork (tenderloin is best) and ¾ lbs of pork fat (backbone fat is best). Either have the butcher grind the lean and fat together or grind at home, first with a coarse, then with a fine blade in a meat chopper. Add to the mixture 1 tbsp of salt, 2 tsps of black pepper, 1 ½ tsps of powdered sage, and ½ teaspoon of cayenne pepper. Blend well by kneading. Cook a small patty for taste testing and adjust seasonings if necessary. Wrap in wax paper and keep refrigerated. When cooking, make into round, flat patties like small hamburgers and cook over low heat, turning once or twice, until meat is well done. This recipe makes three pounds of sausage.”

Getting interested in the health benefits of grass-fed beef and other pastured meat and eggs led me to a cookbook/meat bible from Britain, The River Cottage Meat Book by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Reading about how some commercial sausage is made makes me think I would be much better doing my own. “Sausages run the whole gamut of meat quality, from sublime to unmentionable. The very worst of them—which is, of course, most of them—are made from mechanically recovered pork slurry, blasted off the carcasses of factory –farmed pigs with high-pressure hoses, then hovered up off the abattoir floor. After being sieved and ground to an even paste, and stabilized with the addition of chemical preservatives, this is mixed with cheap cereal binders (as much as 50 percent of the final sausage), artificial flavorings and a few more preservatives to boot.”

I keep mentioning Benton’s Bacon in this column because I really like its taste but I plan to try my luck on making my own bacon as well as sausage. If I could only find a source of non-factory produced pork—!

Home Cured Bacon

This recipe is from The River Cottage Meat Book

Buy a whole belly from one side of a pig. Divide into three, roughly 12-inch square pieces. In a clean, nonmetallic container, thoroughly mix all the ingredients for the cure with your hands. Place one piece at a time on a clean work surface and grab a handful of the dry-cure mix and rub it into all surfaces of the meat. Stack the finished bellies on top of each other and leave, covered, in a cool place (refrigerator if it is too warm outside). After 24 hours the meat leaches a salty liquid; pour off this liquid and re-rub the bellies. Repeat daily for 5 days or up to 10 days (It will keep longer but be saltier.) To store, rinse excess salt, pat dry and wrap in a clean cheesecloth and hang in a cool, well-ventilated place or in the refrigerator. Bellies cured for more than 10 days can be kept for months.

One whole pork belly divided into three pieces

The dry-cure mix

About 2 lbs. coarse salt

2 tsps saltpeter (potassium nitrate) – optional. The purpose is to keep the bacon a nice pink color.

A few bay leaves, finely chopped

About 20 juniper berries, lightly crushed

1 cup soft brown sugar

3 tbsp.coarsely ground black pepper

You can change the spices to achieve your own favorite. Other spices might include fennel seed, caraway seed, rosemary, thyme, cayenne pepper and garlic cloves.