Sky Full of Bacon

Pulled Pork and Persimmon Pie: A Book Review (pt. 1)

I request review copies sparingly, because I feel it’s important for the overall honor of bloggerdom to make it clear that you weren’t just trying to cadge a free copy and to actually write something (and I’m not going to go to the trouble for something I don’t care that much about, I’d rather just pay the $24.95). And especially because if I plan to review a cookbook, there’s only one way to really do that… which is to cook from it.

That presented a problem for James Villas’ new cookbook Pig: King of the Southern Table. Which was, if I was even going to make half a dozen things from it in a short time, that would be a lot of Southern-style pork for my family to consume.

Villas ranks with Lewis & Peacock, John T. Edge and only a few others among chroniclers and preservers of Southern food culture. His book The Glory of Southern Cooking was the very first thing I posted about here, and I also like that he actually knew and wrote about the legendary bon vivant and character Lucius Beebe. Whose book The Big Spenders I count alongside Mad Magazine and Monty Python as one of the things that shaped my view of the splendid absurdity of life, through its chronicling of such Gilded Age excesses as the party given on horseback, a waiter at each place holding reins in one hand and champagne bucket in the other, or the story of James Gordon Bennett Jr. being forced to flee to the Continent after committing the ultimate high society faux pas of drunkenly pissing in the piano at someone’s soiree…

…but we were talking about Villas’ book. And who could not be charmed by a book full of such dishes as Tennessee Pigs’ Feet and Field Pea Snert, Open-Face Pig and Pimento Burgers, Roasted Pork Shoulder With Applejack Gravy, Texarcana Pork and Bean Pie With Cornpone Topping, Birmingham Porcupine Balls or Palmetto Scrapple. As the geography covered in that list suggests, the book roams the South widely and learnedly, and knowing that the story is half the fun of many Southern dishes, Villas provides context with both a researcher’s rigor and an eye for the color that makes these recipes beguiling beyond their humble ingredients and make you immediately want to jump in the car:

Natchitoches (pronounced NACK-i-tosh) would be only a dot on the map of central Louisiana were it not for the distinctive half-moon meat pies that a place called Lasyone’s has been producing since 1966…

In Cajun Louisiana, it is custom in the fall at hog-killing time for home cooks (especially women) to make two styles of rice sausages with the pork trimmings: sturdy boudin noir with liver (and often pig’s blood), and the more delicate boudin blanc with chopped chicken and heavy cream added to the pork.

For generations, hogs’ brains and scrambled eggs have been considered a great delicacy in the South, and my own mother still remembers a certain Mr. Norwood including a container of brains in his biweekly house delivery of farm-fresh eggs, butter, milk, sausage and chickens.

They are made of different stuff, these Southern housewives who can open a box first thing in the morning and see brains in it, and not let out a bloodcurdling scream.

So this book will offer fun leafing through for years to come, nestled on my shelf next to other definitively one-word titles such as Fat and Bones. My only complaint about it is that I find the typography distressingly clumsy, both the fat display font (chosen to evoke the porcine?) and a too-coyly-moderne text font seem ill-chosen for easy reading and unattractive on the page. Beebe would have sniffed at them as striving too hard for effect.

* * *

North Carolina Lexington-Style Chopped ‘Cue (p. 276) and South Carolina Mustard Barbecue (p. 280)

But I wanted to put the book to some practical use, and then the opportunity presented itself when my wife’s best law school friend and her family were announced to be coming over for dinner… two days before Thanksgiving. The last thing I wanted to do was cook a Thanksgiving-level fancy meal, so it seemed a perfect time, especially with kids involved (who would likely turn their noses up at many of the alternatives I could have considered), for Villas’ take on barbecue.

Even though it’s not a barbecue book per se, the section on barbecue gives a solid overview of regional styles in about 40 pages.  I decided to make two wet rubs in two different styles.  The first was North Carolina Lexington-Style Chopped ‘Cue, very similar to what I had at A&M Grill in Mebane, North Carolina this summer, a powerfully vinegary, almost clear dousing sauce or mop with just a hint of ketchup in it:

Though I should point out, again, that I didn’t find the allegedly time-honored and hard-fought distinction between Lexington (ketchupy) and eastern (non-ketchupy) sauce to have much validity, since I had vinegary without ketchup at the place in Lexington named Lexington Market, which would seem to be pretty definitive as to what the Lexington style is. But Villas’ recipe was dead-on for the ketchupy style.

The second was a mustardy South Carolina sauce, which was much more of a glaze:

The next question was pork. One of the things I find paradoxical about barbecue fanatics is that as wound up as they get about this or that, they rarely seem to pay all that much attention to the meat itself as an ingredient. We had an outbreak of controversy in Chicago over cooking styles recently when an old school tavern serving baked ribs, Twin Anchors, won a Bib Gourmand from the Michelin Guides, and the usual barbecue suspects decried this honor being paid to a practitioner of “meat jello.” In the barbecue-fanatic lexicon, meat jello refers to ribs where shortcuts such as parboiling are used to speed up cooking, producing a soft, fall-off-the-bone texture; for barbecue heads, proper barbecuing— and I’ll agree with this so far as it goes— over woodsmoke produces a chewier texture which still takes some effort to gnaw off the bone.

Yet the same people who go on and on about the crappiness of meat jello will routinely buy the cheapest cuts of industrial pork they can find, and seem to have no interest in improving their barbecue by improving the quality of what goes into it. They would never assume that you could buy the cheapest steak you could find and get satisfactory results, yet the lesson doesn’t seem to transfer to pork. For me, I’m happy eating a cheap steak in a South American restaurant, say, I’ve never been one who was obsessed with dining upon dry-aged this or wagyu that, but I sense a vast difference between lean, mushy, pale tannish-pink industrial pork tasting of the wastes the pigs are raised on top of, and a beautiful pinkish-red slab of thick, marbled pork raised by someone who cares about raising something beyond the most basic commodity hogs. What do you really get if you cast your pearls of technique before flavorless industrial swine?

Instead I contacted Jake’s Country Meats, who sell at the Logan Square Farmer’s Market, and they set aside two pork shoulders for me, one bone-in (my preference), one boneless. The cost was $80, which was probably about three times what I’d pay at a Peoria Packing (though they were substantially larger than the industrial ones typically are), but the result was a massive amount of beautiful marbled shoulder. Here’s what one looked like after a few hours of smoking (they were too big to both fit on one level of the Weber Smokey Mountain until they’d shrunk a bit with cooking):

After about 4 hours or so, I painted the boneless one with the mustard sauce:

Another couple of hours after that, I scored the bone-in one and dabbed it with the vinegary sauce, making sure it ran inside the slits:

The boneless one was done first, and that’s mostly what we ate that night. The sweet-hot mustard sauce made a terrific lacquer, almost a little Chinese, on the boneless shoulder. Partly pulled and partly chopped (the meat could have taken another hour, but the kids couldn’t) it was a hit. The other came in after about another hour or so, and tasted by all the adults, it was liked well enough, but it was clear that the mustard glaze was the star. I didn’t find this surprising, as the vinegary North Carolina style is very much a minority taste. But everyone loved the smoky, good-tasting meat. And I had leftovers for the rest of the week and enough to make two large freezer packages as well.

to be continued…

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