Sorry. The year is only three hours or so old and I am entering it like a derailing steam locomotive. I have completely run off the rails. It’s three-thirty in the morning, do you know where your mind is? I don’t. I apologize for rambling.
I’ve got food on my mind while researching how a Southern community might have survived in the days following the Civil War and Reconstruction. I was led down a pig trail by an article on “Southern Poverty Food, How the Other 90% Ate.”1 The article brought back childhood memories of my most favorite subject, food and the diversity of the people who created it.
I never thought about growing up poor but understand being in the “Other 90%”. We certainly weren’t rich and compared to the rest of the families living along the Charlotte-Lancaster Highway, we all were in the same boat…a boat full of the rural working class.
While never having everything I wished for, I certainly had everything I needed. I was surrounded by family and there were always vittles on the table. The food certainly wasn’t filet mignon and caviar, but I never thought of it as “Poverty Food”.
“You chaps go on out and pick me a mess of greens,” echoes brightly in my head. I ate a bunch of greens, and then some, through those first two decades of life; mustard, turnip, collards. Like green beans in the summer, there was usually a mess of greens warming on my grandmother’s stove in the winter. She never threw any away, she just added to the pot liquor that might have been fermenting for weeks it seems. Sometimes I thought, “If I have to eat one more bite of turnip greens….” But I ate it anyway or went hungry.
Cooked in the renderings of fried, salt pork, what we call fatback, greens were seasoned with a bit of this and a bit of that. Maybe some vinegar, hot sauce or left-over bacon or ham. It was always accompanied by cornbread and a glass of tart buttermilk. One had to have something to sop up the pot liquor.
If we were eating “high on the hog,” the garden’s bounty was accompanied by a cut of meat, usually pork. The greens might be served with the fried fatback itself, salty and crunchy between two pieces of cornbread or short ribs slow cooked in the Dutch oven.
Pigs were important to Southern Poverty Food it seems…thankfully. High on the hog…. Pigs were always one of the mainstays of Southern cuisine. Easy to raise, with eight to twelve in a litter. Left alone they would “root hog or die” and even a blind one “will find an acorn if they root hog hard enough.”
Recognizable cuts were usually breaded and fried or roasted over open fires or above hardwood coals. Sometimes, on special or large celebrations, whole hogs were buried in a deep hole filled with hardwood, then covered with wet burlap bags and left to slow cook all day. Thinking of it triggered a Pavlovian reaction.
Unrecognizable portions were turned into sausage, liver mush, hash, or head cheese…which is not cheese at all. There was also fresh bacon to serve with brains and eggs the first morning after a hog was slaughtered.
Slow cookin’ over glowing embers was something we picked up from indigenous folk before we uprooted them and marched them west to the “Indian Lands”. Something else we picked up was using the hog “from rooter to the tooter” but not from the Native Americans. From pig’s snouts to chitlins’, loin to pig’s feet, little was wasted. We picked that habit from folks bought, paid for, and shipped from another continent. People who weren’t allowed to eat “high off the hog” during earlier times.
Pigs were not indigenous to North America, either. Interestingly, I was “today old” when I discovered the infamous explorer, Hernando de Soto, brought the first pigs to North America. Thirteen originally, they must be prodigious breeders if the wild hogs in our area are an indication. I was a history major and teacher, shouldn’t I have known that? I wasn’t paying attention that day or I did know it and forgot it.
The Spanish invaders saw Taino Indians of the West Indies cooking meat and fish over a pit of coals on a framework of green wooden sticks. The Spanish spelling of the Indian name for that framework was “barbacoa”. A tradition and a name were born.
I wonder why my own Southern “rearing” had so much in common with the people of color or Native Americans that lived in nearby enclaves. Enclaves created by the enforced segregation of the period. I remember the wariness and fear that undercut the period and the relationships, the period of hard fighting for Civil Rights.
Our food was the same…just not seasoned as well.
There were a few people of color who lived in old sharecropper shanties in the area of my childhood and many Native Americans who had adopted the same names as my Scots Irish forefathers, intermarrying and moving to a place named “Indian Land”, just south of “Indian Trail”, west of “the Waxhaws” and east of the Catawba River. What is in a name?
Regardless of race, creed, or color, we all shared the same love affair for slow-cooked pork, and the creative use of “certain” pig parts. Served with a wedge of cornbread, red-hulled peas with onion and the “greens de jour.” When I say we, I am speaking of the family I grew up with, in the area I grew up in although it seems Neo-Southern cuisine has caught on again, both above and west of the Mason-Dixon. A “new” cuisine that features greens and pork extensively.
I have drawn a line. I draw it just before the tooter in “from rooter to the tooter.” I shouldn’t limit myself, but I have not participated in a chitlin strut or dined on the porcine version of Mountain Oysters, sometimes called “pig fries”. I probably won’t…although I can’t guarantee what might have been in the barbeque hash served over white rice…don’t know what’s in it, don’t care what’s in it…um, um, good…as are pig knuckles, brains, and eggs, and liver mush. Okay, I should rethink the chitlins and pig fries. Nothing ventured…a New Year’s resolution?
By the time you read this, it will be New Year’s Day. The tradition of serving collard greens and black-eyed peas will be observed in my little piece of heaven…a tradition I have not varied from ever during my lifetime. A superstitious fear. Peas for luck and collards for money. Not that I have vast amounts of luck or money, I’ m just afraid I will lose what little I have.
The meal will be seasoned with pig renderings, a dash of vinegar and hot sauce. Pork chops and cornbread will accompany but they won’t be the main course. Greens and black-eyed peas are the stars on this day.
May your next New Year be everything you want…or at least everything you need.
From The Cook’s Cook: Southern Poverty Food: How the Other 90% Ate, May 2018, https://thecookscook.com/features/southern-poverty-food-how-the-other-90-ate/
The Image was lifted from Wikipedia with malice and forethought.
For further readings about any subjects under the sun, go to https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM